Jeff Ulma has spent the past 21 years guiding Cary’s growth – a subdivision here, a shopping center there – as the town has continued to transform from a sleepy community to the seventh-largest municipality in North Carolina.
When Ulma arrived in 1996 to serve as the town’s planning director, Cary had a population of 77,000. Now, as Ulma begins his retirement, the town is home to 160,000 people.
Ulma, 59, retired last month, ending a career in Cary marked by tremendous growth that brought so many new families who wanted to live in a suburban community near Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. Development has been welcomed over the years by those who want new grocery stores and restaurants, but there has been plenty of pushback from residents about traffic, crowding and other growing pains.
City planners employ a range of styles and philosophies, and Ulma said his tended to encourage more partnerships with private developers. He said he always wanted to serve as a voice of reason when it came to rules about the aesthetics of development.
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“In Cary, the tendency is often to step in and regulate and probably over-regulate in some areas,” Ulma said. “I would just say, ‘Be reasonable, think of the intent.’ Cities and counties in North Carolina survive on property tax, which comes from development. If you scare it away, you’re affecting revenue that can be used to build the kinds of things people in Cary love.”
Cary Town Council members and town staff spent 30 minutes praising Ulma during a recent public meeting. Assistant Town Manager Russ Overton pulled out a scroll of paper about 4 feet long that contained Ulma’s accomplishments.
“The biggest and best thing Jeff’s left us with is our community plan, and over the years Jeff has left us with many plans that helped shape that community plan,” Overton said. “We have our land development ordinance, all 998 pages of it – we thank you for that. We have our community appearance manual, our town center plan, our northwest area plan, ... a historic preservation plan and many more.”
Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said Ulma has been a good leader of Cary’s growth.
“Others in Wake County are suffering from their growth, and while we have our issues, we aren’t suffering nearly as much as they are,” Weinbrecht told Ulma during the March 30 meeting. “That’s definitely a result of your leadership, and from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank all you’ve done for the citizens of Cary.”
Councilman Don Frantz said he first met Ulma years ago under “not the best of circumstances.” The town had considered removing downtown auto shops like the one Frantz owns to make way for new development.
But Frantz said as a member of the planning and zoning board and later as a member of the council, he came to appreciate Ulma’s talents.
“I appreciated your honesty,” Frantz said during the meeting. “And as time went on, I got to know you for the amazing person you are. I’ll miss your wealth of knowledge as much as anything, as well as your humor and good attitude. You’re a walking encyclopedia of all things Cary.”
A native of Maine, Ulma followed his love of maps to a degree in geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. He later earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Arizona.
He followed his first wife back east to North Carolina, where he worked for Pitt County for nine years before coming to Cary.
Ulma isn’t leaving Cary – he lives just west of downtown – and he plans to keep a close eye on the town’s growth. He said he’s most excited to watch the progress of the Eastern Gateway district, a mixed-use area proposed as one of the cornerstones of the recently adopted Cary Community Plan.
The plan came from Imagine Cary, a project Ulma helped lead that brought stakeholders together to plan for the town’s future. He said he observed through that process a tension between what had drawn people to Cary and what those same people wanted once they settled in.
“When people get here, they come and visit, they like what they see,” Ulma said. “But that’s because of the rules and regulations. Later, when they want to do something, like add a porch or a sun room, and we say you can’t do that, you don’t have enough of a setback – then the rules suck.
“And you often have to use that with people: There’s a reason you were attracted here, but those are rules that will affect you, that you will have to abide by.”
Now that he’s retired, Ulma plans to spend much of his time fly-fishing and golfing. He hopes to spend the rest of the year at ease, but he hasn’t ruled out a return to the private sector. His time as planning director was briefly divided by a five-month period in 2001 and 2002 in which he worked as a consultant for a private land-planning firm.
“My wife was saying the other day,” Ulma said, “the beauty of retirement is that your plan can be to have no plan.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan