In Cary, a new kind of development fight: Neighbors push back against new school

Thales Academy has expressed interest in building a school on this land in Chatham County near Cary.
Thales Academy has expressed interest in building a school on this land in Chatham County near Cary.

Hundreds of people in western Cary are pushing back against plans for a 2,000-seat charter school, citing concerns about traffic and arguing that the area already has plenty of public schools.

Cardinal Charter Academy West Campus wants to open in 2019 on Yates Store Road near the border of Wake and Chatham counties. But an online petition opposing the school has more than 500 signatures, and neighbors are pleading with Cary leaders to intervene.

“I’ve been on this council for 10 years and this is the first council meeting ever that somebody has showed up or multiple people have showed up and said we have enough schools,” Cary Town Councilman Don Frantz said at a Dec. 14 meeting. “That’s never happened before.”

The undeveloped lot on the west side of Yates Store Road, directly across from Weldon Ridge Boulevard and roughly 2 miles west of Green Level Church Road, was marked for school use in Cary’s 2004 development plan.

Neighbors, including those who live in the Amberly, Carolina Preserve, Weldon Ridge and Cary Park subdivisions, began arguing against the school when the developer asked to swap the school’s location with a planned residential area on the lot.

The proposal would move the school site closer to the main road and free up roughly 7 acres of green space and wetlands to form a natural buffer between the school and homes. The change would allow more homes to be built there.

Previous plans put the school farther north and toward the back of the lot, against the American Tobacco Trail.

Land Use Plan Update
A new proposal would put Cardinal Charter Academy West Campus closer to Yates Store Road in western Cary. Town of Cary

A traffic study conducted by the town says the school could add more than 2,000 vehicles on surrounding roads during morning peak hours. The intersections at Yates Store Road and Weldon Ridge Boulevard and at Morrisville Parkway and Weldon Ridge Boulevard are expected to see the biggest traffic spikes.

“I just can’t imagine the cut-through traffic,” Ryan Anthony, who lives in Weldon Ridge, told Cary leaders. “Imagine if you were sitting in traffic on Yates Store Road. You would probably look for a cut through on one of the residential side streets like my own.”

Traditional public schools must offer busing, which can reduce carpool traffic. But charter schools aren’t required to provide transportation, and Cardinal Charter Academy West Campus doesn’t plan to offer the service.

The school has offered to make improvements to the turning lanes at the intersection of Yates Store Road and Sentinel Ferry Lane and to install a traffic signal there. School leaders also said they would build lanes in and out of the school’s driveway and make general frontage upgrades.

But neighbors are still unhappy, and some question how the school would meet its enrollment goal of 2,030 students when at least eight traditional public schools are within 5 miles of the site.

“I would like to think that looking back at that time, it seemed very logical to put a school at this particular location because there was nothing there and it was primarily undeveloped land,” resident Mischa Locklear said of the 2004 plan. “Now 10 years, 12 years later, six schools later, I question truly the need for another school at this particular location.”

Cardinal Academy leaders expect most of the students would come from Wake County, but the school could also draw students from Chatham and Durham counties. The closest Chatham County school, North Chatham Elementary, is almost 20 minutes away across Jordan Lake.

Four of the nearby Wake County schools are capped, meaning they don’t accept new students who just moved to the area. Chatham County is expected to grow as the Chatham Park development in Pittsboro plans to add 22,000 residences.

“We conducted studies before the application was submitted (to the state) and the numbers were there,” said Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based for-profit company which would manage the school. “The population is growing enormously in this area and we believe adding a high-quality charter school option will provide much needed educational space and options for the exploding growth.”

Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht told residents at last month’s meeting that the council has no power to keep a school from being built on the site.

“If we deny this, they can still build a school,” he said. “We can’t control that. Someone said, can we go back and undo what was approved in 2004, and the answer is no. ... If they want to build a school there today, they can build a school there today.”

The Town Council will make a final vote in February on the proposal to swap the residential and school sites. Weinbrecht strongly encouraged the school to conduct neighborhood meetings before then.

Charter Schools USA “always strives to be an excellent community partner,” Reynolds said. “The push-back is a concern to us.”

Autumn Linford is a correspondent for The News & Observer. Email her at