The Town Council unanimously adopted the Community Plan Tuesday to guide Cary’s growth through 2040, concluding a five-year process that consumed the town’s planning department and drew input from more than 2,000 residents.
The plan is the result of Imagine Cary, a three-year effort to engage the public in the town’s effort to simultaneously update and coordinate its departments’ visions for Cary’s future.
The policy document addresses the growth challenges facing the town as more people move to Cary and vacant land becomes more scarce.
“It’s not a law, it’s not an ordinance, it’s not a code,” said Cary Planning Director Jeff Ulma, who led the Imagine Cary effort and is retiring in the spring. “It’s a policy direction.”
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The plan’s adoption comes nearly two-and-a-half years after the September 2014 goal outlined in the Community Plan Charter of 2012, which set the process in motion. Town officials say the process cost the town about $1 million. The charter projected $909,000 in expenses when the process was anticipated to take two years.
In addition to key land planning recommendations, the Community Plan also represents a new approach to the form Cary’s planning documents take. It combines and correlates what used to be widely scattered growth plans, some updated more recently than others. Now, the town’s plans for transportation, land use and economic development – to name just a few – co-exist in a single document that connects them to one another.
The plans themselves are also designed to be easier for residents and developers to understand. The land-use plan, for instance, has been significantly simplified since it was last overhauled in 1996. The version adopted Tuesday strips down the town’s planning map from more than two dozen land-use classifications to just a handful.
Some of the document’s most detailed work focuses on what’s known as the Eastern Gateway, or the 800 acres nearest Cary’s eastern border with Raleigh, which the town hopes will develop as a dense semi-urban district with a mix of retail, residential and office space.
Ulma said the project was faced early on with skepticism from some residents who had been drawn to Cary’s quiet, suburban characteristics and saw the process as the town’s effort to engineer Cary into a dense, urban metropolis.
“You just have to go backwards on them and say look, ‘People said the same thing about you, and we don’t have the ability to suddenly tell people that you can’t come to Cary,’ ” Ulma said. “We can’t stop that, especially in a community in a fantastic region. People are doing the exactly same thing you did, and we have to plan for that.”
Rules or guidelines?
Tuesday, council members and residents alike expressed some confusion and disagreement about how challenges to these plans would be handled.
Most recently, discussion has centered around the transportation plan’s call for the widening of Chapel Hill Road (N.C. 54) to six lanes and the proposed widening of Green Level Church Road, which passes through rural historic properties, to four lanes. Earlier in the month, a group of leaders from the Sree Venkateswara Hindu Temple along Chapel Hill Road told the council that a six-lane road would significantly damage the temple’s property.
Two property owners at Tuesday’s meeting said that the plan’s reclassification of their land for office and industrial uses had jeopardized their ability to quickly sell their land to homebuilders. They made last-minute pleas to the council to ask them to reconsider.
In both those cases, Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said the plan is meant to provide policy guidance rather than function as an enforceable code.
To the landowners, Weinbrecht explained the difference between land-use classifications, which the Community Plan addresses, and zoning, which it doesn’t. The land-use plan gives guidance to the town about the intended use for a piece of land when specific zoning requests are brought forth. In the past, Cary’s land-use plan has sometimes been amended if a zoning request is in conflict with the suggested land use but is otherwise thought to be in Cary’s best interest.
“When you see the dividing line between one color and another color, it’s not meant to be exact,” Ulma said, referring to the colors on the map used to delineate proposed land uses. “It’s not scalpel-like precision that says you can’t consider anything else.”
But later in the meeting, some council members said they believed the town should set a high bar for approving projects that contradict the plan’s recommendations, which they said had been rigorously developed in the hope that fewer amendments would be necessary than in the past.
“You can wiggle a little bit where those lines are, but we need to be fair to telling people that if this is an area that has been planned for office use, then we’re going to take a hard look at that,” Councilman Jack Smith said. “I don’t want to set any false expectations.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan
Cary’s Community Plan, by the numbers
281: Pages in the Community Plan’s final draft
2,000: Approximate number of residents who participated in Imagine Cary events or discussions
$1 million: Total external cost of the Imagine Cary process, including consultants, off-campus meeting space and advertising
38,000: Hours spent on Community Plan by town staff and consultants
28: Months between the anticipated plan adoption – September 2014 – and the actual adoption vote on Jan. 24, 2017