On a map, the Earp tract in Clayton is an exception.
The 631-acre expanse of forests and rolling fields is bordered by houses to the north, south and west. To the east, across the Neuse River, a shrinking strip of rural parcels separate the large polygon from more subdivisions and a Caterpillar research plant.
Nearly surrounded by dwellings and about 2.5 miles from Wake County, where thousands of Clayton’s growing population work, many neighbors aren’t surprised that developers see potential in the land’s pastures. But Wakefield Development Co.’s new plan to build 2,500 homes on the Earp tract makes some cringe. They say that much building could easily erode the area’s rural charm and create a traffic nightmare.
Residents will get a chance to air their views on Steeplechase, Wakefield Development’s immense proposal, during multiple upcoming public hearings.
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Adam and Kerri-Lynn Netko plan to speak up. They live just north of the planned development in the Ole Mill Stream subdivision, where estates sit on 2-4 acre lots and residents use one road to get in and out of the neighborhood. Under Wakefield Development’s plan, that same street would also serve most Steeplechase homes.
“It could add 1,000 more cars on the street during rush hour,” said Kerri-Lynn, the president of Ole Mill Stream’s homeowner’s association.
The Netkos, who moved to Clayton in 2012, say they knew about the potential for development when they bought their home. And sure, change is inevitable, they said, but 2,500 homes are too many for Clayton’s “small-town” feel.
“We looked at houses in northern Raleigh, Cary and Chapel Hill, but when we came out here, we fell in love instantly,” Adam Netko said. “Every morning and every afternoon, when you leave or come home, you see this vast array of colors out there, the water shimmering and the reflection of the sunlight; it’s beautiful.”
Traffic a concern
Clayton’s Planning Board is expected to hear from the Steeplechase developers at its December meeting and review the results from a town-required traffic study.
For Allen Mims, a Johnston County commissioner whose home and land in Clayton borders the Earp tract, traffic is the main source of concern. Mims said he is eager to see how the town, the N.C. Department of Transportation and the developer will mitigate thousands of extra cars on a small network of roads.
“The problem is with the number of dwellings,” Mims said. “That’s a minimum of 2,500 people and a maximum of 10,000 people.”
“That’s pretty much one-third of the population of Clayton, where we really don’t have a good road system.”
Planned on the northeast side of town, Steeplechase residents would have limited options for getting to U.S. 70 Business about two miles away. They’d likely rely on Covered Bridge Road and other two-lane streets to access the highway, which serves as the main artery west toward Raleigh or east toward Smithfield.
Town planners say they already know of some needed improvements, including widening and realigning Covered Bridge and other roads that lead to and from the neighborhood. Traffic signals may also be required.
Mims, who thinks the road improvements should be added as the neighborhood is phased in, said he’s known the Earp family for 50 years. The current owners, Nancy Earp and her sister-and-law, Mary Worley, went to his daughter’s wedding. They have the right to develop and sell their property, he said.
“As long as it’s done properly, and it doesn’t impede on the quality of my life and land values, I’m with it as much as I can be,” Mims said. “I’m not necessarily going to be happy.”
Land abuts greenways
While the majority of Wakefield Development’s master plan shows space for single-family homes, Steeplechase may also include town homes, apartments and condominiums. A potential school site is on the map, as is a commercial node and a clubhouse next to a pond.
Of about 500 developable acres at Steeplechase, Wakefield Development says about 70 acres, or 14 percent, will be used for open space areas like community “pocket parks,” multi-use trails and landscape buffers. A private greenway, for instance, would wrap around the large R. E. Earp Pond and tie into the town’s planned extension of the Sam’s Branch Greenway, a trail spur that connects to the Clayton Riverwalk on the Neuse and the future Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
The plan is to develop Steeplechase over more than 30 phases, starting with the southern portion of the property near the pond. That’s not far from where Billy Capps lives.
Capps, one of several neighbors taking to Facebook to share their thoughts, said he’s lived next to the Earp tract for 60 years. He said he remembers watching the Earps build the pond from a hill in the woods in 1954.
“To me, it is one of the most lovely places in (North Carolina), and to think concrete, asphalt, wood and plastic will soon inherit and destroy the beauty, all in the name of money, is discouraging,” he said in the post.
In a separate Facebook post, Jerry Dawson of Clayton shared similar sentiments, adding the hashtags “small town,” and “lost charm.”
“I know it is hard for the landowners and mayor to see past the dollar signs, but we shouldn’t be so quick to trade in our past and what makes Clayton such a special place,” Dawson said.
“The small town charm I fell in love with is being sold out.”