The rule of “nepotism” modified according to hiring needs

A long regulatory battle involving a local motor racing legend and signage for a $2million expansion of his body shop has ended in the businessman’s favor – with the backing of a lawmaker from state and former mayor of Mount Airy.

Oh, there was also the crowd of Frank Fleming’s friends and family who faithfully gathered whenever the matter was discussed by the city council recently.

It was the tallest of them all on Thursday night when an amendment to the ordinance was approved allowing the previously refused sign which exceeded height limits, eliminating a pending appeal of that ruling to Surry County Superior Court .

“Frank fought city hall and won,” said Deborah Cochran, who served as mayor of Mount Airy from 2009 to 2015, after city commissioners’ 3-1 decision approving boundary changes to allow the sign at the new body shop location on Merita Street.

In addition to Cochran, the audience included State Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy, who spoke in favor of the ordinance amendment in a public hearing ahead of the vote.

Those who did not speak made their presence known by filling the council chamber, which has 73 audience seats.

Metal folding chairs were brought in to accommodate the overflow crowd which included people standing – with attendance close to the 100-person limit for fire safety regulations.

Disputed Settlement

The issue at hand involved a large sign left by the Winn-Dixie supermarket when it liberated the Merita Street site years ago, leaving behind a dilapidated parcel bought by Fleming.

Fleming, known for a distinguished career as a modified racer at venues such as Bowman Gray Stadium, is moving his body shop there from his current headquarters on Springs Road and will create around 10 new jobs as a result.

But it was prevented from re-orienting and using the existing sign frame due to a 2016 update to a city ordinance aimed at preventing sign clutter.

It states that signage for new businesses should not exceed 15 feet, which the old Winn-Dixie structure exceeds. Those that already existed were grandfathered under the measure.

Fleming worked through various city channels to attempt to be somehow exempted from this rule, reflecting concerns about customers who could not find the Merita Street site which is hidden at US 52-North.

In addition to drawing attention to the business, there was a safety issue regarding motorists who missed the workshop turn off this highway and had to turn back into fast-moving heavy traffic.

Fleming was eventually barred from reusing the panel by a vote of a powerful group known as the Mount Airy Zoning Board of Adjustment. It is a quasi-judicial administrative body whose decisions affect private property rights to the same extent as court decisions.

The businessman appealed the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision to the Superior Court, which was scheduled to hear the case in September, based on earlier discussions.

In late June, Fleming appeared before the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners to seek an amendment to the non-compliant sign bylaws that would allow the old fixture to be used.

This led to another group, the Mount Airy Planning Board, adding provisions regarding situations such as ownership of Merita Street.

These state that signs that are set back no less than 300 feet and no more than 600 feet from the US 52-Bypass, US 601, and Interstate 74 right-of-way will be exempt from the other sign rules of the ordinance. the city. Fleming’s property is within those parameters.

Comments from the public hearing

In late July, commissioners voted to schedule the public hearing on the proposed change, which was held Thursday evening.

“So the rest is up to you,” Planning Director Andy Goodall told commissioners at the time as he set the stage for the scheduled vote later in the session.

Only two people spoke despite the large number of people present, but their words seemed to resonate with everyone within earshot.

One was Fleming, who felt the result was in his favor.

He expressed his thanks for the opportunity to adequately promote his shop with the change in the sign ordinance, and also asked those in the audience who were supporting him to stand up – which included most of those present. .

“You can’t explain what this means to me,” Fleming said in response.

Representative Stevens also spoke at the hearing.

“I’m here to support Frank – he’s been my friend for many years,” said Stevens, who serves Surry County in the North Carolina General Assembly, where she holds a key leadership position.

She also mentioned that Fleming had done repair work for her at her current body shop on Springs Road.

Cochran, who is running for commissioner this year in addition to being a former mayor, did not speak at the hearing but offered a prepared statement.

“Frank fought City Hall and won,” reads in part.

Cochran applauded Thursday night’s decision, which was met with loud applause from the congregation. She believes this will “have a major business impact” for the store’s long-time owner, as sign visibility is “crucial” for the relevant location.

The former city official also sees the decision as a win for the local business community in general, citing strong turnout from others in that area where she sat in the back of the meeting room.

“There were so many business owners in the back, including a construction company, two trucking companies, two auto towing companies, car dealerships, auto parts dealers, a hardware company, a sign company and more, all supporting Frank,” Cochran observed.

“When Frank wins, we all win.”

Fleming looked like a Victory Lane runner in Daytona as he received congratulations from those leaving the boardroom.

“I’m happy – I want to thank the stewards,” he commented, standing near the exit.

Fleming said he learned a lot during the process leading up to the sign’s approval.

“I didn’t know anything about local government when I started this,” he said.

“It was really educational for me.”

Official City Comments

Although Commissioner Steve Yokeley was absent from Thursday night’s meeting, he issued a statement expressing his regret and also addressing Fleming’s situation.

While noting that he considered the updated sign ordinance to be comprehensive and fair, Yokeley acknowledged the relevance of the new language to allow the larger sign in this circumstance.

In his statement, Yokeley further expressed his thanks to Fleming for developing a new business within the city limits and creating jobs.

Mayor Ron Niland also read a statement to the crowd he had prepared in anticipation of the affirmative vote.

“Tonight, I’m proud to be part of our community,” he said.

“Mr. Fleming felt it was important to his business and went through the appropriate process to get it amended,” Niland added of the sign. this change, believing that it was in the best interest of the community.”

Another part of the mayor’s statement apparently flies in the face of an accusation made in recent months by Commissioner Jon Cawley, who said the Fleming sign issue suggests the city is anti-corporate.

“It’s a sign, no pun intended, that Mount Airy is a business-friendly community that tries to foster a flexible environment when needed,” Niland said as he read his statement.

One person unhappy with Thursday night’s decision is Commissioner Joe Zalescik, a former Planning Council member who cast the dissenting vote.

“I think the signs ordinance was strong the way it was and I think that sets a precedent,” he explained after the meeting.

He said it sent a signal to those unhappy to some degree that they could bypass the normal process. “They’re going to go to the commissioners and try to get the law changed.”

Zalescik said he would have preferred the panel case to go through the normal appeals process.

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