Zoning request rejected

Published 11:06 am Saturday, April 17, 2010

Contributing Editor

Washington’s City Council, during its meeting Monday, voted 4-1 to deny a request to the change the zoning classification the former Beaufort County Ed Tech Center property off John Small Avenue from residential to office and institutional.
Council members Doug Mercer, William Pitt, Gil Davis and Bobby Roberson voted to deny the request. Councilman Ed Moultrie voted against denying the request.
The rezoning request was made by Michael Lowe, agent for Healthplus Therapeutic Services.
In May 2009, the council unanimously rejected a rezoning request that would have opened the door for Healthplus Therapeutic Services to operate a high-security group-care treatment center where the former Beaufort County Ed Tech Center is located.
In March 2009, Healthplus’ request for a special-use permit to operate the treatment center was denied by the Board of Adjustment. Healthplus sued the city over that decision.
The property in question is a 3.7-acre site on East Seventh Street, which is adjacent to the Bobby Andrews Recreation Center and the Patrick Cochran Memorial Skatepark. The Washington Planning Board, at its March 23 meeting, voted to recommend the council deny the rezoning request.
During the council meeting Monday, Lowe and his attorney, Keith Hackney, argued that rezoning the land makes sense because adjacent land on the other side of John Small Avenue is zoned office and institutional, known as O&I. They also argued that an O&I zoning classification makes sense because it would provide a buffer between areas zoned for residential uses and areas zoned for commercial uses.
They also challenged the board’s findings that the rezoning request is not consistent with the city’s parks-and-recreation master plan because that plan designates the subject property as an area for unprogrammed open space and to meet the city’s unmet recreational needs. They also challenged the board’s findings that the rezoning request is not in the public interest because of its inconsistency with the plan and because of the effects rezoning the property would have on the surrounding community and immediate neighbors.
Lowe, as he argued before the City Council and Planning Board last year, said the rezoning request was logical because the former Ed Tech Center was an institutional use of the property. He said rezoning the property to an office and institutional classification would be “consistent with the historical use” of the land.
Lowe and Hackney told the council they sought the zoning change because it provided more development opportunities for the property.
State law prohibits governing bodies from discussing just one specific use in a zoning classification when discussing requests for rezonings.
That did not stop opponents of the rezoning request from talking about specific uses of the property. Opponents said such a treatment center should not be allowed next to a residential area.
Hardy Ray Corey, who lives near the property, said it’s “ludicrous” to allow that type of facility at that location. Corey, who said he was speaking for others, said the treatment center, which would be surrounded by security fencing, is not appropriate for the neighborhood.
Last spring, supporters of the request said the treatment center would bring 30 to 40 new jobs to the city at a time when unemployment in the area was high. At one point, about 25 people rose when one speaker asked for audience members who supported the new jobs to stand.
During discussion about the rezoning request made last year, it was revealed the treatment center would serve clients with primary diagnoses of mental illness, severe emotional and behavioral disorders or substance abuse-related disorders, and they may have co-occurring disorders, including developmental disabilities. Such clients do not meet criteria for acute in-patient psychiatric services.