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City Council, April 22

Council wobbles a bit over sofa store site purchase
Some proposed parking changes generate ire?
Marc Knapp

At one stage in last night's meeting, we thought it was unlikely the Council would approve the purchase of the Super Sofa Store site on Savannah Highway. The Mayor was “taken aback” by the criticism or lack of enthusiasm for the purchase and made an impassioned speech in its support. He reminded Council that it had unanimously approved the purchase at a meeting last year. He also declared that the City's reputation was at stake if it failed to move ahead with the purchase. The City needed the memorial for the fallen firefighters, and it would be a travesty if a car dealership or hamburger vendor were allowed to occupy the site.

Only four of the Council members present - Gilliard, Evans, Morinelli and Wilson- were enthusiastic and unqualified in their support for the purchase. Council member White recused himself because of a conflict of interest. The remainder had reservations, but when it came to the final vote only two, Council members Mallard and Lewis voted against the purchase.

Unanimous approval for purchase last year
As Council was constantly reminded, it had agreed unanimously to buy the site shortly after the June 18 tragedy. However, the price had not been settled at that time. But it had now been settled with the Goldstein family at $1.85 million. The Mayor also told Council that $1.85 million was the appraised value. The purchase was to be financed by a one-year note issued by the City. This note would be replaced by a bond, probably with a term of 10 to 15 years. The City was hopeful that it would receive County, State and Federal support for the acquisition and that it would not have to bear the full burden of $1.85 million cost.

Too steep a price
Some Council members thought the $1.85 million was a pretty steep price to pay particularly with the economy in a downturn. The money could be better deployed by helping some of those affected and who have lost their jobs and houses. Council member Lewis also noted that no memorials had been suggested that for those police officers who lost their lives in the course of duty over the years.

Council member Mallard also asked why the Goldstein family wasn't donating the site for a memorial. Councilman member Mitchell acknowledged that Council had unanimously approved the purchase last year. But the decision had been made in the immediate aftermath of the fire in a very emotional environment. Cooler heads now prevailed and indeed one couldn't dismiss the hardships in the community, which could be addressed with the funds going towards the purchase.

And what about spending beyond the purchase price?
Both Council members Alexander and Mallard questioned the expenditure beyond the initial purchase price - $1.85 million may only be the tip of the iceberg. What was to be placed or built on the site had not been determined. Its cost could be a multiple of this amount.

Council member Gallant as well as expressing reservations about the high cost suggested that each Council member nominate a person to serve on the Committee that would decide what is placed on the site. This Committee would also consist of firemen, or relatives of firemen who died in the five. The suggestion was approved by Council.

Some critical questions not asked
My associate Warwick Jones, in Citizens participation enquired why two critical questions had not been asked?
• Where is the Goldstein family? The fact that they had been fined suggested some culpability in relation to the fire. Why should the City bear the full brunt of the purchase? Why couldn't the family make some contribution, at least in kind?

• What about the valuation? Was it made purely on a comparison basis with the sale prices of other commercial sites in the general area as is the practice? If this were the case, the valuation is too high. As Council member Gallant suggested, no reasonable developer was going to buy that site and put up, say, a retail store or develop it as a used car sales space. The opprobrium from such as development would impair its commercial use. For this reason, as Mr. Jones argued the commercial value of the site was considerably less than that of other sites surrounding and this should've been recognized in the valuation. Was it? We doubt it.

More disturbing facts about the Fire Department
The backup to the Council agenda had a grant request for some new equipment for the Fire Department. I brought to Council's attention some very disturbing facts contained in the grant documentation. The Departmet admitted that not all of it’s firefighters have the basic fire fighter certifications. The request also listed at least four National Fire Protection Association standards and at least one OSHA standard that are not met.

Big jump in on-the-job-injuries
This admission is alarming considering that this is just one grant for some very basic equipment. One wonders knows how many standards the department fails to meet. Also very telling was the number of on-the-job injuries. There were 166 on-the-job injuries over the last two years, which I find deplorable. There were 34 in 2005 and a staggering 78 in 2007 - more than a 100 percent increase over two years.

