Growth, environmental issues top Cary’s agenda in 2014

aspecht@newsobserver.comDecember 29, 2013 

— Leaders in town want Cary to be known for promoting smart growth, being fiscally conservative and preserving the environment.

In 2014, they will face a handful of issues that may test that image.

Dense development, always a hot topic in Cary, is expected to remain on the burner as townhomes and apartments continue to pop up around town.

The town is spending millions of dollars to help revitalize its downtown. By this time next year, Cary leaders will have a better idea of whether two investments – The Cary, a town-owned theater and arts venue; and the Jones House, a cafe across from the Cary Arts Center – are paying off by increasing downtown foot traffic.

Cary leaders are also expected to adopt new rules for removing big trees around town – a quest that has held the attention of developers, environmentalists and residents for months now.

“Every year, there are items that come up that test Cary on what kind of town it wants to be. The same is true this year,” said businessman Karl Thor, who lost a bid for Cary Town Council in November.

Many of Cary’s 145,000-plus residents – who can grow argumentative about the very qualities of life that led them to live there – have been vocal this year in their opposition to high-density residential development. Critics claim it increases traffic, lowers property values and disrupts the aesthetic character of the western Wake County town.

But high-density development seems unrelenting – Cary approved 313 townhome units earlier this month.

“I think (the number of high-density developments) has been a concern for all of us,” said Councilwoman Gale Adcock. “It seems like we haven’t seen a proposal for the standard, single-family subdivision in a while.”

This year, the town approved 1,157 single-family homes and 361 multi-family units. Cary groups townhomes with single-family units, so the specific breakdown of traditional homes and townhomes wasn’t available.

Adcock suggested the council may need to be more discriminating in its conditions for approving high-density developments. Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson said she’d like to see some changes made on paper.

“Several of the townhouse communities have bothered me,” Robinson said. “I don’t want to see more townhouse communities that lack amenities.”

The Bradford, a shopping center and residential development under construction at the corner of Davis Drive and High House Road, will provide the backdrop this year for Cary’s development debates.

The development, which inspired the anti-growth political committee and was the focus of the 2009 Cary elections, is expected to open to renters during the first quarter of this year.

The first phase of the complex includes 370 apartments and 20 town house apartments. Opponents of the project have long said they expect it to clog that intersection.

“In the next couple years, there’s gonna be a crap-load of cars coming through there,” said Ray Czarnecki, a western Cary resident and critic of the town government. “I don’t know how all these people are going to move around.”

Championing trees, downtown

Downtown, Cary is hoping its investments in The Cary and the Jones House will pay off in foot-traffic.

The town is spending $255,000 to renovate the Jones House, which is scheduled to open by February, and $6.2 million to renovate and expand The Cary theater, which is scheduled to open by spring.

Meanwhile, Cary is expected to do some soul-searching on how far it should go to protect the environment.

Town planning staffers are working on a comprehensive revision to Cary’s rules for removing so-called champion trees, which are bigger than 30 inches in diameter or others considered especially valuable.

The rewrite comes after the Town Council in June adopted rules that barred developers from removing any champion tree not damaged or diseased beyond repair in the eyes of a tree specialist.

Previously, all champion-tree removal requests went before Cary’s planning director, who was limited in his ability to regulate them because the town’s ordinance gave him few guidelines to follow.

Developers railed against the new rules, saying they would make construction drastically more difficult and costly.

Developers and environmentalists offered a few suggestions during a special stakeholders meeting in November. The top recommendation: that Cary focus on preserving sections of tree-dense areas rather than single trees.

The town council earlier this month passed temporary champion tree rules meant to help out developers whose projects stalled in June. But town staff hopes to send a comprehensive edit before the town council in April.

Sorting out recycling services

When budget time comes, Cary will also evaluate its options for expanding recycling services.

Cary’s rate of separating, or diverting, recyclables from other solid waste is higher than other municipalities such as Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro.

However, the rate has stagnated since 2010, when it rose from 46 percent to 50 percent after the town adopted an automated recycling pickup system and expanded its list of recyclable materials.

In November, Cary Town Council set aside $2,500 to pay for composting workshops and asked staff to consider eliminating the $1 monthly fee for extra recycling carts when they plan next year’s budget.

Residents can get an extra 65-gallon or 95-gallon cart for the fee. About 670 Cary residents use an extra recycling cart, which means the town stands to lose at least $8,000.

Driving in food trucks

Cary lags behind other towns in one increasingly popular category: food trucks.

There are no food trucks operating in this town. Cary doesn’t have rules that specifically address food trucks, so the vehicles aren’t allowed to do business here.

But Cary leaders want to change that this year, too.

The town may not even require a setback between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants, as Raleigh does, or limit the total number of food trucks in a given area, as in Asheville.

Cary staff is in the process of drafting rules for food trucks. A public hearing is expected sometime this year.

Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht

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