‘Safety and sense of community.’ Neighbors have questions about development proposal near Jonestown Road | Local News
As anyone with a lifelong financial and emotional investment in their home would, Sam Villegas and Joe Anderson took a keen interest when red and white rezoning notice signs sprouted near Jonestown Road in the midst of their quiet, well-established neighborhood.
Immediate concerns about property value aside — those are primary in every rezoning case — Villegas and Anderson quickly drew up a list of additional questions after reviewing a proposal for Somerset Heights, a development with 115 single-family houses and another 101 townhomes on a 212-acre tract near Little Creek.
It doesn’t seem a lot, not by that math. But when the land in the floodplain is taken out of the development equation, and a cluster of townhomes is factored in, residents worry about permanently altering the character of a neighborhood built in the 60s with plenty of room between homes.
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The floodplain lying behind a small lake attracted attention, of course. So, too, did concerns about traffic and safety as the amount of traffic rolling through would increase exponentially.
But there was something else, an angle aspect typically not addressed by architects and engineers, that stood out: the growing affordable housing crisis in America.
“This is a bigger thing than a couple of guys opposing a project in their neighborhood,” Anderson said. “It’s about profit and greed, as well as safety and sense of community.
“What are the real interests here?”
The plan, drawn up by Stimmel Associates for developer True Homes USA and property owner Hubbard Realty, would have “affordable” 2,700 square-foot single-family houses and 1,200-square-foot townhouses.
“I’m not sure what to believe,” Villegas said. “To me, affordable would be $150,000 to $225,000.”
Either way, in May the proposal cleared its first hurdle with a 7-2 vote by the City County Planning Board to change the zoning designation from single-family (RS-9) to a more liberal designation (RM-5) allowing for such dwellings as townhomes and duplexes.
The next step, a hearing and an up-or-down vote by the Winston-Salem City Council, is scheduled for early August.
As these things do, the plan has attracted vocal opposition.
Neighbors collected signatures on petitions, put together a smart PowerPoint presentation and circulated it among council members and likely allies in neighborhood groups.
Along the way they followed the playbook for building opposition by looking at environmental impacts, safety and collateral damage to an existing neighborhood.
A soupy wetland tucked behind a small lake renders a fair bit of the land unusable — a point duly noted by Villegas and Anderson. “We know flooding isn’t going to get any better over the next 20 years,” Villegas said.
Safety, too, gets its due in their documentation. Anderson, a trial lawyer who has litigated the effects of plane crashes, pulled several years’ data from police wreck reports near entry points to the proposed development.
Lockwood Drive, off Jonestown, could see more crashes at that intersection, he said.
Another entry on Somerset Drive, he said, has had more than 80 wrecks since 2019 with one fatality in February 2021. The entire development would add, planners estimate, 1,931 additional daily trips to and from the area.
“We become collateral damage,” Anderson said. “Some of the neighbors call it ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ there.”
The argument in favor of approving the request follows a well-known roadmap as well: a need for more housing, while expanding the tax base and creating construction jobs, makes it palatable.
Novel closing argument
It’s a familiar story, a delicate balancing act as old as municipal incorporation, the introduction of zoning laws and land-use guidelines.
“All we’re asking for is something in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood,” Anderson said. “You have a right to build on your land. People have property rights in this country and we respect that. We don’t own the land; we’re not saying don’t build at all.”
A novel closing argument, at least for Winston-Salem, might be neighbors’ last, best chance at fighting the proposal.
It’s no secret that corporations and institutional investors for years have been buying up houses and converting them to rental properties with a nearly guaranteed return on investment in the form of monthly rent payments.
(If you’ve never heard of the Pandora Papers, a vast collection of financial records obtained by international journalists and shared with major U.S. publications, it’s worth a Google search.)
The key component here is that institutional investors have bought tens of thousands of houses and then rent back to families caught in a housing crunch.
That’s not to say the same thing will happen with this development or others like it.
“We don’t have a history of selling to rental companies,” said Jeff Gurnier of True Homes USA. “Our purpose is to build homes. I’ve been with the company for eight years. (True Homes) has been here for 10. We’ve never sold a project to a rental-investment group in the Triad ever.”
But there is no doubt that investment groups have been buying houses at an increasing rate. According to Redfin, investors accounted for 18 percent of home sales in the third quarter of 2021.
And that’s why Anderson is raising the issue in opposing the rezoning.
“To get a start in life, it used to be that you’d buy a house and build equity. The American dream,” he said. “What happens is, developers sell the homes to private equity firms, who rent them to people and get them into a serfdom-type situation with high rent that doesn’t allow for saving for down payments.
“That’s not consistent with the American dream of affordable housing being sold by local leadership in a broader context.”
That’s a novel and interesting argument; it remains to be seen whether it’s being heard by the City Council.