Benson abuzz on mayor, project

Some say a plan for low-income housing would benefit Mayor McLamb and his family

Staff WriterApril 27, 2006 

— Jerry McLamb edged out longtime Mayor Don Johnson in November on the platform that Benson needs more growth.

But some neighbors take issue that one of the first ways McLamb has tried to encourage town growth is by introducing a land deal from which his family could profit.

Neighbors have circulated letters calling the McLambs "sneaky." Some at a hearing Tuesday accused the mayor of making threats to put a hog farm in their backyards if the project were rejected.

McLamb and his brothers ran an ad April 19 in Benson's local paper. It invited people to learn about the project at a meeting Monday with developers. "Do not let a few people that do not want this town to grow make this choice for you," the ad said.

That angered some of McLamb's neighbors on Pine Street, which is also home to former mayor Johnson, numerous town commissioners and community leaders. They said that they want the town to grow but don't want growth in the form of low-income housing.

Developers have proposed 14 single-family homes, 114 townhouses and a 48-unit apartment complex for elderly residents. The project would be built on 30 acres off N.C. 27 near N.C. 50.

Jerry McLamb and his younger brothers, Johnny and Jan, own about 10 acres of the tract. The land, still farmed with crops and cattle, has been in their family for about 120 years. The other 20 acres belong to Donald and Betty Byrd of Benson.

James Maides of Jacksonville-based East Point Homes recruited Raleigh-based Integra Development Partners to take charge of the apartment complex for the elderly. Integra deals exclusively with low-income housing, where tenants pay rent based on their income.

Tenants would have to be 55 or older and earning between about $12,000 and $32,000 to qualify for one of the apartments, said Catherine Putnam, an Integra development associate. She said the apartment also would probably accept some Section 8 housing vouchers, which assist very low-income people with federal rent subsidies.

Putnam said that Benson is an appealing market because of its need for affordable housing. About half the town's households had incomes of less than $25,000, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

But Pine Street resident Dennis Jernigan, 37, pointed to the town's economic development and land-use plans, which have recommended that Benson focus on attracting more high-end housing.

The town, about a 40-minute drive from Raleigh, has been trying to woo more commuters with disposable incomes. Higher-end homes would add to Benson's tax base, and new residents would inject energy into the community's civic organizations, Jernigan said.

Berry Bostic, who has been developing about $250,000 to $300,000 homes nearby, said he was afraid that the proposed project would discourage people from buying in his neighborhood. He warned against Section 8 tenants: "You'll have drugs, violence, lots of problems ... young women with children ... boyfriends."

It is not the first time that McLamb has ruffled his neighbors' feathers. About three years ago, he proposed a school on the property.

"They fought it tooth and nail," McLamb said. "They don't want [anything] in their backyard."

At a hearing before the planning board Tuesday night, the tension was palpable among the crowd of about 50.

Some asked for an end to the name-calling. "That's not what the town is about," Jernigan said. "Enough is enough."

Jerry McLamb sat silently for most of the meeting. But his sister-in-law, Sharon McLamb, spoke, saying she had lost sleep over the way the matter had pitted neighbors against each other. Johnny McLamb, manager of a Raleigh furniture store, said the property went up for sale in 2004, long before his brother's election. They had always been open about the project, he said.

The planning board voted against the project, saying it would bring too much traffic and was incompatible with the area.

The Board of Commissioners will have a final say at 7 p.m. today in Town Hall.

Staff writer Peggy Lim can be reached at 836-5799 or plim@newsobserver.com.

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