Despite an election that showed Apex residents largely want to slow down residential growth, the Town Council likely will finalize the controversial Sweetwater development before the pro-growth majority becomes the minority.
“If people are going to invest in Apex in the future ... I think to pull the rug out from under (Sweetwater) at the last minute is a mistake,” said Gene Schulze, the mayor pro tem.
He spoke Tuesday under the assumption that the new town council would deny Sweetwater the final approval it needs after the members are sworn in Dec. 1. Schulze is part of the majority that has voted several times to approve the mixed-used development that would bring hundreds of homes and commercial development to an area off U.S. 64.
During a lengthy meeting Tuesday, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, the council decided to hold the Sweetwater annexation vote Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. The new council will take office at 7 p.m.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
It had looked like the annexation wouldn’t come up for a vote until after the new council was sworn in. Incumbent Bill Jensen, who opposes Sweetwater, was re-elected with his slow-growth campaign. Pro-growth council member Scott Lassiter lost his seat to slow-growth challenger Wesley Moyer.
Schulze and Denise Wilkie agreed that the council should take action before the new members are sworn in. Jensen and Nicole Dozier, who also opposes Sweetwater, wanted to wait for Moyer to join the board.
A lengthy process
Since this spring, Sweetwater has obtained several necessary approvals for the 165-acre mixed-use project that would bring in 400-plus homes and thousands of square feet for retail, restaurants and office space.
Annexation is typically the last and least controversial part of the process. But not much about the months-long debate over Sweetwater has been typical. Delays in paperwork in recent months nearly derailed the project, by pushing it back to the point where the current majority had to call a special vote to make sure it got approved.
Resident Kate Macdonnell spoke out against that decision Tuesday, asking for it to be put off until later in December. Macdonnell, who lives in the Abbington neighborhood that’s next to the Sweetwater property, has led opposition to the development and also helped the slow-growth candidates win election earlier this month.
“Why the rush to get this done before one man loses his vote, and one man gains his vote?” she said. “It reeks of political gameplay.”
Schulze said it’s about fairness, not politics. He said it would be unfair to deny it at the last minute, based only on the election instead of months of precedent. He said Sweetwater’s developers already have been vetted, responded to the town’s requests and invested a small fortune into buying the land, paying fees and designing the project.
Vivian Lamb, one of the local landowners whose property will become Sweetwater, said fears over traffic and school crowding are overblown.
“Sweetwater was very carefully planned in conjunction with the town,” she said Tuesday.
Lassiter explained his reasoning by hinting at legal threats or political controversy. The developers of Sweetwater, if denied now after a long string of approvals, could appeal to the General Assembly.
A friendly legislator could help the developers, Lassiter said, and also punish Apex.
“And that’s where this is headed if this council votes down Sweetwater,” he said. “(Legislators) also have the authority, if they so choose, through a local bill, to require the town to provide water and sewer to Sweetwater and to not get the revenue.”
Jensen called for a brief closed session to keep the town’s lawyer from saying the same thing in public. But after Lassiter made his comments, Jensen addressed that possibility. He said it’s emblematic of the nasty politics in play over the issue of development.
Employees of ExperienceOne Homes, the developer behind Sweetwater, contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Lassiter and two other pro-growth candidates in November’s election.
Developers also contributed to Wilkie’s unsuccesful campaign for mayor, though she did not receive any funds from ExperienceOne Homes. She will keep her seat on the council after loosing to Lance Olive. Olive will replace Bill Sutton, who chose not to run for election. In Apex, the mayor doesn’t have a vote.
Moyer will be able to vote, but not until after Sweetwater is likely approved on Dec. 1 before he’s sworn in. Jensen said Moyer should have had the chance to vote on Sweetwater, because the issue of growth dominated the election.
“Yes, this council has looked at it, but the council that’s going to have to live with it is the one that was duly elected by a large majority of voters,” Jensen said.
Clarification: A previous version of this story did not specify that council member Denise Wilkie did not receive campaign contributions from ExperienceOne Homes, the developer behind Sweetwater. Wilkie and Mayor Pro Tem Gene Schulze said they were not swayed by council member Scott Lassiter in their decision-making process.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran