One would think that when a board votes 7-2 in favor of something, it’s a done deal — but a longtime local businessman has learned this is not the case regarding signage for a $2 million expansion project.
The issue surrounds the development of a new Frank Fleming Body Shop and Collision Center in a building once housing a Winn-Dixie supermarket on Merita Street in Mount Airy, which Fleming bought, located across U.S. 52 from Mayberry Mall.
Fleming is moving from his present location on Springs Road near radio stations WPAQ/WSYD just outside the city limits, where the body shop has been in operation since 1985.
Since it can be considered off the beaten path from a business standpoint, the owner says he has relied on word-of-mouth traffic and a reputation for doing good work to draw customers to the shop employing about 10 people.
In looking toward the future, Fleming now is expanding to the more-visible location along the U.S. 52 business corridor. But what should be a seamless move has become beset by city regulatory issues regarding an existing sign there which he wants to re-face.
“I started this project last summer and it’s been one battle after another,” Fleming, who is known for his distinguished career in modified racing along with being a businessman, said Friday.
Although the remnants of what once displayed the Winn-Dixie sign still occupy a spot in the parking lot — including two large poles extending into the air from a sturdy base — Fleming is prohibited from using those fixtures for a sign drawing attention to his enterprise.
This is despite a recent 7-2 decision by a group called the Mount Airy Zoning Board of Adjustment to approve that use, with updated sign rules in the municipality not allowing new ones more than 15 feet tall, Fleming said he was advised.
The proposal instead required at least a four-fifths “super-majority” vote, according to a city commissioner, Jon Cawley, who explained when bringing the matter to public attention during a meeting Thursday that one of 8-1 would have constituted that.
City Manager Stan Farmer said Friday this is required by state statute rather than a local mandate.
That left Fleming with only one recourse — to bring the matter to Surry County Superior Court for review. “I have appealed this,” he added Friday.
The sign issue reached the Mount Airy Zoning Board of Adjustment via a variance hardship request.
That involves “varying” from the strict wording of zoning regulations, which the business owner requested after unsuccessfully seeking a permit for using the sign there — initially being unaware such rules even existed.
The adjustment board is a powerful, quasi-judicial administrative body whose decisions affect private property rights to the same extent as court rulings.
It not only hears requests for variances, but special-use permits and appeals of decisions made by city planning staff members and the Mount Airy Historic Preservation Commission, regarding interpretations or enforcement of ordinances. The stated overriding purpose of the board is to enforce the meaning and spirit of city ordinances.
Seeking relief from that group came with a price. “I paid $400 for the hearing,” Fleming of the cost required to make his case for the sign variance. The appeal to Superior Court is costing another $200.
The matter as it stands now has left both Fleming and Commissioner Cawley scratching their heads.
“It don’t make sense to me,” Fleming said. “The sign is already there.”
In addition to the body shop, it would highlight an existing auto parts business on the Merita Street property and an Enterprise rental car outlet to be located there.
The sign needs to be somewhat towering in order for passersby to notice the businesses due to not being directly on the highway, which is why Winn-Dixie erected it in the first place, Fleming said.
One thing that troubles the veteran business owner is that in driving along other nearby areas of U.S. 52 and U.S. 601, he has noticed places with newer signs appearing to be taller than 15 feet.
Two carport businesses, one at the former Bright Leaf Drive-In site and another on the corner of Rockford Street and U.S. 52 near Northern Regional Hospital, were among ones he cited, along with an auto dealership and a car wash.
“My question is, why them and not me — somebody’s going to answer that,” Fleming said.
The body shop owner explained that he could just as easily have decided to launch the expansion elsewhere, including Winston-Salem, but chose his home community instead.
“I was born and raised right here in Mount Airy,” Fleming said. “I wanted to stay in town.”
He also pointed out that the former Winn-Dixie location was in a rundown state, including overgrown vegetation and a deteriorating parking lot he plans to have repaved.
“I’m spending close to $2 million on a property that was an eyesore in the community.”
Commissioner Cawley brought up the matter at a council meeting Thursday afternoon, which was not on the agenda but broached by Cawley near the end of the session when officials offered general comments.
“I want the record to show that I support him,” the North Ward board member commented in reference to Fleming, saying that also should be the case with the city government as a whole. “But anyway, I want the record to show that I am disappointed in the Board of Adjustment’s decision.”
Cawley also said he had ridden around town with Fleming and noticed about 30 other signs outside businesses which were of similar size and shape to that on the former Winn-Dixie site. Some are at new businesses and others involve signs that were refurbished, he related.
“Mount Airy has a reputation for being hard to deal with when it comes to bringing business to town,” Cawley said, “and it’s decisions like this that are making us live with that reputation.”
Board chairman responds
Mount Airy Planning Director Andy Goodall declined to weigh in on the sign matter Friday. “My apologies, but I cannot comment on the referenced case while it is in litigation,” he advised.
However, Elizabeth Martin, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, did offer insights Friday on its recent vote.
“I think most of the board was leaning toward not allowing the sign,” she said of the matter involving Fleming.
“But at the same time, Frank’s been around here (a long time) and he was trying to improve that part of town,” Martin added in reference to the seven board members who did vote in his favor.
The two dissenters mainly were concerned about appearance issues in light of updated ordinance requirements approved by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners in 2016, including new height and area requirements to address that consideration with incoming signage.
Martin acknowledged the fact that the case can be taken up in Superior Court and possibly sent back to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a new look.
“The court reviews anything that we have done.”