By Mike Barnhardt
District commissioners last week delayed by 30 days a zoning decision that could put Farmington Meat Processing temporarily out of business.
Michael and Nikki Long had applied to convert 0.45 acres of farm housing into a neighborhood business. The request came after a neighbor complained to the county building authority that the store shouldn’t have been there.
The decision to postpone came after District Attorney Ed Vogler received a letter Friday ahead of Monday’s hearing. The letter, from an attorney representing two nearby property owners, claimed that the rezoning would be point zoning and would violate the county’s own policies. The shop is at the end of three private driveways. “That brings me some concerns as I look at our zoning ordinance, and I think … until we can get more information …” Vogler said.
Commissioner Benita Finney said the Longs have adhered to county guidelines since opening. “This is unexpected,” she said.
District planner Adam Barr first contacted the Longs in January after receiving the complaint. The county’s ordinance, he said, would allow the sale of agricultural produce produced by the Longs on the farm, but not the sale of produce from outside. The store sells all North Carolina farm produce.
“It’s considered a real farm,” Barr told the commissioners. “As I’m sure you know, this status exempts it from several local zoning regulations.”
The zoning motion was proposed, Barr said, to better align with what the business is and what the longs want out of it.
The county planning committee unanimously recommended that the rededication be approved.
George Marthinuss said he filed the first complaint, explaining that the store is on a private dirt road that is shared with several property owners via a private easement.
“This is not about the Longs or their business, this is not about the subsidy from the state or if they say they helped with the meat supply chain during Covid. It’s not about whether Mr. Long helped the high school biology department. The only issue here is whether a fraction of a package should be changed from RA to NB,” he said. “Without regard to the Longs, a switch would allow for many business uses, from restaurants to dry cleaners to retail, in the middle of a rural neighborhood with no public road.”
His wife Sharon also spoke, saying the couple moved to the area because it was peaceful and remote.
“It’s one car or truck at a time, and it can go on like this throughout the day as long as the store is open,” she said, estimating that there are up to 20 to 30 additional vehicles on the road every day when the store is open. “It has already changed the nature and character of the neighborhood.”
Another nearby property owner, Ken Stanberry, said the county should do more to help families stay on the farm.
“We’re helping Michael and Nikki grow their agribusiness,” he said. “I hope that the county commissioners will view Michael and Nikki’s endeavor as one aimed at helping Davie County residents seize economic opportunities, become better stewards of the environment, and improve their quality of life.”
Michael Long said he’s pretty much kept the road relief leading to the store. “I guess my neighbors forgot about that when winter came and we had snow. I got on the tractor and pawed the road for them.” He installed pipes to prevent the road from flooding. “It’s a relief,” he said across the street. “Everyone is welcome.” He said he saw several vehicles on the street of people who weren’t customers or residents.
“We’re trying to do something good for the county, to offer something that no one else is doing. We’re just trying to do something good.”
Eric Taylor, another landowner, also spoke out in favor of the rededication. “You’re curtailing something that came way before us … You’re trying to make a living on a piece of property that we really don’t want anyone else telling us what to do with.”
Nikki Long said they obtained permits and followed officials’ instructions along the way.
“On a busy day, we might have 20 cars,” she said. “On a slow day we have one.”
She said she understands traffic being a nuisance to a neighbor who doesn’t help maintain the road.
The letter Vogler was referring to was written by Bradley C. Friesen, an attorney representing nearby property owners George and Sharon Marthinuss and Jonathan and Shanda Sechrest.
He wrote: “The proposed rezoning is an illegal zoning… The surrounding area is predominantly rural residential, while the proposed rezoning is a neighborhood business, which is inharmonious… The downsides to the adjacent landowners are severe.
“Applicants improperly operate a retail business in the middle of an RA area that is primarily residential. Rezoning the area to remedy the applicants’ violation is not a reasonable basis for changing the zoning plan.
“This restricted access is inconsistent with the firefighter access that a retail store should have. The quality overlay requires a review of access factors intended to reduce traffic problems in the neighborhood. The proposed zoning change only exacerbates existing access problems and is inconsistent (with zoning).”
Since the application was for a general purpose rezoning, the board must consider all businesses that could be located on the property, not just what is there now, Friesen wrote.
“The question you have is not related to the Longs or their businesses. The only question is whether this fraction of a package is in the middle A residential area with no public road access should be repurposed into a neighborhood store.”
Freisen also disagreed with planning director Andrew Meadwell, who told planning committee members that the deal pretty much qualifies as an “agricultural deal” and is permissible under state law.
“That’s not right,” wrote Friesen. “The definition of agribusiness in Davie County does not include retail businesses. “Agriculture” is the sale of “self-produced” products, which clearly exceeds the plaintiffs’ business operations. Current North Carolina law similarly defines agriculture as including the sale of certain products that are “made on a farm.” It is simply incorrect to say that the proposed retail store is an agricultural operation and therefore free to operate in this location.”
Friesen offered a solution, citing the county’s comprehensive plan, which says: “Limit commercial development of rural areas to local grocery stores, agricultural specialty stores and generally recognized rural retail establishments and require them to be grouped near road junctions.” will.”
“The solution,” he said, “is not to illegally alter the area map, but to find a suitable location — next to a road and in accordance with the overall plan — for the Longs’ business.”