A familiar fight is playing out in this growing suburban town, where some people celebrate new neighbors, restaurants and stores while others bemoan traffic jams and crowded schools.
But unlike many growth disputes throughout the Triangle that quickly fizzle, this one is bitterly dividing residents and reshaping the town’s governing board. The way it all plays out could set the tone for years to come in terms of new development and construction.
“There’s another Civil War, but this time it’s within Holly Springs,” said longtime resident Kevin Adams, who volunteers with the town and manages a Facebook group that encourages discussion about local issues.
During last month’s election, voters booted out two Town Council members who were considered pro-growth and replaced them with newcomers who want to slow the pace of growth so roads, sidewalks and schools can catch up.
The top vote-getter in the November election was Christine Kelly, who emerged as a divisive candidate after she accused some town leaders of ethics violations and complained about a plan to close part of the street where she lives.
Tensions were apparent Tuesday, Dec. 5, when the new six-member council met for the first time. A majority of the council selected Tom O’Brien as mayor pro tem instead of Cheri Ann Lee, who has been on the board since 2011, highlighting the emergence of two competing factions.
Mayor Dick Sears, who has led the town for 16 years, and Lee are aligned as pro-growth leaders who have supported countless new subdivisions and commercial projects. Under Sears’ watch, the town has gotten a cultural center, a library, new parks, a nature center and a baseball stadium.
Jimmy Cobb and Hank Dickson, who lost their re-election bids last month, were generally seen as allies with Sears and Lee.
But now a majority of the council members say they want to take a more cautious approach to growth: Kelly, O’Brien, Dan Berry and Peter Villadsen.
“I think in order for a town to survive, we have to grow,” O’Brien said. “I don’t see anyone on the council as stopping growth at all, but the number one concern is traffic. How do we help support infrastructure for the growth of the town? How do we fix that?”
About 19 miles southwest of downtown Raleigh, Holly Springs didn’t have a modern sewage system until the early 1990s, let alone shopping plazas and sprawling subdivisions. As the Triangle grew, so did Holly Springs, into a bustling family-friendly suburb of more than 33,000 people. Many residents commute to jobs in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park, an easier trip now that the state has extended N.C. 540 through town.
Sears said it will be bad for Holly Springs if the Town Council starts to deny development proposals. Developers might choose to take their business to Apex or Fuquay-Varina instead, he said, and Holly Springs would possibly have to raise taxes to compensate for slower growth.
He said the new council members’ concerns about infrastructure are understandable, but unrealistic.
“I think what I’ve got to instill in the newbies is that the system for growth doesn’t quite work that way,” Sears said. “It doesn’t work like, let’s get all the sidewalks and roads and bridges and then deal with the developments coming in.”
Along with disagreements about how the town should deal with growth, council members are still licking their wounds from the heated election. Campaign signs for candidates on both sides of the growth debate were defaced, knocked down and stolen. Discussions on Facebook groups have included unfounded accusations and name-calling – “sore losers,” “unfair,” “petty.”
Ill will peaked in mid-October when then-candidate Kelly publicly accused Sears, Lee, Cobb, Dickson and town attorney John Schifano of violating various sections of the town’s Code of Ethics and Conduct. In 53 allegations, Kelly accused the group of voting with bias on a proposal that would close a portion of her street, making inappropriate comments on social media and accepting improper campaign contributions.
Holly Springs hired Katie Hartzog, a Raleigh attorney, to investigate the claims, and she found no merit to Kelly’s allegations. The attorney said Kelly had lodged the complaint in an effort to delay the council’s vote on a downtown project.
“Ms. Kelly stated that she had a ‘hunch’ about potential violations but offered no specific facts,” Hartzog wrote in a Nov. 22 report. “In conclusion, I have found no credible evidence of an ethics violation in this matter.”
The Town Council agreed to ask Kelly to voluntarily pay the $9,000 spent on legal fees. Kelly denied to comment on the request, and she said the allegations were not made as a political ploy to gain votes.
“I don’t think the election was about that complaint,” she said. “The election was about the issues like discussed on the Citizens for the Responsible Growth (Facebook) page. The outcome of the election was not changed because of that.”
Much of the back-and-forth debate about growth in Holly Springs continues to play out on Facebook groups: Citizens for the Responsible Growth of Holly Springs, which supports increased infrastructure, and the Citizens for Responsible Truth of Holly Springs, which supports the previous council.
Some people pointed out that the Anti-Bullying Committee, an effort spearheaded by Sears to combat bullying in schools, was not registered as a nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS status is pending, and the group is registered as a nonprofit with the state of North Carolina.
Sears became a meme last month when the Facebook group Holly Springs Memes posted a picture of him with the caption, “For God’s sake will someone shut Sears Facebook access down.”
Sears said the drama has become so intense that he won’t seek re-election in 2020.
Some people started writing posts on Facebook calling for Kelly’s resignation before she took office. Kelly said she has no plans to resign.
Tensions about growth bled into the real world in March, when Lee said she was harangued at her son’s soccer game. The incident was about her vote to approve a new housing development on Honeycutt Road that will add 392 single family homes and 210 multi-family buildings on the southwest side of town.
“I’m worried about Holly Springs now,” Lee said of the new council. “I feel like this is all a power trip and not what’s best for the town. ... The old regime needed some change, but people need to remember this group is what made Holly Springs the place where everyone wants to live.”
Kelly said voters have made it clear they weren’t happy with the town’s direction.
“From the election results, I believe that the residents of Holly Springs were looking for change,” she said. “I know that change is not always easy, but I look forward to working with everyone on the new opportunities in town.”
Council members say they hope to put any hard feelings aside and work together.
“My opinion is that if there’s an elephant in the room, then we should talk about it and work it out to do what’s right for the town,” Berry said.
Dickson, who was not re-elected, shared some advice for the new council members during his last meeting earlier this month.
“You must have thick skin,” he said. “If you don’t now, grow some, because you are now wearing a target. Get ready. It starts in a few minutes.”
On Facebook, some people are gearing up for a bumpy ride.
“I, for one, am very much looking forward to watching our newly reelected Mayor work with the new Council members,” Peter Hewitt wrote Nov. 11 on the Citizens for the Responsible Growth of Holly Springs page. “Do they allow popcorn in the Council Chambers?”
Autumn Linford writes stories for The News & Observer. Email her at email@example.com.