Cary News

Imagine Cary plan could bring more predictability to development process

The Imagine Cary group is continuing to craft the document that will guide the town’s growth after receiving feedback from the Cary Town Council.

Some say the plan will make the approval process for developments more predictable for applicants, the council and residents.

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the council reviewed one of the eight chapters in the documents created by Imagine Cary, a group of residents and planners that the council formed in 2012.

The plan, which is scheduled to be approved next year, is expected to offer guidance through 2040 on everything from housing styles to commercial development locations.

As Cary nears build-out, more cases of infill and redevelopment projects will come before the council, said Leigh Anne King of Clarion Associates, an Imagine Cary consultant.

“There is a need for a new approach that is a little different than what you do today, that’s more flexible to market conditions, particularly in a redevelopment context, because it is harder to do,” King said. “Your existing system is more map-based, and we are suggesting a movement toward a more policy-based system.”

Under the current plan, applicants and residents look at the land use map for direction on what uses can go in each area, King said.

“This isn’t about permitted uses. That’s what the zoning ordinance does,” she said. “The comprehensive plan is really intended to guide local decisions, not to be so much prescribed in terms of what happens.”

Policies versus map

The new plan won’t just be colors on a map but will lay out clear policies about what development should be achieving and what would aid the council in making rezoning decisions.

Some suggested policies include preserving and maintaining Cary’s attractive appearance and quality of development, providing appropriate transitions between land uses and supporting and facilitating redevelopment and infill development.

Mayor Pro Tem Jack Smith said he likes the new plan because it would lay out the criteria developers would have to meet to receive rezoning request approval.

“That’s a lot easier to explain to somebody than the way we do it now,” he said. “I think we are gaining much more, and we are taking away so much ambiguity and confusion.”

A map still would be included in the plan, but it would be supplemental to the criteria that will determine what gets built and would direct applicants or residents to the appropriate criteria.

While some council members saw the benefit for applicants, they were concerned about how it would affect residents.

“I do have a concern moving from a very, very defined land use map ... to policy statements that could be really open to interpretation,” Councilman Ed Yerha said. “That’s a big change. If we interpret it differently than it was interpreted along the way, then there goes the predictability for the applicant and the neighbors.”

But Scott Ramage, a town planner, said the current comprehensive plan already has some aspects of unpredictability about it because so many comprehensive plan amendments come before the council. Comprehensive plan amendments are required when an applicant wants to amend the land use map from one category, such as low-density residential, to another, such as commercial.

“There’s no predictability at all anyway because you keep getting CPAs with the rezonings,” he said.

In the future, every rezoning would have a comprehensive plan amendment, he said.

Benefits to residents, applicants

Ramage predicted that the new plan would also reduce uncertainty and anxiety for neighbors because it would reduce the council’s need for CPAs.

Ramage said because CPA approval now occurs before rezoning request approval for the cases it is required, neighbors may get upset about what could happen if an applicant withdraws a rezoning request and leaves behind an unusual plan, such as a high-density residential parcel in a low-density residential neighborhood.

“Under the new plan approach, the rezoning could just go straight to council,” Ramage said. “The neighborhoods could react directly to the conditions and the specifics of a rezoning proposal. Council and the neighborhood can evaluate the rezoning based on clear policy direction as embodied in the comprehensive plan.”

Smith said residents can also use these policies when putting together their arguments for the council about why they do or don’t support the project by explaining what policies the proposal meets.

“That actually works, to me, in the citizens’ favor,” he said.

The reduction in CPAs also would benefit applicants because they now add three months to the approval process.

“Some great ideas walk,” Ramage said. “You tell (developers) it’s going to cost three months. Even if it is a great idea, something we might like, the developer says, ‘I’m done. I’m not going to go through the extra three months.’ 

Imagine Cary will make revisions to the plan based on the council’s feedback and complete the plan’s final chapters before presenting them to the council at a January work session. Cary residents will have the opportunity to give their feedback a few months later.

“It will be also good to look at (rezonings) we have done and apply (the policies) and see how that would have been different with this new policy,” Councilwoman Lori Bush said.

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608; @KTrogdon