By Jessie Burchette
The battle between the Trading Ford historic group and supporters of a racetrack on the former N.C. finishing plant site has landed in the lap of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
The issue roared into the commissioners meeting Monday night with eight speakers calling for the county to uphold property rights.
How the issue landed before commissioners is as contorted and torturous a route as the best road course on any circuit.
The potential road kill is the county's 4-year-old Historic Landmark Commission.
Supporters of racetrack in Spencer appear to believe that the Landmark Commission may be in league with the Trading Ford Historic Association -- to prevent the track from being built.
County commissioners unanimously agreed to set a public hearing on Dec. 18 to enact a six-month moratorium on designating any landmarks in the county.
Commissioner Jim Sides proposed the moratorium, saying it will give the board time to examine the Landmark Commission ordinance and relevant issues.
Sides said he opted to propose a moratorium after first considering asking that the Landmark Commission be disbanded.
Speakers at the Monday night session praised Sides and the board for their quick action.
Arnold Chamberlain, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday the whole thing arose out of poor communication and "a political agenda for no good reason."
He said if the leadership of the newly formed Rowan Property Rights Association group had contacted him, he would have told them there is no way the county will allow a property to be designated as a historic landmark without the property owner's approval.
In fact, the current ordinance requires approval by the Board of Commissioners.
Members of the Historic Landmark Commission say the whole thing is a giant misunderstanding, apparently instigated by e-mails from the State Historic Preservation Office.
The Landmark Commission has designated only one property as a landmark since it was organized. That's the county-owned Kerr Mill at Sloan Park.
D.C. Linn, who has headed the Landmark Commission since its inception in March 2002, said Tuesday he "has no idea how this got so out of hand. It's regrettable. It's misinformation."
Linn and Rose LaCasse said no one from the Trading Ford Historic Association has ever contacted the Landmark Commission about a designation.
LaCasse said she has "no knowledge at all" about the Trading Ford issues.
Last month, the commissioner's consent agenda included a request from the Planning Department to set a public hearing on proposed text changes in the Historic Landmark Commission ordinance.
Among the changes proposed, the Landmark Commission would be allowed to designate a property as a historic landmark without the owner's permission.
Commissioner Sides raised questions about that and asked that it be delayed until he could get more background information.
Linn and LaCasse said Tuesday the Historic Landmark Commission never asked for the change, the hearing and never voted on the text changes.
Both said even if the Landmark Commission was given the authority to designate a landmark without the owner's permission, the Board of County Commissioners must approve all designations.
Linn said there is no way the Board of Commissioners would approve a landmark designation if the owner doesn't want it.
How did the proposal for the text change get to the Board of Commissioners?
Linn and LaCasse say they had submitted extensive paperwork to the state to get a certification that will allow the commission to get matching grants.
The county planning staff serves as a conduit between the Landmark Commission and the state.
Linn said he didn't attend the last two meetings of the Landmark Commission, and is baffled at how events unfolded.
LaCasse who was to conduct the November meeting, said John Hanes of the planning staff met with the group. He brought the e-mail from the state office that said changes were needed in the Landmark Commission ordinance in order to qualify for the grants.
LaCasse said the Landmark Commission didn't have a quorum of members and took no action. Instead, she said her understanding was that the Landmark Commission would discuss the state recommendations at a future meeting.
LaCasse and Linn said they had no idea it was going to the Board of Commissioners at that point.
"It was not a recommendation of the Landmark Commission," said Linn.
On the expectation that the Landmark Commission would request the changes recommended by the state, the Planning Department had requested the public hearing before county commissioners in November.
Staff planned to have the hearing taken off the agenda, but Commissioner Sides raised issues and asked it be tabled.
Two weeks later, 30 or more people showed up at the commissioners's meeting Monday night. Many wore Rowan Property Rights Association stickers.
Eight speakers called on the board to defend property rights and reject the proposed changes for the Landmark Commission.
Several of the speakers identified themselves as being from the Trading Ford area.
Dale Wagstaff, an organizer of the property rights group, called on the board to defend property rights.
Wagstaff, an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP nomination for county commissioner, said the property rights group has drawn more than 150 people to its recent meetings.
"Say no to taking away our property rights," said Mike Gobble.
Barbara McGuire, the county's revaluation director, called on the board to "uphold the rights of every property owner." McGuire's husband, Frank, is a partner with Dave Risdon in developing the proposed racetrack in Spencer.
Some other speakers criticized the county planners, prompting Chamberlain to defend the department. "Our planners are getting a bad rap. This is not the recommendation of the planners."
Both Sides and Chamberlain expressed some concerns about the Landmark Commission, including the poor attendance record of the members. Several meetings over the past year failed to draw a quorum.
Chamberlain said Wednesday that after six months, he wants to see Landmark Commission be able to stand on its on without depending on the planning staff. "The Historic Landmark Commission needs to be self supporting."
Chamberlain was on the Board of Commissioners that created the Historic Landmark Commission and objected to a provision in original ordinance that would have allowed landmark status without the property owner's permission. The board changed the wording to require that all applications must come from the property owner.
In November 2004, county commissioners allocated $30,000 to the Commission for a survey and inventory of historic properties.