The fate of a contentious lot in Hannah’s Creek subdivision is as uncertain as its past.
Developer Darryl Evans wants to finish up his south Clayton neighborhood by adding Lot 78, but complications abound, including opposition from residents and a murky planning progeny.
On Monday, the Clayton Planning Board, by a 5-2, recommended the Town Council deny Lot 78. A board majority took issue with the lot’s undocumented change from open space to future development, a change made a decade ago while under Johnston County’s planning authority. The board was also mindful of Hannah’s Creek residents, who said the developer promised them a park, not a new housing neighbor.
Evans built Hannah’s Creek in three phases and weathered the worst of the housing crisis, which killed a number of developments in Clayton. Johnston County originally signed off on the subdivision in 2005, with Lot 78 then part of an 11-acre tract of permanent open space.
Between that approval and 2006, when Evans recorded the plat, the developer had a change of heart, but the change from open space to housing lot apparently took place in a county planning office, not in a formal hearing.
“How do you explain the stamped approval for permanent open space and the recording of ‘Reserved for future development?’ ” planning board member Bob Ahlert asked. “How can you change it?”
Surveyor Curk Lane said Lot 78’s origins had little to do with open space and more to do with septic systems. He said Evans had kept the land open to satisfy the county’s septic-system rules, but when he purchased a nearby tract, Evans no longer needed the lot’s soil, Lane said.
“We met with [county planning] staff and went over the change,” he said. “It’s my opinion that staff was aware the lot was being recorded as reserved for future development.”
Planning offices make minor changes to projects, Clayton Planning Director David DeYoung said, but it’s unlikely the county would have considered changing a lot’s use minor, he said.
Clayton’s planning office actually signed off on Lot 78 for housing last year, but DeYoung rescinded that decision after learning of the lot’s original open-space designation.
“This is a decision that changes the configuration of the neighborhood,” DeYoung said. “An administrative change would have eliminated the opportunity for all these residents to voice their concerns.”
So how did Lot 78 get changed in 2006? Current Johnston County Planning Director Barry Grey wasn’t in the office in 2006, but said he said such an administrative change wouldn’t be possible in his department today.
“At the time, that very well could have been the procedure,” Grey said. “Now that would not be the case. If something is approved as open space, it would have to be recorded as open space. Regardless of open space or future development, any change would still have to go back through the process to get approved.”
Hannah’s Creek residents say Evans and HomeTowne Realty agent James Lipscomb sold them their homes with the understanding that the grassy field in the middle of the subdivision would remain a common area – perhaps a park, pool or field.
“For many of us, my wife and I included, we purchased in Hannah’s Creek with the knowledge of having a community area in which our children could play and could gather as a community for recreation activities,” Jay Johnson said in a prepared statement read at Monday’s meeting.
Over the years, homeowners’ association dues have gone to maintain and insure shared neighborhood lands, including Lot 78. The HOA pays nearly $6,000 a year for landscaping and $1,155 for insurance.
Resident Misty Jackson said she felt the neighborhood had kept the lot groomed for Evans’ profit. “Many purchased specific lots because of the information they received about the common area,” she said. “Please don’t reward his deception by using our HOA money to maintain the lot he profits from.”
Evans, at a neighborhood meeting in October, said he would refund the neighborhood’s maintenance costs, and he said he assumed that regularly mowing the lot was preferable to bush-hogging it a couple of times a year.
DeYoung and the town planning office didn’t offer a recommendation on the project one way or the other. Instead, he said, his office hoped Evans and residents could find common ground.
“This is something that needs to be worked out between the HOA, the developer and the residents,” DeYoung said. “That being said, the request is in conformance with our codes.”
The past of Lot 78 has come back to haunt its future, as Evans can’t explain the 2006 land-use change except to say it was something he did intentionally. Some on the planning board think that’s good enough, or that, at the very least, they should hear Evans’ proposal in the present, not the past.
“We should separate what happened in Johnston County and our process,” planning board member Marty Bizzell said. “Does this meet the intent of our [unified development ordinance]? Testimony from staff says it does. That’s why I support the request from the applicant.”
The majority of the board, though, saw unanswered questions with the lot and hoped answers would be forthcoming when the Town Council hears the request in the weeks ahead.
“The expectation of the purchasers, the majority were led to believe the open space would be left for use by the HOA,” Ahlert said. “The designation changed from what it was approved as with no evidence presented.”
The Town Council will discuss Lot 78 on Dec. 21 and hold a public hearing Jan. 4.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson