David Cox turned from a City Hall lectern to the small army behind him.
He called on them to rise. They stood in unison, their ranks stretching to the back of the auditorium, in silent opposition to the plans on the projector screen.
It was 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, so they were fewer than usual, but some 70 people had made the 25-minute drive from North Raleigh to downtown City Hall for the umpteenth time. The Planning Commission session would end in acrimony and the threat of ejection for one of their number.
The North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners Association is perhaps the best organized and most motivated force in the city’s suburbs. Its members have withered and weathered developers and planners in the fight to shape Raleigh’s farthest reaches. This time, their focus is a grocery store and 13 acres of land.
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“It’s the height of hypocrisy and the height of arrogance toward the citizens of the city,” Cox, the most visible figure in group, told his inner circle at a neighborhood meeting that night. He was referring to the scale of the proposal, which calls for a mix of retail and housing, and its proximity to natural areas and homes.
The battle has stretched more than a year. Neighborhood opposition already has chased away the massive Publix grocery chain, but other retailers have not given up on the site, which sits between Dunn Road and Whittington Drive on Falls of Neuse Road, more than two miles north of Interstate 540.
Now the citizens’ network is burgeoning. As the Raleigh City Council nears a vote on the rezoning the project needs, the neighbors are recruiting allies and preparing to run their own candidates in this year’s city elections.
This is Raleigh’s most heated development showdown in years, but it may just be the beginning. The city is entering its final stages of outward growth, and builders are looking to squeeze new projects into the last gaps between established neighborhoods across Raleigh.
And Cox’s group – known as NORCHOA by most – is proving an inspiration to others who are fighting infill and rezoning proposals miles distant. Another grocery store proposal already is stirring opposition on Raven Ridge Road, a mile away from the main fight.
“It’s not just Wood Springs’ fight. It’s not just Falls River,” Kerry O’Sullivan, 41, a member of NORCHOA’s inner circle, said, referring to neighborhoods near the controversial site.
To ask the opposition, this is a fight to preserve a way of life that has sprung up in the maturing suburbs far from downtown. To ask the developers, it’s a question of how a landowner can fulfill his legal rights to build in the face of a resistant neighborhood group. And plenty of people are watching the outcome.
“As development moves north, everybody’s going to want to build out our way,” said Damon Pope, president of the Bedford at Falls River Home Owners Association. Pope’s group has remained neutral on the issue, but many of its homeowners are involved. “It is certainly not going to get better.”
The general of North Raleigh
Cox is a curly-haired, 57-year-old computer scientist – and he has become the people’s general. His emails are omnipresent, spreading each week to a list of more than a thousand people. People who have never met him speak his praises as they walk streets with names like Elegance Drive and Thoughtful Spot Way.
“He’s relentless,” said Carolyn Gallo, 57, pausing during a walk on a Saturday afternoon.
She doesn’t know Cox personally, but she and hundreds of neighbors reflect many of his concerns, point for point. Gallo fears the construction of a grocery store will draw drivers from busy Falls of Neuse Road onto neighborhood streets, she said, and that the traffic would endanger children.
“I’m just glad my kids aren’t little anymore,” she said. She worried too that a new grocer would kill off competing stores, like the two Food Lion stores that flank the residential area.
The grocery’s more casual opponents aren’t afraid to speak their minds – “We don’t want it, bottom line!” one man declared from his carport – but they point often to Cox and a few other organizers as spokespersons in their interactions with developer Morgan Property Group and their grocery suitors.
“Information is communicated in a way I, quite frankly, wouldn’t have gotten as a normal homeowner,” said Todd Bramwell, 40. “If there’s five or 10 core people, there are 50, 60, 100 people who are counting on them.”
NORCHOA is coordinated largely through email. Cox counts about 1,000 people on the group’s email list, plus hundreds more through Facebook, and those numbers translate to the real world, too. By comparison, Bedford at Falls River, the largest of the local neighborhoods, has about 1,500 homes, while others bordering it number a few hundred more.
The opposition likely broke local records when it crammed more than 500 people into a meeting of a local city advisory board last June.
These are people who are fully versed in zoning intricacies and neighborhood history and who don’t mind walking up and down the neighborhood sidewalks to knock on doors.
“I started walking the streets of Bedford and Woodspring around Thanksgiving, and I kept at it through Easter,” said Tim Niles, who helped collect about 3,700 signatures against the rezoning.
Resistance to a grocery store is a universal topic of interest among the thousands of homes, to be discussed at playdates or with wine on the patio of Cafe Buongiorno’s. Sometimes, those conversations get vitriolic. Like politics, it’s a topic best avoided for some, especially those who support the rezoning.
“I’ve been accused of not caring for the children in the neighborhood,” said Robin Reid, once a central member of NORCHOA, now a supporter of the developer’s plan. She’s under contract to sell land to the developer but would not disclose details. “If you mention anything, you are just absolutely flamed by people.”
Kym Druga really liked the idea of a Publix near her neighborhood, but she mostly keeps that to herself now.
“I just couldn’t believe how crazy it got so fast,” she said. “I’ve said a couple times, I don’t want this to get in the way of playdates or trips to the pool.”
