When Commissioner Eddie Dingler started talking near the end of Monday’s town board meeting, it was almost like witnessing a wise and patient father gently scolding a bunch of misbehaving children.
“We all know why we’re having this conversation; we haven’t said it, but we all do,” Dingler said at the conclusion of a staff presentation on the town’s “outdoor seasonal sales” and “farmers market” ordinances — both ordinances that have been at the heart of the town’s months-long push to run Josh’s Farmers Market (JFM) out of town.
Monday’s meeting was the first time the town board has openly discussed JFM.
The 30-year market has operated on temporary permits in Mooresville for years. Intentionally or not, when the town wrote its new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) that was adopted in February 2022, it wrote JFM’s longstanding business model out of town ordinances.
Under the new ordinance, JFM can fall under three possible uses: outdoor seasonal sales, farmers market or retail sales establishment. But JFM’s market model doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories.
Graham has been operating since late last year with temporary “outdoor seasonal sales” permits that expire 120 days after they’re granted. At that time, according to town planner Danny Wilson’s interpretation of the town’s shoddy ordinances, the large market has to pack up and move to a different parcel of property.
Graham hasn’t agreed with the town’s rules but has been playing by them, and the town’s planning department, without incident, has issued JFM three “outdoor seasonal sales” permits since last fall and as recently as March.
But lo and behold, the town moved the goalpost again, now rejecting the market’s applications for the very same permit, claiming that items the market carries — which the town has approved in the three most recent permits — are no longer allowed.
The UDO, however, does not specifically limit items, instead using words like “such as” and “including but not limited to.” It even goes so far as to define that “such as” means what we all know it to mean: for example.
Making ordinances mean something they do not say has been a recurring theme with the planning department at least since October.
But it appears some of the town’s elected officials are finally calling foul.
In Monday’s meeting, Wilson explained how he interprets farmers market and outdoor seasonal sales in the UDO.
Every commissioner present except for Thurman Houston (and Tommy Deweese was absent) asked Wilson about the UDO’s vagueness. In other words, how does the planning department justify denying the JFM application because of items the market carries?
“Do we have a list — we say ‘included but not limited to’ — do we know what it is limited to?” asked Commissioner Gary West. “Is there a limitation on it that we have documented?”
Commissioner Bobby Compton pointed to a recent rezoning request that was before the board. The company making the request, he said, “listed 50-some odd uses. They were specific. We could look on there and see what could go (on the property), which means we know what can’t go there because it’s not on the list.
“It would help everyone if you could be just as specific on stuff like this,” he said. “Be specific as to what can go there.”
Once again, Wilson answered with what he said the outdoor seasonal sales ordinance is “designed” to say — not what it actually says. “It’s really designed for seasonal products, so not things that you could preserve … not things you could put in your pantry,” Wilson said. “It’s not for anything that is a value-added product, so it’s not for peach pies. It’s for the peaches.”
Wilson’s department has listed “baked goods” as one item the town will no longer allow JFM to carry. It has also restricted honey from being sold because Wilson says it isn’t seasonal. “You can collect honey; it can be stored in a jar,” Wilson said. “You can sell it this week. You can sell it next month. It’s the same. That is not true from a peach you pick. That’s really why the ‘such as’ provides some leeway to make those decisions because if we have a list saying these five things, it is literally those five things.”
He also informed the board that changing an ordinance is a legislative decision. “It’s up to the board to determine what uses you would like to see,” he said. “The board has discretion for what could be on this list.”
Houston was the only commissioner who said he sees no need to change the ordinance’s words. Instead, he directed people to Walmart to buy candy. “I see one word: seasonal,” he said. “It explains itself — period. (The UDO) doesn’t say anything about selling canned meat and everything else, ya know. You come to get the produce, get the produce. Go to Walmart to buy candy.”
Dingler asked Wilson if he had ever heard of a “specialty market” as defined in N.C. General Statutes. Wilson said he had not.
N.C. General Statute 66-250 defines a specialty market, in part, as “a location, other than a permanent retail store, where space is rented to others for the purpose of selling goods at retail or offering goods for sale at retail.”
Dingler, a small business owner himself, ran for town board as a direct result of a clash he once had with the Town of Mooresville, his hometown — not unlike Graham, who’s also a Mooresville native.
“Years ago,” Dingler said in Monday’s meeting, “I found myself in a business (that was) between a rock and a town ordinance, and so I went to a mayor, I went to some board members, and they helped me through a process, guided me, cost me some money, but we resolved it, and I continue to have a very vibrant business today.”
A “specialty market” designation, Dingler said, “is pretty broad — definitely broader than Christmas trees, living plants and seasonal vegetables” to which Wilson is stating the town’s ordinances for outdoor seasonal sales is limited.
“I’m not looking to sell used campers on the street, and I know there’s a cause and effect of everything,” Dingler said. “But if this list here (in the UDO) could be broader and be more defined — and do something with ‘such as’ — and maybe we could do some research on a specialty market …”
Addressing the board and staff, Dingler continued: “I’d like for the board to take the information. I’d like for staff to listen and be open-minded. I’m just asking for staff, town management, and this board to help resolve a situation that’s in our community — and we all know what it is — and see what we can do.”
Several audience members applauded.
Commissioners Gary West and Lisa Qualls agreed, asking staff to look into a specialty market designation.
“We’re not up here to put somebody out of business,” West said. “We’re not here to set a bad precedent, either.” He said he believed the board should “just ask staff to look at ways that we can resolve this issue that we have.”