Meg Hibbert Contributing writer
After months of listening to residents, asking questions of staff and personally debating wrenching decisions, Salem City Council voted 3-1 Monday night to approve the proposed 139-house Simms subdivision on a former horse farm in South Salem.
Council had been considering the subdivision and a zoning change to allow cluster housing since last fall. In October 37 people out of the more than 300 in the room spoke, mostly against the proposal, turning the meeting at the Salem Civic Center into almost four hours.
This time about 100 people were in the Community Room, and no comments from the public were allowed because the public hearing had been held in October.
The lone dissenting Councilmember vote was from John Saunders, who said “I do not agree with the development and I haven’t since the day it started. But just because I disagree, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”
Councilmembers Jane Johnson, Bill Jones and Mayor Randy Foley voted in favor of the requests. Councilman James Martin was absent due to work out of town, but filed a letter with Council.
Jones said “I’ve wrestled and wrestled with this. Staff has worked hard to fix these issues (referring to road width, sight distances, water and sewer concerns). The possibility of 500 new citizens I think has importance, and I would welcome 500 new citizens into Salem…This hasn’t been without pain and heartache.”
Johnson agreed with Jones. “This has been by far one of the most difficult decisions. I’ve done more soul searching on this than any other in my 16 years on council.” Johnson lives in the neighborhood and had specific concerns about traffic and sight distances.
She added that she intended to make a motion to approve the subdivision because she had not been convinced the cons outweigh the pros.
Jones said later he wasn’t sure when he arrived at the meeting which way he would vote.
In his letter, Councilman Martin said his perspective hinged on “infrastructure capacity and aesthetic conformity with the surrounding neighborhoods.” He said he would have voted to deny the application if any additional proffers raised by neighboring property owners were not able to be considered.
He also said he wanted his written perspective to be included as part of the meeting record.
During the meeting City Manager Jay Taliaferro explained what the city plans to do to help with traffic problems, sewer concerns and water.
Stop signs would be installed in both directions on Upland at the intersection with Diamond Road, Taliaferro said. Staff said based on what they could tell, sewers should be able to handle an additional 139 homes.
A few citizens reported sewer backups, he said, and staff found some issues with inflo and infiltration. Taliaferro said $225,000 has been budgeted to line the pipes.
There were groans from the audience when the possibility of a traffic circle was mentioned at Apperson and Orchard streets.
Other probable changes would be to have a two-way left-turn lane so drivers don’t have to cross three lanes of traffic all at once, Taliaferro said. That can be done this summer, he added.
“Franklin Street has been a known problem for a while,” the city manager said, and “the game plan is to address that.” Franklin to Poff would be widened by about an extra foot on either lane to give a 10-foot-width, he said. That is scheduled for this summer.
As far as how these improvements would be paid for on Upland, Taliaferro said the city could use revenue sharing from VDOT if applying for grants does not work. He said the work might need to be done in four or five segments.
Area residents were still not satisfied that needed improvements would be addressed. Dr. Tom Fame was one with concerns from the Salem Police Department’s assessment over traffic safety. That report says police anticipate an overall increase in calls after the project gets underway, related to limited ingress and egress points leading to the new subdivision.
According to the report, “There will be a significant increase in traffic volume on the surrounding roadways,” specifically Franklin Street because of the narrow roadway with sharp curves north of Upland Drive and leading to Homestead Drive.
Developer Robert Fralin of R. Fralin Companies Inc. said after the meeting he plans “to work with the city on their timelines related to the improvements they discussed tonight.” He added engineering work would begin now.