Clayton News-Star

Clayton cornfields might join Johnston research zone

Gordon Road in Clayton separates Edinburgh subdivision from farmland that a developer wants to rezone for industrial use.
Gordon Road in Clayton separates Edinburgh subdivision from farmland that a developer wants to rezone for industrial use. ndunn@newsobserver.com

In hopes of luring another manufacturer to Johnston County, a Clayton developer wants to turn 100 acres of farmland into a “shovel-ready” industrial site.

But neighbors in a nearby subdivision fear their property values will decline if the land becomes home to an industry. They also question if the developer – the same one who built their neighborhood – can follow-through on his promises.

The land, near the U.S. 70-U.S. 70 Business interchange, is next to Johnston County’s Research and Training Zone, which is home to biomanufacturers Grifols and Novo Nordisk.

The N.C. General Assembly created the zone at the request of Johnston leaders. It works this way: In exchange for protection against annexation by a town, industries within the zone support the county’s Workforce Development Center.

Developer Norwood Thompson, a partner in the Clayton-based Walthom Group, said the land in question is well suited for industry and expansion of the Research Training Zone.

Thompson has asked to the Town of Clayton to rezone the land from residential to light-industrial use. The Clayton Planning Board backed that request on Monday, and the Clayton Town Council will consider the change in July.

Thompson said rezoning the land is one of several changes that can make the site more attractive to a prospective tenant. The goal, he said, is to make the land an N.C. Certified Site through the State Department of Commerce.

However, in Edinburgh subdivision, located on the opposite side of Gordon Road from the land, neighbors have questions about Thompson’s plans and his commitment.

Edinburgh resident John Riley said his property value will decline simply because of the rezoning application. It will continue to fall, he said, as the land is developed for industrial use.

“Most of the people bought their properties under the understanding that all of the surrounding area was agricultural or large-lot residential,” Riley said. “Now we are going to get hit with an industrial development directly adjacent to a nice, suburban community.”

If a manufacturer does move in, traffic could also be an issue, Riley said.

Gordon Road is the only road that provides access to the site, meaning Edinburgh neighbors could one day share the road with workers headed to their jobs. A possible access point exists on nearby North Tech Drive, but it has not been developed.

Whatever goes on the land, Clayton ordinances would require at least a 6-foot-tall, 10- to 20-foot-wide buffer around the rim of the property. That could come in the form of a fence, trees or landscaping.

Thompson said he’s open to other access points and to “pushing the envelope” on the buffer. He also said the owners of the properties, the Young and Wiggins families, have agreed not to allow the land to host a junkyard, recycling center or landfill.

Edinburgh neighbors like Riley say that’s nice to hear, but they’d like those proposed conditions in writing.

After the Walthom Group developed Edinburgh in the mid-2000s, neighbors say, Thompson was supposed to turn the streets over to the N.C. Department of Transportation for maintenance. However, that hasn’t happened, leading some residents to question whether he would keep his promises on the industrial site.

“We have some issues with Mr. Thompson’s follow through,” said Edinburgh resident Mark Turner said.

Thompson said the streets in Edinburgh were built to DOT standards and should have been turned over to the state long ago. “I have no idea why it hasn’t been done,” he said.

This past week, Thompson said, he sent a set of plans for the streets to the DOT’s district engineer. “That turnover should happen in a very short while,” he said.

Either a subdivision’s developer or 75-80 percent of residents can petition to turn streets over to the DOT. To date, the subdivision has never been petitioned to add its streets to the state, said Chris Overman, a DOT engineer.

Edinburgh resident Benny Langdon said after living in the area for 51 years, he knew the land across the road from his home would one day be developed. Langdon said he is OK with change, so long as the subdivision’s residents are kept in the loop.

“I realize that we are not going to stop it,” Langdon said.

“I’d just like for the neighborhood to have input in what happens,” Langdon added. “I’d like to have things that are community friendly, less noise.”

Certified sites

Johnston County is home to five N.C. Certified Sites, which the Department of Commerce highlights on its website.

To earn the certification, a site must meet 31 prerequisites, including proper zoning; completion of environmental audits and geo-technical studies; topographical analyses and maps; aerial photography, public utility availability and information on costs, among other things.

Thompson said he thinks the certification will cost him about $100,000 to complete.

In return, the state says certification reduces the risk for prospective companies by telling them everything they need to know up front.

Chris Johnson, executive director of Johnston County Economic Development, said he’s pitched the site on Gordon Road numerous times. Johnson said when trying to narrow their list of options, site consultants will use whatever they can to eliminate choices.

“Some of the first things include: Is the site near highway infrastructure? Is the site close to an urban core? Does the location have water, sewer, electrical and natural gas on site? Does the site have clear title? Is the site properly zoned?” Johnson said. “Not having any one of these ‘check list’ items eliminates a site from consideration.”

State certification guarantees a site meets those “check list” items.

The Planning Board’s vote on Monday was unanimous. Jim Lee, a Planning Board member and partner in the Walthom Group, was not at the meeting.

Multiple Planning Board members said they were reluctant to recommend approval. However, they said they had to base their decision on the town’s unified development code, not the appeals of Edinburgh neighbors.

“I am very reluctant because I know how you feel,” Planning Board member Sarah Brooks said. “It will be life changing to you all, but we do have to comply with the UDC.”

Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104

N.C. Certified Sites in Johnston County

Four Oaks Business Park: 184 available acres on Keen Road in Four Oaks.

Hill site: 92 available acres at 1407 Brogden Road, Smithfield.

Oak Tree Site: 111 available acres at 1006 Baugh Road, Selma.

Selma Crossings: 158 acres available on Anderson Street in Selma.

Wellons-Howell Site: 76 acres at 3328 Buffalo Road, Smithfield.

Source: N.C. Department of Commerce

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