Southwest Wake News

Apex approves non-residential requirement for future developments

Seven months after the Town Council election, Apex’s reconstituted board is taking steps toward what slow-growth voters wanted.

The council voted 3-2 Tuesday to require that 30 percent of land identified for mixed-use development by the town’s land-use plan be set aside for non-residential purposes. Proponents say the ordinance is designed to diversify the town’s tax base and decrease the number of residents commuting out of town for work.

Council members Wesley Moyer, Bill Jensen and Nicole Dozier voted in favor of the measure. Council members Gene Schulze and Denise Wilkie voted against it.

In pre-vote discussion, neither side expected to change the other’s minds, but Jensen, Schulze and Wilkie outlined their opinions.

Wilkie and Schulze agreed in principle to the ordinance’s goals, but said the 30 percent requirement is too high and arbitrarily uniform. The town’s planning board had recommended a 20-percent minimum, which Wilkie said she would have been more inclined to support.

“In some regards, I don’t like having a minimum, although I understand planning staff wants some guidance,” she said. “I just don’t see how you can say everybody needs 30 percent.”

In the past, developers were encouraged, but not required, to set aside 30 percent of their acreage for commercial tenants. Recently approved developments that fell well short of that figure, though, persuaded the council’s slow-growth majority of Jensen, Moyer and Dozier, that something stronger was needed. Town staff also had asked for the council to codify that policy so they wouldn’t have to negotiate and re-negotiate the semantics of “recommendation” with developers.

“If you have it codified, the planning staff can say, ‘Well, it’s 30 percent,’ and we can move on to have other discussions,” Town Manager Drew Havens said.

Andrew Whittemore, an assistant professor with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of City and Regional Planning, said he understands the town’s desire to ease the tax burden on residents and guard against full residential buildout. But he agrees with Wilkie’s contention that the feasible amount of commercial development varies from site to site.

“Just because a city creates a zone doesn’t mean it will necessarily be implemented,” he said.

Sites closer to major commuter corridors are generally better-suited for major retail and office tenants, Whittemore said. He pointed to two Chapel Hill developments, the more commercial Meadowmont and more residential Southern Village, whose focuses were largely determined by their proximity to commuting thoroughfares.

Wilkie also argued that the requirement would make Apex less attractive to builders. But Whittemore said such an ordinance would generally represent a relatively small burden.

“They have ways around that kind of thing,” Whittemore said. “You still have to buy the land, but you just don’t build on it. And in the grand scheme of things, buying land isn’t their biggest expense.”

Jensen said he recognizes the requirement might lead to vacant land in the short term, but said his concern has more to do with ensuring that land would be available for the future.

“It won’t all happen right away, but if you you don’t set the opportunity for having these businesses in Apex and the land all goes toward housing, then we will never have the opportunity for people to work in Apex,” Jensen said. “We’re not trying to design the town for five or 10 years out; we’re looking at 50 or 100 years.”

The discussion was peppered with references to Mayor Lance Olive’s State of the Town address earlier this year, in which he used jelly beans to represent the relatively small amount of available land the policy would affect – about 45 acres, he said. Olive said he used that approach to demonstrate to the council that a compromise of 25 percent would be insignificant with respect to each side’s misgivings about a higher or lower number.

“Someone owns that jelly bean and someone’s trying to sell it,” Wilkie said. “And if it’s zoned at 30 percent and can’t be sold, someone’s going to be sitting there holding a rotten jelly bean for a very long time.”

Havens and Olive both said they aren’t aware of any towns with similar requirements, although Olive said Apex’s unique combination of a large existing number of residential real-estate properties combined with high demand for more homes required a unique solution.

Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan