A long thin strip of orange plastic connects a row of wooden stakes in the ground, marking off the property line between Jennifer Leung’s house and a triangular piece of land next to the Guilford Hills neighborhood.
Dozens of white plastic signs that read “Save R-5 #guilfordhillsstrong” mark the yards all the way down Markland Avenue where Leung lives.
This 0.11-acre plot of land next to Leung’s house separates her neighborhood from the Battleground corridor and is at the center of a controversy between several Guilford Hills homeowners and ALB Enterprises, the new owners of the triangle.
“I grew up in [this] neighborhood,” said Leung who lives at 2310 Markland Drive. “My parents have a house on North Elam which they bought when they first migrated here.”
Leung’s parents, Amelia and Robert Leung, are the former owners of Hong Kong House, a Chinese restaurant that operated on Tate Street for decades.
Now, Leung, who purchased her home in 2004, is fighting ALB Enterprise Holdings LLC over a request by ALB to rezone the triangular plot of land from a residential area to a commercial one. The rezoning request was approved during the April 15 meeting by the zoning commission 5-2 and will go before city council for a vote on June 18.
ALB — which is owned by Sajmir Balla, the owner of Mythos Grill on Battleground Avenue — also owns 2301 Battleground Ave., the property next to the triangle which was formerly occupied by a bank and is situated next to Biscuitville.
The current plan for the newly acquired properties is to build a small 9,000-square feet shopping center with a restaurant and small specialty shops. A letter from ALB shared with Guilford Hills neighbors on March 20 also notes that the owners intend to construct a sidewalk along the street frontage of Markland. A zoning staff report from May 21 confirms this fact and states that a “5’ sidewalk with a 3’ grass strip is required along one side” of the property.
Laura Piedad, who has lived in Guilford Hills for 12 years, is in favor of ALB rezoning the whole area. During the April 15 zoning meeting, she said that one of the perks of living in the neighborhood is its proximity to restaurants and she hopes that ALB helps make it easier to access local businesses.
“The current condition on Markland Drive prohibits safe walking down Markland Drive to cross Battleground to get to the walking paths that’s behind Target,” Piedad said. “It’s dangerous when neighbors park on that street; there’s no accessibility both ways. The new owners of this property have offered to clean up an area that has not been cleaned since I’ve lived there in 12 years. We fully support what they’re trying to do to help our neighborhood.”
Coming from a restaurant-owning family, Leung said she’s not opposed to new businesses or restaurants. For her, the main issue is the fact that the triangle’s property line juts up right next to her paved driveway where the new owners are planning on installing a “minimum 8-foot opaque fence.”
This, Leung said, would make it difficult for her to open her car door and would restrict visibility for the area directly next to her home. She said her home was broken into in February and that she wants to be able to see what’s going on behind a fence if one is installed.
She said she has even offered to buy a piece of the triangle from the owners to maintain some of the trees next to her property but hasn’t heard back from them.
“I know they can put up a fence,” Leung said. “It’s their property. I just didn’t want it inches away from my driveway.”
The proposed conditions in the letter from ALB did not state the fact that the triangle would have to be rezoned for commercial use.
Since finding out about the proposed fence in the rezoning request, Leung, has worked tirelessly to gain support for her cause. She’s created two online petitions that have garnered close to 1,000 signatures and has personally delivered more than 100 yard signs.
“I think there was a mentality that I wasn’t gonna do anything and that I was just gonna lie down,” she said. “But no one should be treating someone like this.”— Jennifer Leung
During the April 15 zoning commission meeting, Carol Carter, ALB’s representative at the time, stated multiple times that ALB did not have to rezone the small plot of land if they didn’t want to.
“We did not have to come to zoning,” Carter said during the meeting. “We could have changed our plans and kept that triangle vacant…. Ninety percent will remain vacant, but we had some parking spaces in there. Had we taken those parking spaces out, we could have gone forward with the proposal without rezoning.”
Carter went on to argue that the reason behind the rezoning is to preserve the Guilford Hills neighborhood.
“We wanted to be good neighbors and implement a conditional zoning application that would rule out some of the noxious zoning applications,” Carter said.
She also said that the new owners would help maintain landscaping along Markland Drive and remove dying trees.
When Commissioner Hugh Holston asked if the parking spaces that would be built in the triangle were required, Carter responded that they weren’t, and that realistically, only one and a half spaces would be built in that rezoned area. The rest would be used for a 25-foot natural buffer. Holston and Donald Blackstock were the only “no” votes at the April 15 meeting.
Some of the other conditions in ALB’s proposal for the larger property where the bank used to be include a maximum building height of 20 feet, one freestanding sign on Battleground Avenue, vehicular access limited only to Battleground Avenue and a maximum height for light poles of 30 feet.
Still, Leung and other neighbors are wary of the encroaching business.
Several of them say they want it in writing that there will be no ingress or egress onto Markland Drive after the development of the shopping center. For them, the word “access” isn’t enough.
“Why do they want this triangle?” asked Bonnie Wallace, who lives at 2303 Markland Drive, across from Leung. “That’s the only thing I can think of.”
Wallace and her husband have lived in the neighborhood for almost four decades and are also concerned about the possibility of the new owners cutting down the trees across from her home.
“I like the visual of having green space outside my house and not seeing a shopping center,” Wallace said.
Noise and the possibility of a restaurant staying open late is another one of her concerns, said Wallace.
However, according to the proposed conditions by ALB, some of the types of uses that would not be allowed on the property include drive-thru facilities, daycare centers, bars, nightclubs, brewpubs, pawnshops or convenience stores.
“As owners of a popular local restaurant, the property owners want to find a way to work with their neighbors to redevelop this commercial property so that it continues to fit well in this area,” said Marc Isaacson, the new attorney representing ALB, in an email. “Based on my preliminary review, I am fairly optimistic that we can address and resolve those concerns.”
Isaacson said that he plans to meet with Leung’s attorney, Alan Ferguson, this week to hopefully come to an agreement.
“My concern [is] that she get a fair shake and a fair hearing when the property gets changed from residential to commercial,” said Ferguson.
“I thought she was a reasonable person,” Ferguson continued. “Her objections to rezoning were reasonable and defensible. I don’t instinctually like to see little people being run over by big people. I am very sensitive to residential places being rezoned, especially for the people who have invested their hard-earned money to live there.”
A few city council members including Sharon Hightower and Yvonne Johnson have said they are sympathetic to the neighborhood’s cause.
“When you look at the commercial property and where the boundaries expand to, it’s literally almost in her yard,” said Hightower. “Looking at it, if they can’t come to a compromise, and I hope they do, I would have to vote against it.”
Johnson was a little more reserved in her response but ultimately said that she has a tendency to “vote with the neighborhood” on issues like this.
“We’re trying to get them to work something out,” she said.
Leung said that Mayor Nancy Vaughan visited her home and met with her.
“I am hopeful that since the applicant has retained new representation the parties will be able to reach a mutually acceptable solution,” said Vaughan in an email. “I believe the applicant understands the neighborhood concerns and can achieve their goal of a new restaurant and shops while maintaining a reasonable buffer.”
As for Leung, she said she will continue to raise awareness for her neighborhood by distributing yard signs, getting more petition signatures and selling T-shirts.
“It’s not just a fence issue,” she said. “It’s the neighborhood I was born and raised in. It’s the neighborhood I currently live in. I’m just trying to fight to preserve it… All I can do is try.”