Fuquay-Varina grapples with growth
Near the large lots and $400,000 houses in the Olde Waverly subdivision, a 17-acre pond surrounded by tall trees, grassy shores and wetlands sits hidden from view.
Neighbors are concerned about the pond, home to fish and beavers, because it is in a recently annexed and rezoned 400-acre proposed residential development. It's just one of many construction projects changing this rapidly growing small town, once covered with fields of tobacco.
"People who live here will never know what this land was like," said one of those neighbors, Bill Wilkison. "We are in a huge state of flux."
Wilkison, a retired chemical engineer who built there in 2005, and others are feeling hemmed in by residential construction in their area between Purfoy Road and N.C. 55. Like much of southern Wake County, Fuquay-Varina has been discovered by developers and people looking for small-town charm.
The building boom of houses, stores, business expansions and public projects is challenging the town's ability to keep up. Traffic has become a major topic of discussion, and schools are expanding to handle the newcomers. That same growth is also boosting the tax base and helping to pay for the changes.
The town's population is pushing 28,000 — an increase of 53 percent over the past seven years — and is growing by 2,000 people a year, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
The surge shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
▪ More than 7,000 new housing units have been approved since the 2015-16 fiscal year, nearly double the number of single-family households.
▪ Those new homes are in 51 residential projects that are either being built, about to be built or have recently been built.
▪ A $40 million mixed-use project with 250 apartments, stores and parking is underway.
▪ Single-housing building permits jumped from 499 in 2014 to 730 in 2015, and held at 626 last year.
▪ The sudden growth has forced town officials to scramble for financing for water, sewer and road improvements, turning to grants and bond elections.
▪ It has also required the town to expand staff. Five years ago, the town had 174 employees; now it has 247 positions approved, with an emphasis on new hires in planning jobs, but also across the board from parks and recreation to public safety. The town government has outgrown its space, and will be moving into a building nearly twice as big.
The challenge is staying ahead of all that growth.
"I don't know that anywhere in Wake County is truly in a position where they can handle the type of growth the county is experiencing," Adam Mitchell, the town manager, said in a recent interview in his office.
More to come
Mitchell says development that has saturated Raleigh and spread heavily into Cary, Holly Springs and Apex has found its way to Fuquay-Varina. He said the town has a lot of affordable, available land at reasonable prices, and the economy is strong. It is receiving a steady stream of inquiries about land and zoning.
"It's sort of naturally progressing its way down to us," he said. "Fifty (residential projects) is a lot, but I don't think that's where it's going to end."
The town board of commissioners has tried to get ahead of the wave with planning that established a clear view of what officials want the town to look like, Mitchell said.
"Our board is not interested in Fuquay-Varina becoming a community full of cookie-cutter neighborhoods," Mitchell said. "They want to see character. We spend a lot of time in the rezoning process to make sure."
Not everyone in town agrees.
"They're making it very easy for developers," Darrell Trasko, a neighbor of Wilkison's, said in an interview.
Mitchell acknowledges the town has been streamlining the process for developers, but he says the process protects community planning standards.
Beyond residential development, the town is building a 300-seat theater, art and dance studios, gallery and classrooms in a former department store.
Fuquay-Varina also is offering its first financial incentives to encourage companies to move or expand there. The first went to the Bob Barker Company, a detention supply equipment manufacturer that has been in Fuquay-Varina since 1986, to help pay for a $4.15 million expansion of its distribution center and the hiring of 40 new full-time workers. The firm is eligible to receive up to $207,500.
In November, Aviator Brewing Company was granted $203,250 to help with its $4 million expansion and create 75 new full- and part-time jobs.
Too much too fast
More than 200 residents signed a petition earlier this year opposing rezoning a development for at least 800 "active adult" buyers age 55 and older on 400 acres. Some felt that the commissioners had already made up their minds to approve it and didn't take into account public comments such as Trasko's.
"It's time for the town to back away from more residential development and address the issues that this immense amount of already-approved residential development brings," Trasko told the board at a hearing earlier this month.
Critics think the town board is too friendly to developers. The board's members include a developer and a real estate agent, among its six members. Longtime Mayor John Byrne, who runs a bed-and-breakfast, renovated historic downtown buildings in the 1990s. The other members include a lawyer and a banker.
In February, the Town Board of Commissioners rezoned 20 acres for a tuition-free public charter school, Southern Wake Academy, from residential-agricultural to office and institutional to make it consistent with other public school property. The Planning Board rejected the request at the recommendation of the town planning staff. But subsequent meetings with school and staff addressed the town's concerns, according to school adviser Carroll Reed, and the commission approved the rezoning.
Commissioner Jason Wunch didn't vote because he is an attorney for Southern Wake Academy. The school wants to expand with a new high school for 500 students on the 20 acres, and use the current building for a middle school with about 500 students. Separating the two schools will help ease transportation strain, the school says.
Residents concerned about the surging development have also raised issues about traffic congestion and road safety.
They say the current roads won't be able to handle the increased traffic and that plans to widen the roads from two to four lanes near the subdivisions and then back to two again will create jams and accidents. They are worried about stormwater runoff, flooding and overcrowding. Wilkison wants to see citizens involved in the approval process for proposed developments.
Mitchell defends the board's actions by pointing out that projects have been thoroughly vetted by the time they reach the town board's final vote stage. One recent project went through a year of town-mandated revisions before it was approved, he said.
He said traffic planning is more of a problem, in part because roads aren’t entirely in the town’s control, and so it has to work with the state Department of Transportation’s plans. Some of the most recent bond money has gone to build a loop around the town, and that project is three-fourths completed.
Mary Kelly-Crapse, who has lived on the outskirts of Fuquay-Varina since 2001 — when the population was just under 9,900 — doesn’t see grant and bond funding as a sustainable source of road funding.
“What they haven’t considered is slowing down the pace of growth to keep pace with road growth,” she said in an email. “A balanced plan rather than a rush to get the developments built and then addressing the traffic mess after the fact.”
Mitchell says town officials understand the concerns, but says the community has to keep growing in a controlled manner or else it will wither. Mitchell said town officials want to leave a responsible legacy after they move on.
"We want everybody to take pride in their community and say, 'You know what? It was a challenging time in history. The town was developing at a very fast pace, as was most of Wake County. But the way they handled it was smart, well-planned, well thought out. There was a process and we got pretty good results.' "