The push and pull between maintaining a small-town feel and creating a live-work-play atmosphere was on clear display Tuesday, Jan. 19, as the Apex Town Council debated different housing issues.
A suggestion to reduce the maximum number of homes in medium-density areas – a common zoning for traditional subdivisions and townhome developments – brought the discussion fully to a head.
Council members were considering a change to town ordinances that would reduce the maximum density from six homes per acre to five. Those in favor of the change said it would protect Apex’s charm by retaining more trees and larger lots. Those opposed said it will inflate home prices, potentially keeping out young families, retirees and middle class or poor families.
After lengthy discussion, the council decided not to vote on the density issue in order to spend more time researching and asking for public input. After a motion to approve the changes failed, the council voted unanimously to send them back to committee for more work.
The town’s planning board had voted 6-1 a week before to recommend denying the reduction. The lone dissenter, Jim Mead, said he thought the planning board shouldn’t weigh in. Mead represents the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) areas where much of Apex’s remaining developable land is.
“I think that’s really a big-picture policy decision for the town council,” he said.
That’s what it became last week.
Council members Wesley Moyer and Bill Jensen, who make up the town council’s economic development committee, came up with the plan. Because most existing neighborhoods have two or three homes per acre, they said the reduced density would prevent developers from trying to cram lots into future, incompatible subdivisions.
Stuart Jones, a local architect, said that’s an unfounded fear. On the other hand, he said, townhome developments require the slightly higher density.
“We can’t really get single-family density anywhere near four, five units per acre,” Jones said. “We use that six number for townhomes.”
Forcing townhome developments to reduce their density, he said, “it makes for a totally different project. It cuts that density; it cuts that (property tax) revenue.”
Tax revenues aren’t the only factor worrying some council members.
Council member Denise Wilkie said townhomes are an attractive option for people looking to spend less, but they’re already expensive in Apex. She said she couldn’t support a policy that would make them even more expensive.
“When you lower the density, you’re obviously going to raise the price of housing,” Wilkie said. “But I hear over and over again that we need more affordable housing, and that the people who work in Apex should be able to live in Apex. Those are our retail workers, our policemen, our teachers.”
Jensen, though, said many in the community want to see lower-density developments, even if it might mean slightly costlier homes.
“I ran on ‘gentle growth,’ and I ended up with a big plurality of votes because that’s what people want,” he said.
Two local residents spoke out in favor of the change and said they thought the density should be even lower than what was proposed.
“I think it maintains the small-town character of Apex, which is why I moved here in the first place,” Chapel Ridge resident Anne Cain said. Her neighborhood is full of multi-acre lots, and nearby development proposals have prompted residents to voice objections in the past.
In addition to delaying its decision on the density changes Tuesday, the town council also voted unanimously to postponed a decision on rezoning two areas to turn residential land into mixed use or industrial space.
While Jensen and Moyer supported the measures, Wilkie and Gene Schulze were against them.
“Town government is getting out of control,” Schulze said.
With the swing vote, Nicole Dozier said she couldn’t commit to joining Jensen and Moyer. Like Wilkie, she cited worries about housing affordability.
Dozier also said there should be more opportunity for the public to weigh in.
“I don’t think we’re ready to decide on this,” she said. “There are different varying opinions, and all of us like to have public comment.”
More opportunities to rent
Dozier suggested consulting with an affordable housing advocate, like Raleigh-based nonprofit development group DHIC Inc., to guide Apex in helping residents of all income levels.
Rental units are key for proponents of the live-work-play concept who want high-paying jobs for people already in Apex, as well as housing for people with low-paying jobs who might commute for work.
The Apex Town Council took one step to address the lack of rentals Tuesday. The council unanimously approved a new 212-unit apartment complex, along with 73 townhomes. The development will be at the intersection of N.C. 540 and U.S. 64 and will connect to the Beaver Creek shopping centers.
Tom Hester, a local real estate appraiser, said the nearly 300 new units should be popular and also help Beaver Creek’s existing retail businesses.
“Retail needs residential,” he said. “Residential likes retail. This, to me, looks like a better balance.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran