9/8/21: TOWN COUNCIL UNANIMOUSLY APPROVES MARKETPLACE PROPOSAL, WITH CONDITIONS RECOMMENDED BY PLANNING BOARD.

If Aston Properties would like to increase the visibility of the businesses in The Marketplace at Southern Shores, it could start by replacing this sign with one that advertises them better.

The Southern Shores Town Council unanimously approved yesterday the Town Planning Board’s recommendation to give conditional approval to Marketplace owner Aston Properties’ plan to demolish a wing of the shopping center west of CVS/pharmacy and build a 24,000-square-foot Marshalls department store and a 6,000-square-foot retail space next to it for a store yet to be determined.

Mayor Tom Bennett did not attend the Town Council’s meeting because of illness, so the vote was 4-0.

(For background on the Marketplace proposal, please see The Beacon, 7/20/21, 8/17/21, and 9/3/21. We set forth the principal conditions on 8/17/21 and reiterated the highlights on 9/3/21.

(The Planning Board’s five conditions are enumerated in Planning Director/Deputy Town Manager Wes Haskett’s staff report in the Town Council meeting packet at https://mccmeetings.blob.core.usgovcloudapi.net/soshoresnc-pubu/MEET-Packet-fb5b5ef67cc245fda641514e8fd6e298.pdf.)

Four Southern Shores property owners spoke at the public hearing before the Council’s vote on Aston’s amended site-plan application and split on the desirability of the project. Consensus existed among them, however, that the destruction of the grove of 11 trees in front of the future Marshalls site is unfortunate and should be avoided.

As indicated on the site plan, 10 mature oaks and one crape myrtle, along with the park, will be removed to accommodate what Aston’s civil engineer, Kimberly D. Hamby of the Timmons Group in Elizabeth City said was Marshalls’ need for parking space, and Aston’s vice president of construction and development, L. Karen Partee, said was the department store’s desire to have its signage prominently displayed.

In a dialogue with Councilman Leo Holland, Ms. Partee confirmed that Marshalls had no flexibility in its “building model” to alter its plan to sacrifice the park.

Ms. Partee further said that “good signage” is an issue with the Marketplace, especially for the storefronts that face east and are hidden from drivers’ views from the highway.    

Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth seemed to sum up the majority attitude on the Council about Aston’s amended site plan when she said: “Do I wish the plan was better? Yeah. Do I wish we could have some influence over more aspects of their proposal? Of course. But I think in general we’re getting something that the town needs, which is a vibrant commercial district. That’s something that’s good for the town.”

Councilman Holland also spoke in similar terms about why he supported the proposal, asking: “Do we want a vibrant Marketplace or do we want a Marketplace that looks like the old K-mart?”

Saying “that could happen,” Mr. Holland further described the Marketplace as being “on life support.”

We found it noteworthy that no one on the Town Council questioned Aston Properties about the decline in the Marketplace since the Charlotte developer bought it in 2014. No one sought accountability from Aston.

The shopping center currently has 15 empty spaces for a vacancy rate of 50 percent.

Ms. Morey said the “Marketplace has really struggled” since “Aston took over,” but she did not delve into any of the reasons why.

Ms. Partee faulted the Marketplace’s “bad design” as one reason why businesses do not rent in the shopping center.

An informed source who would prefer to remain anonymous told The Beacon that the source asked Ms. Partee after the hearing if Aston had ever considered altering the design, signage, and appearance of the Marketplace to make it more appealing. Her reply was, “No. That’s not what we do.”

Call us skeptical, but until the Marketplace is a vibrant commercial area, we are not going to count on it becoming one.  

Councilman Matt Neal, who is a local builder, showed interest in critiquing Aston’s proposed construction, but after confirming with Mr. Haskett that “we don’t have any authority over the commercial design standard of the building itself, do we?” he said, “Then my comments are useless.”

We would have liked to have heard them, anyway. We also would have liked to have heard how Ms. Morey would make the site plan better.

At one point during the Council’s session, Ms. Partee informed Mr. Neal that Marshalls has already “approved” the planned façade. She also said that the shopping center will be painted.

The results of The Beacon’s informal, unscientific survey Monday about Marshalls’ arrival in Southern Shores were decidedly mixed, with several resident property owners strongly opposing Aston’s redevelopment plans, and others saying, much like Council members did, that the moribund shopping center needs a commercial transfusion.

Based on the comments we received, we could not begin to assess how many Southern Shores residents—as opposed to residents in Duck, Kitty Hawk, and elsewhere on the beach—will shop at the Marshalls store. A number of people said they would prefer a different store, with Trader Joe’s being the front-runner.

Aston’s demolition is expected to start in January, according to Ms. Partee, who told The Beacon at the Planning Board’s July 19 meeting that the Marshalls store is tentatively scheduled to open in spring 2023.

OPPOSITION TO RUFA RED KNOT CRITICAL HABITAT TABLED

In our 9/3/21 preview of the Town Council’s meeting, we went into some detail about a proposed Town resolution opposing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s proposed designation of critical habitat for the rufa red knot, which is a shorebird that the USFWS has described as “a master of long-distance aviation.”

The Town Council was to consider the resolution of opposition as part of its consent agenda at yesterday’s meeting. Instead, Town Manager Cliff Ogburn asked the Town Council to table the measure, and it unanimously voted to do so.

According to Mr. Ogburn, “Our Congressional representatives have sent a letter to [the Wildlife Service] asking them to take more time before they designate this habitat.”

He described the Town’s resolution of opposition as “premature,” because the habitat designation “may not come to pass.”

We view this turn of events as a good sign, inasmuch as we were not keen on the Town taking a position in opposition to the USFWS without first trying to negotiate. As we reported 9/3/21:

Rufa red knots originate in Brazil and fly as far north on the U.S. East Coast as New Jersey, making known stop-overs, such as at Delaware Bay, where they can feed.

According to the USFWS, “[S]ome knots fly more than 9,300 miles from south to north every spring and repeat the trip in reverse every autumn, making this bird one of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom.”

In 2015, the USFWS listed the rufa red knot as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and announced that a proposed critical habitat designation would be forthcoming.

That designation finally happened on July 15 when the Wildlife Service proposed setting aside 649,066 acres of “critical habitat” across 13 states—including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—for the long-distance rufa red knot.

In its tabled resolution, the Town alleged that the USFWS has “indiscriminately” designated oceanfront shoreline as critical habitat for the rufa red knot, including a 150-mile continuous stretch of N.C. oceanfront in Carteret and Dare counties; and it sought a “more fine-tuned designation of important habitats” for the shorebirds.

Mr. Ogburn told The Beacon that he was concerned that the critical-habitat designation could “significantly impact” the Town’s construction during beach-nourishment projects, although the USFWS’s proposed map appears to stop “at the northern end of the Oregon Inlet.”

We will wrap up our coverage of yesterday’s Town Council meeting later in the week.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 9/8/21

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