Bill Sutton recently was at the pharmacy when a woman, recognizing him as Apex’s mayor, informed him about the awful traffic near her home.
Sutton chuckled recalling that story. It turned out the woman lived in New Hill, a rural area near Chatham County, where the main intersection is a two-way stop sign.
But her concern shows how widespread annoyance with growth and traffic has become. Apex, however, continues to welcome development – residential and nonresidential – with open arms.
“Apex is and has been growing,” said Joanna Helms, economic development director. “It’s not going to stop. So if you move to Apex because you like the way it is now, don’t blink.”
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Apex is the third largest town in Wake County and the eighth most-dense town in the state, though it still pales in size to its neighbors, Raleigh and Cary.
Yet Sutton said the housing boom of the ’90s, when he was town manager, finally has led to a wave of commercial development.
“It’s not slowing down,” Planning Director Dianne Kihn said. “It’s actually snowballing and getting bigger.”
Rome Fontaine has lived in western Wake County for 45 years, the last 27 of them in Apex. He cringes watching development outpace roads and schools.
“I’m not opposed to the expansion of the town and so forth, and I don’t really know what the town can do,” Fontaine said. “It’s mostly the state level that lags woefully behind.”
Many roads in town are state-owned. Apex could take over responsibility for some of them – like it did recently with downtown thoroughfare Salem Street – but might have to raise taxes to do so.
“Apex coffers aren’t that fat, so I don’t know,” Fontaine said.
The town council likely will address its traffic problems by putting a $15 million bond referendum in front of voters this November.
Town Manager Bruce Radford said the bond won’t be a dollar higher; anything above $15 million would require a property tax increase.
Questions about taxes, development and the town’s role in keeping up with it could dominate the election this November. Sutton won’t be running for a second term, and he said whomever is elected mayor will be in uncharted territory.
“We’ve had the residential pressure before, but never both, the residential and the commercial,” he said.
Kihn and Helms, in working with developers on behalf of the town, say there’s a steady flow of businesses inquiring about Apex.
There’s a Costco about to be built on N.C. 64, an unnamed grocery store coming to the corner of Olive Chapel and Kelly roads, and possibly more big-box stores on the way.
“We do know there are some Target-type companies looking at the Triangle,” Helms said. “And we’d love to have them in Apex.”
But both said one factor hinders commercial development, whether it’s Target or a neighborhood veterinarian: Landowners often would rather sell to homebuilders.
Kate Macdonell, who moved to Apex’s Abbington neighborhood four years ago, said she wants the town to do away with some residential zoning so more landowners would be able to work only with commercial developers.
She said it would help the town recruit businesses and stop it from becoming an overcrowded bedroom community.
That issue came up at the last Apex Town Council meeting, when Councilman Bill Jensen suggested the board consider rezoning several large properties west of town along N.C. 64 to allow only nonresidential development.
After Scott Lassiter raised questions about government meddling, the council voted to review only some of the land in question. Both Jensen and Lassiter are up for reelection in November, and lately have had heated debates over growth strategies.
While there are differing philosophies, both residential and nonresidential developments grow the tax base.
“The way we have service levels like we do, and keep taxes low, is because of growth,” Kihn said. “People don’t understand that. Not all growth is bad.”
Transforming the town
Without about 4 percent growth annually, Radford said, Apex would be forced to raise taxes or cut back on services.
That’s why local leaders are excited about Veridea, a development that would bring homes, shopping, restaurants, offices and more to the area between the N.C. 540 and N.C. 55 intersections with U.S. 1.
Veridea will be several times larger than Southpoint in Durham, and with permission to build towers as high as 20 stories, the development could transform Apex.
Sutton said the Department of Transportation recently approved a large interchange, at 540 and Old Holly Springs Apex Road, that could finish in 2016 and spark Veridea’s start.
But it’s not the only intersection town leaders, or residents, are concerned about. Veridea’s main artery will be N.C. 55, which already is congested.
“It’s going to be an absolute nightmare,” Fontaine said.
Macdonnell said she’s worried about traffic from Veridea as well as the 165-acre Sweetwater project next to her neighborhood.
She questioned how the town seems to have planned ahead well on a new sewer plant to facilitate growth, but seems to lack similar foresight with roads.
“I think that the concern is there’s an odd mixture of preparedness and lack of preparedness in the town’s approach,” she said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran