Aberdeen Uncertain on Revamping Downtown Rules
The Aberdeen town commissioners remain unsure on how to proceed with efforts to help improve the downtown after evaluating the public input it received at its last meeting Jan. 11.
The board met for its monthly work session Tuesday to discuss, among other things, potential changes to the town's Downtown Retail Overlay District (DROD) ordinance in efforts to address growing issues within the downtown area.
The DROD was established in 1993 to prevent the downtown district from becoming an area for warehouse storage and to create a climate suitable for retail businesses.
Questions about the effectiveness of the ordinance arose after repeated violations and loopholes within the ordinance became apparent, leaving the town unable to uniformly enforce its policies.
Some businesses in downtown have been holding entertainment events as an accessory use, which is legal as long as it is compatible with the principle use of the retail location. The question of legality for these events is whether or not the principle use of a retail location downtown takes place more frequently than the accessory use of a special indoor event.
In the past, the board has cautiously addressed the issue of indoor assembly for events, with concerns about what "entertainment" it could potentially allow downtown.
This caution, along with the lack of uniform enforcement, has frustrated many from the downtown business community and the town.
The town took steps toward uniform enforcement by sending letters to every business in violation of the ordinance last week.
Some commissioners were surprised that they didn't have more comments to evaluate from the downtown community. Only four residents spoke about the DROD at the Jan. 11 meeting.
Though all of the comments discussed ways to improve downtown, not much of the discussion was based on the effectiveness of the DROD and what the town should do about it.
"There has not been a mandate for anything," Commissioner Jim Thomas said.
The bulk of the comments received dealt with regulating the appearance and upkeep of downtown buildings - a responsibility that currently lies with individual property owners, not in the ordinance.
The board discussed the possibility of reinstating the Aberdeen Downtown Development Corp. to address aesthetics and efforts to fill vacant spaces.
Since she is a nonvoting member of the board, Mayor Betsy Mofield volunteered to represent the town in the Aberdeen Downtown Development Corp. if others are interested in reinstating the public-private enterprise that sought to address downtown issues several years ago.
The organization eventually dissolved after some members did not want to continue a partnership with the town.
"I'd like to be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem," Mofield said.
As the discussion continued, opinions varied among board members about a clear definition of "retail" and its nature within the DROD.
Mofield, who teaches marketing classes at Pinecrest High School, insisted that retail is the sale of goods and services to the public - a definition she teaches to her students. She maintained that entertainment events, such as Janet Kenworthy's concert series, the Rooster's Wife, at Poplar Knight Spot, in which patrons are charged admission, can be considered retail uses.
"When you have entertainment like that, and you charge for it, that's retail," Mofield said.
Others disagreed, saying that entertainment is permitted only as an accessory use.
Kenworthy's business is an art gallery, but many of her business hours take place in conjunction with her concerts.
"There is nothing [at Poplar Knight Spot] that says come in and spend your dollars on this art," Commissioner Pat Ann McMurray said. "Zoning laws have not been respected in this case."
As commissioners questioned the definition of retail, they also debated means to monitor its activity within the district.
The commissioners said they realize that many businesses in the downtown don't rely on the traditional approach of attracting drive-by and walk-in traffic. Instead, these businesses rely on sales via telephone and Internet, operating in locations that aren't open to visitors looking to browse around downtown shops.
"The nature of retail has changed," Thomas said. "And it's going to change everywhere."
The board concluded that the ordinance needs a clear definition of what constitutes "retail" to address its current issues and determine what its goals for amending the DROD would accomplish.
"If your definition is not clear and specific, then you can't apply it," Planning Director Kathy Liles said.
As the town continues to consider its options in addressing the ordinance, the board said it hopes to take steps toward enforcing a DROD that still protects the downtown business climate, while also adapting to changing demands from the community.
Hannah Sharpe can be reached at (910) 693-2485.
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