9 Investigates overreach by state government into local development rules

UNION COUNTY — Like many parts of the area, several towns in Union County are trying to deal with fast growth while preserving a sense of community.

Some town mayors are opening up to Channel 9 about certain developers who they say are sidestepping local rules to get their way.

Developer Stephen Puckett owns a piece of land off Rea Road in Marvin that may soon look a lot different. Marvin Mayor Joe Pollino said Puckett approached him about wanting to build 150 senior living apartments on it, which Pollino said doesn’t fit what residents want.

"I think we know what's best for our community in the village of Marvin, and that's what we were elected for," Pollino told Channel 9.

Another lawmaker, state Sen. Tommy Tucker, stepped in and filed legislation in Raleigh to de-annex the property out of Marvin and into unincorporated Union County.

"We want to put high-end commercial on it, restaurants and shops to attract sales tax dollars," Tucker told Eyewitness News anchor Liz Foster.

Lawmakers passed his Senate Bill 774, and it was ratified on June 30, despite opposition from Marvin town leaders.

"I was very upset, but there's not much we can do legally," Pollino said.

Other Union County mayors tried to stop the state from stepping in to de-annex the property. Weddington Mayor Bill Deter wrote a letter to Tucker, asking him to withdraw SB 774, about two weeks after Tucker introduced it.

"It's overreach by the state," Deter said. "They're meddling in municipal government, which is driven by the local residents."

Local mayors told Channel 9 that the overreach sets a bad precedent for future growth if developers plan to sidestep local rules and get state leaders involved.

"It is a concern. It should be a concern for every municipality," Deter said.

This isn't the first time that Tucker has stepped in. He filed Senate Bill 214 last year to de-annex several properties in Wesley Chapel because andowners there wanted to sell to developers.

"It was kind of odd, and I told him that. I said we should have a conversation about this," said Brad Horvath, who was Wesley Chapel's mayor at the time. The bill regarding Wesley Chapel land is pending.

However, a few months after Tucker filed it, town leaders passed an ordinance to allow senior housing and conditional zoning changes.

Foster asked Horvath if he felt like his arm was twisted.

"Oh, absolutely, and I told him that," he replied.

A senior housing development will be built off Highway 84 near Wesley Chapel Elementary School. Two similar applications are pending.

Foster looked at Tucker's campaign finance reports and found nearly two dozen donations worth thousands of dollars in the last three years from developers, including Stephen Puckett, who can now move forward with developing the land in Marvin.

When Foster questioned Tucker about a possible conflict of interest, he said: "No, it's not a conflict of interest. I can't be bought. I have no financial ties to anyone."

Zoning for the property in Marvin will be discussed at a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Union County government center.

As of now, the land is zoned for business. Because the property was just transferred to Union County, it's standard to have a zoning hearing. The planning board will then make a zoning recommendation to county commissioners.

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