This time, the town’s planning department has denied Josh’s Farmers Market (JFM) the very same permit it has approved for the market three times since last March, under the town’s existing ordinances. The town is also severely limiting items the market can carry — the very same items the market has carried with previously approved permits, even under current ordinances — including “baked goods, prepared meals, candles, soaps, dairy, cheeses, pine needles, jams/jellies and honey.” The town apparently does not consider these items “seasonal agricultural products.”
Some of those items include baked goods from a baker that has been with JFM since 2005 and a bread vendor that bakes seven days a week, beginning at 2 a.m. every day. Also included: honey from five local beekeepers.
The town now says these items violate its Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which was adopted in February 2022. The UDO states that “seasonal sales shall be limited to fireworks and seasonal agricultural products such as [emphasis added] fruits, vegetables, meats, pumpkins, Christmas trees and living plants.”
Therefore, the town concludes, JFM can currently only carry “vegetables, fruits, meats, seafood and flowers as these would be seasonal items,” the rejection notice reads.
This isn’t the first time the town has interpreted its ordinances differently than they’re written in an effort to stick it to JFM Owner Josh Graham.
The town does not consider JFM a farmers market. So until Graham can build a permanent retail sales facility to meet the town’s demands, the 30-year-old market in west Mooresville must operate under the town’s interpretation of its recently adopted “outdoor seasonal sales” ordinance, which states: “Outdoor seasonal sales shall be limited in duration to a maximum of 120 days and there shall not be more than 3 seasonal sales on a lot per calendar year.”
Despite how it’s literally written, the town interprets that ordinance to read that outdoor seasonal sales can be on a specific parcel of property for 120 days per calendar year. After that, it’s time to pack up and apply for another 120 days on a different piece of land.
For the past year, Graham has applied for temporary permits in compliance with the town’s interpretation of its ordinance. The town has, in turn, approved the permits at two properties without incident.
- Graham submitted a permit request on March 28, 2022 to operate as outdoor seasonal sales for the final four months the town allowed him to stay on YMCA property, where he had been situated since April 2021. The town approved the permit four days later, on April 1.
- Graham submitted an outdoor seasonal sales permit request on Nov. 14, 2022 to operate at 140 Raceway Drive in Mooresville. The town approved the permit three days later, on Nov. 17.
- Graham submitted a permit request for 140 Raceway Drive (since it was a new calendar year) on March 17, 2023. The town approved the permit on March 28.
- Meanwhile, on March 26, Graham applied for an outdoor seasonal permit for a different parcel of land at the intersection of Brawley School and Williamson roads. But this time, the town rejected the permit on April 4. Graham resubmitted the application with clarifications/modifications. The town declined the application again on April 12, this time stating, in part, that Graham could no longer carry multiple items in the market that the town had previously allowed. Graham replied, asking for clarification, but the town simply directed him back to the outdoor seasonal sales section of the UDO.
It seems the town continues to make the rules up as it goes. The only two items the town has ever prohibited JFM from carrying were shed-like buildings and locally handmade Adirondack chairs. In fact, the town took to Facebook on Oct. 15, 2022, noting that it had issued a permit to JFM “that allowed Josh’s to continue sales of produce and food items but prohibited sales of outdoor furniture and storage units.”
The market, to comply with the town’s demands, stopped selling those items.
At no time, however, has the town attempted to restrict agricultural products that the market carries, and it has not suggested that those items are out of compliance with town ordinances, even after several visits from town code enforcement officers last year to the market to cite it for operating outside town ordinances. The officers were thorough enough in their inspections to charge the market with 14 violations, totaling up to $7,000 in daily fines against the YMCA, where the market was situated. But not one violation included any mention of the agricultural items the market carried.
In 2021, Graham purchased 4.5 acres at Williamson and Sundown roads; once he’s able to build a permanent market home there, all these particular issues with the town should go away — a relief, no doubt, for both parties.
So what’s the holdup? Why isn’t a permanent farmers market standing on Sundown Road?
Primarily, said Graham, because of NCDOT delays along the Williamson corridor.
The town issued Graham a one-year permit in March 2021; once it was up, it issued a 120-day permit that Graham was entitled to as “outdoor seasonal sales.” In one year, the town expected Graham to build a permanent market from the ground up, including purchasing property, conducting studies for traffic mitigation, completing necessary improvements and having a building.
Because of town zoning ordinances during that time, however, all permitting had to stop during a town-required traffic impact analysis that ended up taking six months. In addition to that delay, NCDOT’s planned improvements for the Williamson corridor have been delayed twice and are now estimated not to begin until the middle of 2024 at the earliest.
It would seem the town could sympathize with NCDOT delays. As recently as their April 3 meeting, town board members lambasted NCDOT for overpromising and underdelivering on other town projects.
“They’ve made commitments for months — for years — and let us down,” said Commissioner Gary West. “NCDOT is why infrastructure always lags growth.”
Added Commissioner Lisa Qualls: “We’ve been anticipating and trusting (NCDOT) deadlines of infrastructure, and we’ve been let down every time.”
Town board members have not voted on JFM but, as elected officials, they directly supervise the town manager, who oversees town staff, including the planning department.
Of the NCDOT delays specifically for the farmers market, Graham said, “Customer access pre-NCDOT and the impending construction phase of the Sundown Road shift are the two major concerns in developing that land now.
“The Sundown property will make a great farmers’ market post-NCDOT improvements — not so great pre-improvements,” he said.
Building on the Sundown property right now would, in fact, cost Graham hundreds of thousands of dollars that he wouldn’t recover once the Williamson improvements are complete. “Making it work now means a temporary road over to the stoplight at Sundown Road,” Graham said, adding that he asked a reputable developer in the area to look at the site and help him make it work.
But that development team noted the same problems Graham did. “We were looking at an estimated extra half-a-million dollars just in site work for a possible two-to-three-year fix,” Graham said. “That’s money that we wouldn’t get back once NCDOT relocates Sundown and brings the stoplight to us.
“We just can’t stomach that … to just throw that amount of money away,” he said.
Graham wants to move forward and build permanently, but in addition to NCDOT delays, “it’s nearly impossible to ‘move forward’ with a permanent home,” he said, “when we are spending endless capital and time simply trying to remain open.”
“I don’t get it,” he added. “There were multiple clear avenues for us to coexist (with the town) as we have for decades.
“It seems pointless that we have to fight like this to stay open, but we have to in order to feed our families and keep jobs for our employees.”
And the fight, indeed, continues. Through his attorneys, Grimes Yeoman, PLLC, Graham has appealed to Superior Court the recent Town of Mooresville Board of Adjustment decision that upheld the planning department’s cited violations at the YMCA property.
JFM is currently still operating at 140 Raceway Drive. They’re there today (Friday) until 6 p.m., tomorrow (Saturday) 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.