Where Clayton’s going, it will need roads and likely many more than it has now. But perhaps none of those roads will be as important as Clayton’s long-planned South Connector, a route that exists now only on a few street signs.
The need for a southern road filtering traffic from Clayton’s southern subdivisions will be apparent to anyone who’s been on U.S. 70 Business any weekday afternoon. Clayton’s main thoroughfare becomes clogged with commuters coming home from Raleigh and Research Triangle Park, many no doubt thinking they had escaped stop-and-go traffic when they moved to Johnston County.
Now, as Clayton continues to add subdivisions at a steady pace, filling in farmland and other empty tracts with homes and apartments, traffic looks to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Part of that glass-half-empty outlook comes from the fact that Clayton’s presumed release valve for traffic, the South Connector, isn’t on any near-term N.C. Department of Transportation projects list, putting the road possibly 20 years away.
Still, Clayton remains committed and hopeful the road will get built, and at a recent Clayton Town Council retreat, town leaders put the road among the town’s highest priorities.
“As we continue to grow, we’ve got to provide that mobility that we’re looking for,” Councilman Butch Lawter said. “(The South Connector’s) been on the books for 20-something years. That’s a piece of the puzzle. We’ve got to get people in, around and through Clayton.”
The only part of the South Connector that can currently support a car is a roughly half-mile stretch of asphalt through the middle of Cobblestone Place, off of Champion Road. That section of road came with the construction of Cobblestone and Creekside Commons subdivisions, and Lawter thinks residential development will be the fastest way to get the connector built. The Village at Little Creek, a proposed neighborhood with 154 houses off of Dairy Road, could be the next piece of the puzzle, with developers already projecting a wide land donation for the road. If that goes through, Cobblestone could soon have a connection to N.C. 42 West.
“I mean, right now, all of Cobblestone has to dump out on 70 somewhere,” Lawter said. “If they have that initial connection, then you have people that can get on the bypass and not have to come through downtown, and that will relieve some of the congestion.”
During the retreat, Lawter suggested the town break up the South Connector into several smaller projects, rather than one road scoring so low in DOT that it can’t get on the state’s Transportation Improvement Program list.
Lawter said building the road is part of the town’s plan for controlling growth.
“That is the challenge, just look at Cary,” Lawter said. “You’ve got some nice wide streets that are tree-lined, and you still feel kind of that rural setting, but then you go one street over and you have a lot of development. It is a challenge; we don’t want every street to be the same and bumper to bumper. It’s all about a balance.”
Balance can depend on one’s expectations, and expectations can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. To some residents, the South Connector marks the line in the sand from where Clayton begins moving away from small-town living. Sylvie Connors bought a home in the Brittany Woods neighborhood nearly a decade ago, and at a recent town council meeting, she urged the town to pass on the Village at Little Creek, saying the South Connector and these new homes would take away the “flavor” of small-town life that brought her to Clayton in the first place.
“I bought (this house) on purpose because I want my little girl to see fireflies at night and go fishing and stuff like that she wasn’t going to learn in Raleigh or Cary,” Connors said. “I sit on my deck in the morning and I look at trees and this beautiful farmland and it’s very quiet, and sometimes you can hear bees and sometimes you can hear horses neighing. It’ll be about the third or fourth time a builder has come in and wanted to put a neighborhood back there, and we all know, gosh, the day is going to come. I do realize that day is going to come, and it is going to run me out, because I don’t want to look out at houses out of every single window.”
At the retreat, Clayton Town Manager Adam Lindsay pointed out that, while it’s been planned for a couple of decades now, the South Connector originated as an DOT project, but one the town supports and encourages. He said that to do nothing is to risk exposing Clayton to more gridlock.
“I think DOT, hopefully, recognizes the future growth demands in the area,” Lindsay said. “We all sympathize with the impacts of change. The future needs of the area at large, I think, is DOT’s perspective and the state’s perspective, and I think there’s a recognition there that if Clayton continues to grow and the surrounding area at large, then that’s been recognized by them as an important connection point.”
In the future, the town council thinks more Clayton dollars could be needed for road projects.
“In the past, we tried to rely more on DOT, but we’re going to have to chip in somewhere,” Lawter said.