Triangle cities swell, sprawl

Raleigh, Durham top N.C. cities in gains; efforts to raise density start to work

Staff WriterJuly 31, 2005 

In the first years of the 21st century, Raleigh added more residents than any city east of the Mississippi River except one: New York.

But while the Big Apple grew up, Raleigh mostly grew out.

Since 1990, the city has annexed more than 45 square miles, an area larger than Apex, Garner and Holly Springs combined. New condos and office towers are bringing new life to the center city, but most of Raleigh's growth -- and the growth of many surrounding towns -- still occurs on its steadily expanding edges.

"A fantastic amount of growth is simply places getting wider," said State Demographer Bill Tillman. "The towns get much bigger in population, but they also get much bigger in land area."

Critics blame such sprawl for growing traffic congestion, air and water pollution and the destruction of North Carolina's rural landscape. In the 1990s, environmental groups began waging anti-sprawl campaigns, and local officials fretted over how to better manage growth. In 1999, the General Assembly created a "smart growth" commission partly to help rein in sprawl.

"I don't see that much has changed," said Barry Jacobs, an Orange County commissioner who helped write the smart growth commission's final report in 2001.

A strong job market, favorable climate and good quality of life helped boost Raleigh's population more than 15 percent to nearly 327,000 between 2000 and 2004, according to census estimates. The city now has more than 1 1/2 times as many residents as Durham, the Triangle's second-largest city.

The city of Raleigh estimates that its population topped 342,000 this month, a 61 percent increase since 1990, while the city's land area has expanded about 51 percent.

Raleigh has begun to direct more population growth internally, Mayor Charles Meeker said. Through the 1990s, nearly 95 percent of the city's growth was on the fringes, Meeker said; now, he said, with new housing in neighborhoods such as North Hills and Glenwood South, that number has dropped to about 80 percent.

"It is good for us to become more urban," Meeker said. "It makes the city more compact and allows people to live nearer work and all the other amenities that our city has."

Gary Murphy will soon move to his third downtown condominium, at The Paramount in Glenwood South, and says he loves being able to walk to restaurants and museums and avoid yard work. Murphy, who designs houses for people who live in the suburbs, said he has always thought of Raleigh as a very large suburb without a core, but that's starting to change. When he and friends from the suburbs get together, it's almost always downtown, he said.

"That's a clear indication of where people want to be," said Murphy, who is 40 and single.

Raleigh's population density -- the number of residents per acre -- has gone up since the 1990s, but not by much. The U.S. Census Bureau counted about 3.8 residents per acre in 2000; the city says it rose to about 4 last year.

"A single-family-house suburban lifestyle remains very attractive, particularly with the quality of neighborhoods we have," Meeker said. "And in many cases, suburban living is less expensive than living in the center city."

I-540 spurs growth

No other North Carolina city has come close to matching Raleigh's growth in recent years. Durham, whose growth rate outpaced Raleigh's in the 1990s, was the state's second-fastest-growing city, at about 7.5 percent between 2000 and 2004, edging Cary and Charlotte.

The opening of Interstate 540 across North Raleigh helped drive the city's expansion. The north and northeastern segments of Raleigh are attracting more new residents than any other, about 29,000 since April 2000, according to city estimates.

Many newcomers settled in neighborhoods that didn't exist a few years before.

Four years ago Robert and Jeanie Bohl moved from Cary to Riverside, a 650-home subdivision off Perry Creek Road, because they craved the welcoming social environment of a new neighborhood. They were also thinking about schools for their three children, the oldest of whom starts first grade this year, said Robert Bohl, who does product testing for Nortel.

"In a growing part of the community, we thought we'd have a good opportunity to get into newer schools, better schools," Bohl said. "We'd be riding the wave of expansion."

Wendy Monroe and her family came to Riverside from a suburb of Charlotte. Though they live on the edge of the city, they feel close to everything: the small-town ambiance of Wake Forest, the Triangle Town Center mall, downtown Raleigh and her husband's job at Cree near Research Triangle Park.

"Being at 540 here, you have everything you need," said Monroe, a stay-at-home mother of two who summed up Raleigh's attributes this way: "State capital, college town, great pizza, good roads and interesting people."

Riverside became part of Raleigh the way many neighborhoods do: The developer asked city officials to annex the land so the subdivision would have city water, sewer and other services.

The power to grow

North Carolina's annexation laws give cities and towns a free hand in gaining territory, said David M. Lawrence, a local government law specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill's Institute of Government. That has helped cities such as Raleigh remain vibrant, keep taxes low and benefit from the influx of people they attract, Lawrence said.

"People wouldn't move to just outside Raleigh if Raleigh wasn't there, providing jobs and cultural things," he said. "What North Carolina law allows is for a city to capture that growth and for the city to maintain a good degree of fiscal health."

Raleigh and other Triangle towns also still enjoy room to expand, though some are beginning to run into their neighbors. Raleigh doesn't have much more room to grow toward Cary, Durham or Garner, for example.

But a Wake County land-use plan written in 1997 gives Raleigh plenty of space to spread into old farming communities north and south of Knightdale.

Someday, under the county's plan, Raleigh will stretch clear across Wake County, from Durham to the Johnston county line, with a population well above half a million.

Some environmentalists and others criticized the 1997 county land-use plan for doing little to curb sprawl. Landowners and developers had loudly denounced an earlier proposal to limit development in agricultural areas, so the county's plan relied on market forces rather than government regulations to guide growth.

The plan includes a map that shows municipalities eventually covering nearly every square foot of Wake outside of the airport, Research Triangle Park and the protected watersheds.

Limiting sprawl

As a county commissioner in 1997, John Converse supported the market-based approach. Converse, a property manager who lives inside the Beltline of Raleigh, said he's amazed by the county's continued growth but doesn't think government barriers work. He recalls hearing about other cities that established growth boundaries in hopes of containing sprawl.

"What happened is, you had this sort of leap-frog kind of thing. It really just kind of backfired," he said. "People didn't want to move into certain areas, so they would go further out, and that caused worse sprawl."

(Researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Richard Stradling can be reached at 829-4739 or

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