Austin Lakes developer cancels York housing project

news@enquirerherald.comOctober 2, 2013 

— The developer of a 129-acre residential development on the west edge of York said last week he has canceled the project because of his dealings with the city.

McCray Smith, owner of an Indian Trail, N.C., development company, said the city planning board approved plans for the Austin Lakes development at S.C. 5 and U.S. 321, adjoining Cotton Belt Elementary School.

But Smith said by the time the project was approved, he decided that it would not make sense to go through with it. He said he had to make too many compromises to get the city’s approval.

“I am disappointed, more than anyone, but I got beat up too much,” Smith said, describing his dealings with city officials. “I’ve worked with lots of cities, but this one was particularly difficult.”

Mayor Eddie Lee and James Ramere, chairman of the city’s planning commission, disagreed, both saying the city’s requests for Austin Lakes were reasonable. Ramere said both sides had to make compromises.

“It’s not that we beat him up,” said Ramere, a York native and an N.C. elementary school principal who has been the chairman the planning board for about eight years. “As representatives of the city, we wanted to make sure we protected our constituents with a nice development.”

Ramere said the board’s concerns included high-density “cluster” housing development and creating traffic issues near Cotton Belt Elementary, among other issues.

“I could understand cluster housing in Charlotte, but we’re not Charlotte. We’re York,” he said. “We wanted an aesthetically pleasing development that would attract growth, would attract homeowners.”

Lee, who said he attended some of the planning board meetings where the issues were discussed, agreed with Ramere. “I thought they were reasonable in what they were asking,” Lee said.

Lee noted that the property already has water lines and other city infrastructure that was installed about five years ago. “It’s a shame it’s not proceeding,” he said.

Smith — who was contacted by a reporter last week for an update on the project — said he had a contract with the property owner to purchase the land, but has canceled the deal. “We’ve already told the land sellers that we’re not interested,” he said.

Smith said he sought approval to build 300 single-family homes and 200 to 250 apartments on the propertyacross from Inman Farms. “What they ended up giving me was 227 homes and up to 250 apartments,” he said.

The York City Council approved a rezoning of the property earlier this year, but Smith said he clashed with the city’s planning board about details that included the density of the development, lot sizes, the uniformity of floor plans and other design elements.

“They fought me on every point,” Smith said.

Smith said he got involved in the project about a year ago at the request of a financial institution that he deals with because a previous effort to develop the property had stalled.

He said York needs quality housing. However, Smith said, one problem was the Austin Lakes development is on the west edge of York, in a slower growing area away from the retail center on the east edge of the city.

“I made a lot of investment here. But there’s no reason to take on a loser,” he said.

Smith also said he believes York is trying to strengthen its development requirements because of troubles with other housing projects, like Hunter Park, where a developer left cracked and buckling roads that the city ultimately agreed to fix.

“They are trying to increase everything, which is a good thing,” Smith said about more stringent requirements. “Except they’re trying to do it too fast, too soon. You have to grow into that.”

Ramere said the project ultimately approved by the planning board was a higher-density project than members would have preferred. However, he said Smith and the builder he was working with gave little room to compromise.

Ramere also said there were concerns about traffic using Austin Lakes as a cut-through from U.S. 321 to S.C. 5. He said Smith balked at the suggestion of a traffic round to slow traffic.

“I would have preferred larger frontage and less density,” Ramere said of the project approved. “I also would have wanted more restrictions on the cut-throughs of the roads. But there’s always a give and take in this. We gave and they gave. We took and they took. I thought this was a win-win situation.”

He said board members took their responsibility seriously.

Said Ramere: “We approved it, we spent many hours debating this, and we spent many hours of our personal time walking out there. So if he thinks we did not do our homework, that we just flipped this out, no.”

He said York needs housing. “We want to add it to the tax base and also construction jobs put money into the economy. And developments like this can create a stimulus, because companies look for an educated work force, but they also look for housing.”

However, Ramere said York also wants to retain its historic charm.

“With cluster housing, does that really fit into the long-term outlook of York?” he asked. “And does it really fit the whole pattern of development? That’s what we have to weigh at each and every meeting.”

Smith said he is now looking at development plans in York County, outside the city. “York County is so much easier to deal with than the town, that it doesn’t make good business sense to me,” he said.

Ramere said the city welcomes development.

“But they have to follow the rules, just like everybody else,” Ramere said. “Not to shut out economic development — no one wants that. We want development, but we want controlled and sustained development.”

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