When a 190-unit apartment development came before the Town Council in July, council members were somewhat troubled to realize that their approval was essentially a formality.
Mayor Mark Stohlman raised concerns about the number of apartments being proposed. But because the land’s zoning didn’t allow the town to impose a cap on that number, the complex would need to be approved if the plans met the town’s basic development standards.
That experience has inspired the council to discuss how it can gain more control over how Morrisville’s little remaining land is used when other uses might be preferred.
As Morrisville undertakes a host of initiatives meant to establish and strengthen its identity as a town, some council members worry that allowing too much of the town’s land to be developed as rental properties could undermine those efforts.
The town’s current planning policy that allows a large number of rental properties does so at the expense of more traditional homes likely to house families and other types of long-term residents.
“We’re going to have more people living in apartments in Morrisville than anywhere else, the way things are projecting,” Councilman Michael Schlink said. “I want more homeownership.”
The broader concern raised by the possible influx of what is known in planning terms as “multi-family dwelling units” – which also can include duplexes and townhomes – is the demographic it attracts.
Apartment-dwellers tend to be younger and more transient than homebuyers, which means they may be less likely to be politically and civically invested in the town, Stohlman said.
With the help of planning staff, council members reviewed the other parts of town where more apartments could be approved through nothing more than an administrative process. As things stand, Morrisville is zoned for “several thousand” more of these units, said Mayor Mark Stohlman, which the town would have to approve if a developer met the necessary requirements.
Any efforts to tilt the balance toward traditional homes could be limited because little, if any, of the land remaining in Morrisville is suitable or large enough for the kinds of large-scale neighborhood subdivisions that define the town.
“The reality is that we don’t have a 200-unit single-family site left in Morrisville,” Stohlman said. “Or, at least, we have a lot more potential 200-unit multi-family sites left, and I think we need to be prepared. The discussion is about whether we want to make a change in the ordinance to address this.”
Mayor pro tem Steve Rao reminded the council that Morrisville will also have to contend with other factors that tend to encourage density, such as planned increases in transit service and the town’s own efforts to develop a town center.
The changes Stohlman described would have to proceed slowly, said Courtney Tanner, Morrisville’s planning director. She suggested two possible courses of action.
The first and most comprehensive approach, Tanner said, would be to reevaluate the town’s land use plan altogether, something she described as a “multi-year” process. A more short-term solution would be the piecemeal reconsideration of some of the larger areas that currently allow multifamily construction, she said, but even that couldn’t happen overnight.
“It’s really important to remember that this town is, and always will be, less than 10 square miles,” Councilwoman Liz Johnson said. “That’s it. I think it’s important that in the decisions we make, we don’t lose sight of that. We have no other land to use, and it’s important to get the highest and best use we can with that balance in mind.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan