LUMBERTON — Over the objections of neighbors, the Lumberton City Council unanimously gave the green light Wednesday to a proposed senior citizen development for up to 68 affordable housing units on McPhail Road at Linwood Avenue.
In a crowded agenda, the city also held a swearing in ceremony for new Precinct 2 Councilwoman Melissa Robinson. Robinson, who won a July 23 special election to earn the right to replace her late husband, is the first black female to be elected to the Lumberton City Council.
The council also accepted two Community Development Block Grants totaling about $1.5 million. A $1.1 million grant was received for a flood mitigation project at the Rempac manufacturing facility on Starlite Drive, and a $400,000 grant will be used to demolish the former Ramada Inn property that was devastated by flooding from Hurricane Matthew.
The senior housing development is a joint project between the city, which owns the land, the University of North Carolina Institute of Government and an undetermined builder. Although the Planning Board recommended against the project, the city has been planning it and other affordable housing projects since two hurricanes destroyed 500 homes in mostly low-income areas of Lumberton.
Sarah Odio, an Institute of Government project manager, called it an “ideal site” for much-needed housing. It is not public housing, and rents are based on the income of the residents, she said.
“Although Lumberton has lost housing and residents to the hurricanes, its senior citizen population is still growing,” Odio said. “There is a great need for affordable housing here.”
Neighbors said their quiet streets with single-family homes will be invaded by a housing dense project. They cited safety, drainage and other issues, and some residents did not accept that the development would be for seniors.
“We’re being dumped on,” said Andre Thompson, who said he cares for his 87-year-old father. “It won’t end up a senior housing project. I don’t accept that promise.”
Council member Karen Higley, who represents the neighborhood, made the motion to approve the rezoning request. Councilman John Carroll, who represents the neighboring precinct, seconded the motion.
Robinson replaces her late husband, John “Big Wayne” Robinson, who died on Feb. 28. She is the third council member to be seated after special elections this year.
In January, Eric Chavis was elected to represent Precinct 7, which had been without representative since Leon Maynor died in July 2018, and John Carroll was elected as the Precinct 3 representative, taking the seat from which Burnis Wilkins resigned in August 2018 to become sheriff. Both were unopposed.
Flood mitigation is ongoing in Lumberton. The two CDBG grants will protect one of the city’s major employers, which has been flooded twice, and help develop an important piece of property just off Interstate 95 at exit 20.
Rempac, which manufactures specialty foam products at its West Lumberton plant, was forced to close twice, after hurricanes Matthew and Florence. The grant money will be used to build an earthen berm and floodgates to protect the plant.
Through the grant, the city paid for a hydrology study and has hired an engineering firm to design the berm.
The Ramada Inn was once Lumberton’s largest hotel, with a restaurant and bar. Owned by Lumberton businessman Harry Jhala, the hotel has been empty since Hurricane Matthew flooded it in 2016. It has been vandalized and set on fire since then.
Jhala plans retail and restaurant establishments and another hotel for the 5.3-acre property on Kahn Drive. He also owns the Long Branch Café and The Long Branch Country Store.
In other business, the council granted a zoning variance for a planned wine bar at 605 N. Elm St. Owner Annette Wallwork plans to combine wine tasting and sales with craft beer, food and special events.
“This will bring more business to the downtown,” Wallwork said. “We are renovating the building in keeping with its original style.”
The Planning Board endorsed the variance unanimously, and the council did likewise.
Sarah Griffin-Greene, of Lumberton, was appointed to the Robeson County Library board of trustees. She replaces Gail McLean, who served the library for 34 years. McLean was presented a Pride in Lumberton Award on Wednesday.
Lumberton will host the Dixie Youth Baseball World Series for a second time in 2021, according to Bruce Mullis, Lumberton Youth Baseball Association treasurer. The Pennington Athletic Complex was the site of the Dixie Youth Division II World Series this summer and the Division I World Series in 2018.
“Thirty-six teams and 540 baseball players will come to Lumberton, bringing an estimated $2 million into the local economy,” Mullis said.
An agreement between the Lumberton Fire Department and the Lumberton Rescue Squad will allow for the joint operation of swift water rescue services. Firemen will have access to equipment and training to assist the city during flooding and rescue operations.
Lumberton’s police officers will be getting new body armor through a grant. Sixty new bulletproof vests will cost $36,000.
The council members also voted to spend $80,000 for a new pump at the waste treatment plant; $5,000 for a military surplus bulldozer; $8,373 for a new mower deck; $31,505 for work on two sewage lift stations; $30,230 for a maintenance contract for 32 city generators; and $32,860 for sewer rehabilitation on Meadow Branch behind the Ramada Inn.
The Wednesday meeting will be the only meeting of Lumberton City Council in August.
Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]