Cary elections focus on growth

Staff WriterOctober 5, 2007 

— The Town Council elections next week in fast-developing Cary revolve around one issue: growth. How much, how fast, how dense.

And how dastardly.

The independent local political Web site features an amateur music video dinging incumbent Mayor Ernie McAlister, whose financial backing comes mostly from the development industry, for "listening to the ones with the dough." A roadside placard of uncertain origin cries, "McAlister lied, good trees died."

McAlister and his supporters have tagged mayoral challenger Harold Weinbrecht, a former Town Council member who served with slow-growth Mayor Glen Lang from 1999 to 2003, as a hypocrite who demonized developers while voting for several large developments now being built.

"We remember the mess he and Lang left to be cleaned up," said a pro-McAlister newspaper ad.

The mayoral race is one of four elections for a majority of seats on Cary's Town Council. After Cary's swings on growth policies in recent years, the election Tuesday will determine whether Cary sticks to its pro-growth course or moderates somewhat.

There is not much of a no-growth movement afoot.

Still, many Cary residents are frustrated by growing pains in the town of about 123,000 people. As elsewhere in the Triangle, roads, water systems, and public schools haven't kept up with demand.

A citizen coalition has sprung up around opposition to a big mixed-used infill development at Davis and High House roads, complete with a Web site and fliers endorsing slower-growth candidates over McAlister and his allies.

A vocal slice of the citizenry thinks the town has lurched from the extremes of too much growth, to too little, and back again during the past decade. They tend to favor Weinbrecht.

The town's business establishment, meanwhile, backs McAlister, a former chairman of Cary's Chamber of Commerce.

No matter how fast the town grows, most Cary residents and leaders agree that smart growth is not dense or urban. They favor spread out and suburban, without closely mixing homes and businesses and without buildings taller than two or three floors.

"People here want an attractive, suburban look, with well-manicured lawns and sidewalks you can push your stroller down," said Nels Roseland, the council's District B incumbent. He faces two strong challengers: small-business owner Don Frantz and community activist Vickie Maxwell.

But some think rapid growth is threatening that quality of life.

"Going door to door and talking with folks, there is concern about growth," Roseland said. "Growth management is important. But Cary is lucky in that our biggest problem is that too many people want to call us home."


Sandwiched between Raleigh and Research Triangle Park, Cary is a natural place for many affluent, highly educated people to want to live. They bring with them high community standards and expectations of their government.

Outgoing council member Marla Dorrel says more and more of them are disillusioned.

"The greatest thing at stake in this election is the role people can play in making policy for their community," she said. "There are lots of people who feel they're not being looked out for. They have the feeling that the deck is stacked against them. I think it may be."

But in terms of the election campaigns, she said, growth is the defining issue -- though in a different way than in recent years.

"Six or eight years ago, I heard a lot of people say we need to slow growth or stop growth," Dorrel said. "I don't hear people say that now. I hear them say let's have smarter growth."

McAlister, 50, says that is exactly what Cary has provided during his four years as mayor and will keep doing if he's re-elected.

"There's a continuing debate about growth, but Cary has proved that growth is a natural part of a healthy economy," the retired banker said. "There is always an element of a community that takes a contrarian viewpoint and condemns the very thing that created the quality of life that they moved here for and enjoy."

The mayor says the town has invested almost half a billion dollars in roads, parks, water lines and other infrastructure under his leadership.

Reducing development fees has drawn greater private investment, and the town is on sounder financial footing, he says. And its relationships with surrounding communities is much healthier than it was under Lang, he says.

"Cary 20 years from now, even if it's half-again as big as it is now, will look a lot like Cary does now because we're going to insist on good planning and high quality," McAlister said.

If only, argues Weinbrecht.

Because Cary's growth has accelerated too much, he says, the town's quality of life is suffering.

"It's time to stop the pendulum and manage growth appropriately," said Weinbrecht, 51, a SAS software programmer. "When you're growing at 7 or 8 percent a year, there's no way you can keep up with roads, schools and water, unless taxes are high. It's not so much the growth rate -- it's the infrastructure to keep up with it."

Weinbrecht hopes his word-of-mouth support can overcome McAlister's 5-to-1 campaign finance advantage. As of late September, the incumbent mayor had raised almost $160,000 compared with $32,000 for his challenger.

"It's going to be a grass-roots effort, not through mailers and TV ads," Weinbrecht said.

Why? He has little choice.

"I haven't got a dime from a developer," he said.

(Cary News staff writer Adam Arnold contributed to this report.) or (919) 829-4538

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