Town Council Settles Dispute Between Adjoining Property Owners

Bonnie Creech Godwin of Selma (center) appears before the Smithfield Town Council in April 2019 seeking a Special Use Permit to allow a house at 707 North Street, formerly a physicians office, be zoned to convert it back to a single family home so it can be rented. The request was opposed by Dr. Richard Lee (right). Looking on is Smithfield Planning Director Stephen Wensman (left). During the May 7, 2019 meeting the Town Council voted unanimously to approve Godwin’s request. Photo

SMITHFIELD – The Smithfield Town Council has settled a zoning issue between adjoining property owners after they could not work out a compromise.

In April, we told you about the issue Bonnie Creech Godwin of Selma was facing.  Godwin and her company, Highway 39 #6217 LP, appeared before the town council on April 2nd asking for a Special Use Permit to allow the former office of Dr. Stratton Story at 707 North Street be converted into a single family residence.  Godwin said since acquiring building and 0.17 acre site in June 2017 they haven’t had any luck finding a commercial tenant.  She said there is a demand for residential rental property and she would like to convert the property into a residential dwelling.

Adjacent properties on North Street to the west are residential. However, three properties to the east – all former single family homes – are now used by doctors. They include Dr. Richard Lee at Neuse Gastroenterology, located next door at 709 North Street.   Dr. Lee appeared in April before the council asking they deny Godwin’s special use permit.

Dr. Lee said his office and Godwin’s property share a common driveway off North Street.  At the rear of the properties is a shared parking lot, but there doesn’t appear to be a shared access easement for the parking area or driveway, according to Smithfield Planning Director Stephen Wensman.

Wensman said the planning department recommended the Council approve the permit, however Dr. Lee said turning the former office into a home could create a safety issue.  He said if a tenant had children who played outside in the driveway or parking lot area it could create a hazard. The entire rear of the property is paved and children would be playing around cars entering and leaving his office, Lee stated.

At the request of Mayor Pro Tem Travis Scott and Councilman Emery Ashley, Godwin agreed to meet with Dr. Lee to try and work out a compromise and to clear up any questions about how much each party owns of the shared driveway.  Councilman Ashley also proposed Godwin consider installing a fence that could solve some of the safety and property line issues.

The council tabled the request until their May 7th meeting.  But during the May meeting, Godwin told council members no compromise had been reached with Dr. Lee.

Godwin said a survey showed 12 feet of the driveway in dispute was on her property, while only 4 to 6 feet of the drive was on Dr. Lee’s property.  “I have done everything I can,” Mrs. Godwin told the Council. “I hope you will consider I have had the property for two years. This is not a shared driveway. Four to six feet versus 12 feet.” Godwin also stated she paid for the survey and Dr. Lee did not share in the surveying costs.

“Whatever the survey said, still a big chunk is mine,” Dr. Lee told the Council.

This photo shows the property line down a driveway between the properties of Bonnie Creech Godwin (left side) and Dr. Richard Lee (right side). Photo courtesy Town of Smithfield

During questioning by Mayor Pro Tem Travis Scott about the property, Dr. Lee told Scott, “It will drag down the property value” of his office. Scott then asked Dr. Lee if he was an expert in appraisal and property values. Lee stated he was not an expert, it was only his opinion.

Scott then pointed out there is no shared driveway agreement allowing Dr. Lee to use Godwin’s portion of the driveway. “The applicant has the right to do what she wants with her property,”  Mayor Pro Tem Scott stated.

Dr. Lee presented the Council with a petition signed by near 60 individuals saying they did not want a residence at that location.  Dr. Lee, who has been at the location more than 20 years, reiterated concerns about child safety issues.  “It’s not family friendly.” He also said ambulances use the driveway to bring patients to his practice.

Councilman David Barbour asked Dr. Lee if he had ever had any problems with his neighbors.  Lee replied, “No, but its always been commercial.”

Mrs. Godwin’s daughter, Dr. Renee Watson, who has a nearby medical practice on Wilkins Street, questioned why Dr. Lee was bringing patients into his facility through the front door. Dr. Watson said it is easier and common practice to bring patients on stretchers into physician’s offices through rear doors or more private entrances.

Mrs. Godwin said Dr. Lee was giving conflicting statements, indicating he was concerned about children and safety, yet he wanted to continue to use the driveway, which is 12 feet onto her side of the property line.

Councilman John Dunn asked Mrs. Godwin if she would consider placing a fence along the rear property line. Godwin agreed to the request.

In a 6-0 unanimous vote, the Town Council voted to approve Godwin’s Special Use Permit allowing the property to be used as a single family residence with the stipulation a fence must be placed along the rear property line with Dr. Lee.  Councilman Emery Ashley was not present at the May meeting.