The Cary Town Council heeded calls Thursday from residents to slow a rapid pace of residential development in west Cary, and for the first time declined to vote on a request that would have allowed 130 homes until county officials address a “crisis” of crowding at area schools.
Council members said they liked the terms of the request presented by 13 property owners to rezone 58 acres on Wackena Road. Although the property owners sought a zoning that would allow for up to eight homes per acre, an acceptable density under Cary’s land use plan, they offered to cap the density of their land at 3.1 homes per acre.
But the development would be located in an area that’s home to a growing number of residents. The Wake County school board has placed enrollment caps on three schools west of N.C. 55 for this school year and may cap Panther Creek High School next year. Each of the four schools is at least 100 students, or 11 percent, over capacity, according to the school system.
Until Thursday, the council had not rejected or delayed a project because of school crowding.
But a majority of council decided they could not continue allowing such density in the area. Rather than vote to approve or deny the rezoning request, the council voted unanimously to table it. If they had denied the zoning, applicants would have to wait another year to resubmit their request.
Delaying the project would “give the elected officials at the town and county level a chance to get their act together and take care of this serious matter,” Cary Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson said.
“This, in my opinion, is a crisis,” she said. “If we keep bringing people in without resources, it’s going to degrade the quality of living here.”
Robinson, an outspoken critic of the Wake commissioners and school board, has voted several times against approving rezoning requests for similar projects.
Councilwoman Lori Bush said she changed her mind about approving dense projects when she recently learned from Wake school officials that crowding in west Cary schools is likely to worsen in the coming years and that there’s no plan to address it.
“We’ve received a lot of emails from constituents who are tired of putting their kids in crowded schools,” Bush said. “These have been coming for a long time, and they’re increasing.”
Councilmen Don Frantz and Jack Smith, who hoped to approve the request, said they doubted that delaying the request would help in any way.
“I’m struggling with this from a fairness standpoint,” Frantz said. “Schools are an issue and will always be an issue. I’m not going to hold this property hostage because of it.”
Steve Reece and his wife had hoped to sell their 2-acre property on Wackena Road and use the money to find a new home. Reece said he doesn’t understand why the council decided to single out his group of property owners. He said he can see another newdevelopment under construction across from his neighborhood.
“They have put us in the crosshairs to stop this development, but yet it’s ok for everybody else to do it?” Reece said.
“What are they gonna do, put a road block up on (N.C.) 55 and say ‘Sorry folks, Cary’s not taking any more residents in this part of town?’ ” he asked.
Case by case
The council will continue to consider rezoning and development requests based on their merits, Robinson said. But she said each new proposal for west Cary will “face harsh scrutiny” until Wake commissioners and the school board come up with a plan to build more schools in west Cary, particularly a middle school.
The school district doesn’t plan to open a new middle school in west Cary until the 2018-19 school year. Mills Park Middle, which is 17 percent over capacity, is the most crowded middle school in the county, according to Wake schools records. The second most-crowded middle school, Apex Middle, is 6 percent over capacity.
“I’m really hopeful that this elected body can impress upon the Wake County Commissioners and the school board the dire need to have a middle school built in this area” sooner than 2018, Robinson said. “They don’t have to fund a school out of a referendum. They can do it other ways, too.”
J.W. Shearin, who applied for the rezoning on behalf of the property owners and Maryland-based GB Development Consulting Company, said he’s “appreciative of the opportunity to continue working with Cary on a solution.”
“It is my hope that maybe with time you all can decide how you want to handle these cases in the future,” Shearin told the council.
Tim Minton, executive vice president for the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, isn’t sure the Cary Town Council has legal authority to reject a rezoning request because of school crowding.
“This is a county issue,” he said. “The school situation is not supposed to be part of the criteria when you’re looking at it.”
By the time the development would be finished, crowding may not be an issue, Minton said.
He hopes Cary’s decision doesn’t set a precedent, or development could slow down.
“I feel sorry for those landowners, because this makes it very difficult for them to sell their land,” he said. “Why would you do (seek to develop in west Cary) if you know it’s gonna get denied? I wouldn’t.”