Their own identity
The neighborhoods surrounding the long-debated land are the fruits of the last building boom.
The area’s oldest houses went up in the late 1990s, and thousands more followed through 2005. Together they form a municipal peninsula of northeast Raleigh, hemmed in by Falls Lake and the city border. Raleigh is nearly hemmed in around its perimeter by development, other municipalities’ territory, the county line and Falls Lake.
It’s a well-manicured frontier, out beyond the outer beltline. Rural country roads splay to the north, past the smaller towns of Wake Forest and Rolesville. To the south, Falls of Neuse Road’s narrow lanes plunge through layers of strip malls and 20th-century subdivisions, toward distant downtown Raleigh.
On a map, it might seem like so much sprawl.
“They refer to us as the suburbs, and the word suburbs has a lot of connotations,” Cox says.
He sees the neighborhoods as parts of a small town with its own identity.
Most of the area’s homes were designed as a master-planned community with a clubhouse, rear-access garages and tall, mature trees. Bedford, named for the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” has a town green that stretches 500 yards, lined with townhouses and centered by a small bell tower.
Most people moved here from deeper in the city. Cox and his wife, Helen, started farther south, buying a house near Lynn Road and Glenwood Avenue several years ago.
“We didn’t know the area well,” he recalled, sitting for an interview on a wraparound couch in his spacious living room. “It didn’t really feel like a mistake for a year.”
Eventually, he said, noise and lights forced them north. They liked the carefully planned communities of the far northeast, the sidewalks and trees, the shores of Falls Lake near at hand. Lots of people tell the same story.
They also liked that it was largely built-out. There was only that one parcel, dark and wooded, 13 acres. It was and is zoned for office, residential and limited reuse. There’s a sign with a sketch of an office park near the site, and some people say they were handed similar drawings when they moved in.
They’ve fought before for that original vision. NORCHOA formed in 2007, bringing together members from nearly a dozen North Raleigh subdivisions. The next year, a proposal to allow a 20,000-square-foot rezoning for retail on the site went down in flames under neighborhood criticism, failing on a 5-2 vote of the Raleigh City Council. NORCHOA also won significant modifications to the city’s recent widening of Falls of Neuse Road.
“It wasn’t just an individual set of issues. I think we were at odds with a lot of people in the development community,” Cox said of the zoning fights. “ ... Our vision for this area ... is, ‘Let’s not spoil it with commercial.’”
That lot, however, is prime meat for developers like Morgan Property Group.
“You have a very large, untapped market that is a very strong demographic market as well, with a dearth of services,” said Mack Paul, Morgan Property’s attorney, who argues that the city’s long-term plans back up the grocery proposal.
He’s referring to the comprehensive plan, which sets a general vision for the city through 2030. It designates the debated grocery site as a future “neighborhood center,” lining up with the “neighborhood mixed-use” rezoning that the developers are seeking, he said.
“It has been revalidated several times,” he said. “There have been multiple community processes where the designation for this particular property has been reaffirmed.”
A new proposal would limit the anchor store to half what Publix proposed, but still would allow close to 60,000 square feet of retail.
Though Cox previously entertained the possibility of a compromise if the developer reduced the size of the grocery store, he now says that his community wants a full rejection of the rezoning proposal.
The city’s Planning Commission, which advises the City Council, already have found that the developer’s plan lines up with city policy. Last week, however, the council asked for a new traffic study to accompany the amended rezoning and are likely to set a date for a public hearing soon.
When the matter’s settled, this stretch of North Raleigh will be closer to “finished,” one of its last gaps plugged. Even then, the debate won’t stop. Developers are eyeing aging shopping centers as the last land evaporates, and the city already is trying to extend the tropes of downtown – walkability, transit and density – into the suburbs.
“A city’s never done. What will happen is previously developed sites that may have lived their economic life will be redeveloped,” said Steve Schuster, chairman of the Planning Commission.
Clearly, neighborhood fights will shape that change, as they have already on Dunn Road. And those residents that don’t like the final results may vote with their moving trucks.
“One of the reasons we moved here is because we wanted to get away from that crowd,” said Michael Terrano, 31. He has been renting a home near the infamous empty lot, but only learned of the debate when a reporter told him.
He wasn’t worried.
“We don’t plan on living here a long time. I’m looking to buy land and build,” he said. “I might have to push out to the sticks.”
What’s in the proposal?
A rezoning of the property at Dunn and Falls of Neuse roads would allow 58,000 square feet of retail space in total, including an anchor store up to 29,000 square feet. It also would allow for residential development at 12 units per acre.
The neighborhood association says:
▪ The area’s roads are overburdened already.
▪ It’s unlikely that the developer will be allowed to build an entrance from the main road, Falls of Neuse Road. Instead, all those customers might be driving down Dunn and Whittington, which are entrances to the residential area.
▪ The proposal would bring supply trucks, light and noise. A nearby nature preserve is home to bald eagles.
▪ An early master plan for the Falls River area, drawn up developer Roger Perry, set aside part of the lot in question for office use.
The developer says:
The city’s comprehensive plan, which sets a general vision for the city through 2030, designates the debated grocery site as a future “neighborhood center,” lining up with the “neighborhood mixed-use” rezoning that the developers are seeking.