With rolling pastureland, a forest and small pond, someone thought a 16-acre tract east of Flowers Plantation would be a nice spot for a wedding.
Despite the protests of neighbors and Flowers Plantation, the Johnston County Planning Board agreed and last week endorsed a plan that would bring a wedding and events venue to N.C. 42 East .
The proposed event space would be 14,500 square feet and accommodate up to 500 people and offer parking for 125 cars. The land’s owners are sisters Deborah Cross and Margaret Penny, who are selling 16 acres of a 72-acre tract for the events venue. The sisters have not disclosed the buyer but are asking the county to rezone the land from agricultural-residential to commercial as a special-use district.
“His intent is to have weddings, corporate events, banquets like the NRA or National Wildlife Turkey Federation, stuff like that,” said Tyres Clayton, an engineer for Draper Aden, the firm handling the project. “He thought it was a good location because dense residential growth is occurring there, some commercial growth happening adjacent. He thought it would be a good addition to the community; he liked the location.”
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The coming widening of N.C. 42 to four lanes will stop at Buffalo Road, putting the proposed venue, planned for the corner lot of Lynch Road, beyond those improvements. Clayton said the entrance to the venue will be off of the less traveled Lynch Road. He added that the N.C. Department of Transportation isn’t asking for an additional turn lane from that road onto N.C. 42.
Clayton said the facility would not be a concert venue but wedding bands would likely play. The county’s planning staff said music at the venue would have to follow Johnston’s 11 p.m. noise ordinance, which restricts sound from leaving the property.
For all the development west of Buffalo Road, this section of N.C. 42 East is still largely untouched and is considered Selma, as far as the post office is concerned. Many of the neighbors speaking out against the project said they were lifelong citizens of the area, with Ann Waters saying she lived across the highway from the proposed venue in the same house where both she and her mother were born. James Woodall lives across Lynch Road from the venue lot, and David Earp said he used to play in N.C. 42 as a boy.
“You can’t do that anymore,” Earp said.
Those three said the proposed events space would balloon traffic at the intersection.
“N.C. 42 and Lynch Road is a place of accidents waiting to happen,” Waters said. “We have more accidents there than you can think about.”
The planning board, though, wasn’t convinced traffic would be an issue. A traffic study put the count on N.C. 42 at 8,000 trips per day and far lower at Lynch Road.
“One-hundred twenty-five cars is not a huge concern for me,” planning board member Will Letchworth said, referencing the capacity of the parking lot.
The most prominent speaker opposing the project was Reid Stephenson, chief executive of Flowers Plantation, who said he was speaking on behalf of the developer, residents and numerous builders at the large and successful development. Stephenson brought up traffic, noise and zoning concerns, but also said the venue would represent a redundancy in Johnston County, noting that The Farm, a meeting and events venue, was just 12 miles away in Selma. In defending The Farm, Stephenson suggested Johnston County would be cannibalizing the local business it protected in rejecting last year’s CSX project.
“Why is another events center needed so close to the existing event center?” Stephenson asked. “Is The Farm being relocated? Why open an events center in this area of the county? And why could the county, lastly, allow a multimillion (project) to be lost to an adjacent county, including the tax base and jobs, and consider approving an events center, which is no comparison in tax base and employment?”
Planning board members pushed back on Stephenson’s questions, asking what instead of an events center should go on the land. Stephenson noted most of the neighboring land is residential.
“It’s maxed out at 500 (people), weddings, meetings, corporate events,” planning board member Russell Creech said. “I have a hard time understanding why it would be such a major impact on that area.”
Planning board member Nicole Hackler asked Stephenson about the Dr. Watson Inn on Flowers Plantation property, which has previously advertised itself as a wedding venue. Stephenson said that is no longer the case and that the home is currently a leased residence to a Novo Nordisk employee.
One Flowers Plantation resident, Janice Gallagher, said she was excited about seeing something besides a residential project in the area.
“I can’t speak for everyone who lives there, but I can speak for myself; we’re really excited about wanting businesses and growth in that area,” Gallagher said. “It’s such a huge population that’s growing in one major area that we have two grocery stores in two miles of each other and no restaurants. I’m really excited about seeing some other growth than houses that basically overpopulate our schools and everything else.”
The planning board did worry about buffering for the neighbors of the proposed venue and recommended a denser “Class C” buffer along Lynch Road. The planning board voted 6-1 to recommend approval of the rezoning to the board of commissioners. Adam Caldwell voted against the rezoning, and Ralph Stewart recused himself, citing a family conflict of interest.