I fault City Council for the Department's deficiencies. It ultimately is responsible for the lack of oversight and the seeming incompetence within the Fire Department. The Sofa Store site may host a memorial to the fallen firefighters, But it will also serve as a reminder of the results of bad management and deficient leadership.

Does the public know about the proposed changes to the parking ordinance?
Council also had before it last night in an ordinance to amend off-street parking requirements. The Planning Commission had recommended in favor of this amendment at its March 19 meeting. We suspect that the public had little knowledge of the change; otherwise there would have been some representation at the meeting last night, we believe.

Council member asks for deferral
The proposal certainly stirred the ire of Council member Lewis, who asked that the matter be deferred. Council agreed to his wish. The Council member was of the opinion that the ordinance had been created, at least in part, to help a development in his district which had been opposed by the neighborhood association, and also by the Board of Zoning Appeals. He accused the City of bad faith, and wanted answers to some questions before the matter was raised again. The housing development he referred to is at the corner of Francis and King Street and failed it seems to make the existing parking test.

The public documents did not detail the proposed changes but a summary was included for the Council members. It can be seen by pressing here. Download file (Mac users press here Download file)
We, like another Council member to whom we spoke, were confused by the summary and to the scope of the proposed changes.

But there was no confusion in relation to the last proposed change – “the increase in the permitted distance at which off-site parking can be located and used to meet zoning requirements to 1400 feet from 400 feet (1400 feet represents a five-minute walk)”

Issue with large increase in permitted distance allowed to dedicated off-street parking
This latter change, stirred my associate Warwick Jones, who is a director of the Ansonborough Neighborhood Association. He said that the issue had not been discussed by the Association but he would bet his life that the Association would unanimously disapprove anything that led to an increase in on-street parking. He took particular exception to the very large increase from 400 to 1400 feet for “permitted off-street parking”. Why was an increase, or indeed an increase of such a magnitude proposed? This change would allow many more condominium developments on the peninsula and at a time when there was insufficient street parking spaces for residents. He also noted that developers have to secure dedicated off-site spaces for a period of at least 10 years to meet the ordinance. Such agreements made in the past between developers and established parking stations are now coming to an end. No longer would these spaces need to be dedicated. More cars were now likely to be displaced to the streets, exacerbating the parking problems of the Peninsula. He expected that many neighborhood associations would oppose this change when they learn of it.

Progress on Stoney Field
We have lost count of the number of citizens have risen at City Council meetings to protest about the quality of Stoney Field, which is used by Burke High School and lies between the Citadel and Joe Riley stadiums. From the staff presentation last night, some progress is being made. Nothing yet is signed and sealed but there is promise. One of the major problems staff said is that that the field is too low and takes a long time to drain after heavy rains. In the redevelopment of the field, the City proposes to lift the surface 1 foot. It also proposes changes to the track but to leave the infrastructure relatively intact. The cost of redevelopment is projected at $4.5 million, but the County School Board is expected to pick up half of the tab.

Council member Gilliard suggested that the name be changed to the Burke High School Bulldog Stadium. Nobody objected but the Legal Department is to look into the possibility of making the change.

Alarmed by the number of false alarms
The final item on the agenda was an ordinance relating to false alarms. Many residents of the City have burglar and fire alarms. For a number of reasons, these alarms go off and trigger responses by the police. From May 2007 to March 2008, the police spokesman reported that they were over 13,000 false alarms and 39 real alarms. The department estimated that the response costs were $346,000. In consequence, the City is changing the ordinance and implementing stiffer fines.

Fines to be imposed
Recognizing that some alarms sound because of accidents, fines will be imposed beginning with the fourth false alarm. The fine will be $50 for each of the fourth, fifth and sixth false alarms, and $100 for each false alarm thereafter in a calendar year.

Chief Mullen recognized that some alarms were caused by electrical storms and some by accident. But some false alarms can be controlled by better management by the alarm companies and by the owners or renters of premises. All those fined would have the right to appeal to the Livability Court.

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