Sunday, November 21, 2010

Week in Review 11/15/10 - 11/20/10

Council held a worksession on Tuesday to discuss two items; potential changes to the town’s sign ordinance as recommended by the town’s Sign Ordinance Review Task Force, and transit oriented development. The transit oriented development portion was a joint session with our town’s Planning and Zoning Board.

The council accepted a number of recommended amendments to the town’s sign ordinance, rejected others and asked for more information and discussion on few others. The council will meet again on this topic once more before we present the final version for public hearing.

The transit oriented development worksession was more presentation than discussion. As a result the council agreed to hold another session on this topic so that we may discuss in greater detail. The council has been holding these worksessions to better understand how the proposed light rail, regional rail, and high speed rail projects will impact and shape how our town grows.

I haven’t been shy with my concerns about the rail projects. The high speed rail project is a $5 billion boondoggle that has the potential to devastate our existing highway and road network should a number of at-grade crossings be closed. Yet at the same time I believe that planning for a light rail/regional rail system in our region makes sense, I just don’t believe it is needed now, or anytime soon for that matter. We simply don’t have the population densities to support it.

That’s the real question that needs to be answered, and the discussion that we as a council haven’t had. Do we want that density? Do we want to see Cary grow from a predominantly suburban community to something more urban? Do we want to encourage higher densities along and around the rail corridor? How much of a factor do we want rail to play in our future land use decisions?

Whether or not rail comes to Cary is really out of our hands. This is a regional project. We do however have a voice in how much of a stakeholder we want to be. The majority of council has indicated its support for regional and light rail, and has asked TTA for four rail stations between Cary and Morrisville.

Rail will encourage a significant amount of dense development. Consultants and industry professionals agree that in order for rail to be successful (as successful as it can be I guess) it needs density to generate ridership. They have also made it clear that if we as elected officials support rail, we must also support land use decisions and zoning that encourages dense development along the rail corridor.

This is where I see conflict. The biggest supporters of rail on the council are often the same who consistently vote against the type of projects which would support rail. The argument most often used to vote against them? Density.

This conflict needs resolution before we can adequately and honestly plan for the future of our town. It is disingenuous to send the message that we support rail when the majority of council’s actions – up to this point – says otherwise.

My thoughts: While density has its place in Cary, I don’t believe that place is along every inch of railroad track from Raleigh to Morrisville. Cary didn’t become one of the greatest places to live in America by trying to be something it isn’t. We are a safe, family oriented suburban community. Heck, we’re even Martha Stewart approved, and that’s a good thing. ;-)

Yet should the rail projects materialize, we must work to ensure that they are a benefit to our community, not a burden. This will not be easy, but I believe it can be done in a manner which protects and preserves the character and charm of our community, and in the spirit of that which makes Cary such a great place to live, work and retire.

What I really struggle to understand however, is that the proponents of rail claim it will alleviate traffic congestion by removing up to 5% of vehicles off the road. Yet in order for rail to succeed we must increase population? That makes absolutely no sense to me. Increasing our population will in turn increase the number of vehicles on the road as the majority of all those new residents will have a car; not to mention the increased impact on our area schools, water supply, environment and overall quality of life. What good is removing 5% of the cars when you’re adding 20%? You would think that if we were going to invest billions in a transportation initiative, we might look for one that will actually reduce traffic. But I digress…

Thursday evening was our council meeting. Notable items included:

A reception honoring Cary’s Hometown Spirit Award nominees and announcement of this year’s winner who is, drum roll please……Kay Struffolino! Kay is an amazing woman who gives so much of herself to help make Cary one of the greatest places to live. Kay currently serves on our town’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Advisory Board and volunteers countless hours of her time at Cary’s Senior Center, Koka Booth Amphitheater and town events and festivals. Thank you and congratulations to all the nominees. Cary is a better place because of you.

Also on our agenda was consideration of whether or not to move forward with Cary’s Comprehensive Annexation Program. Ten areas previously identified were recommended for Town initiated annexation by our staff. After a lengthy discussion I made the motion not to proceed with annexation. My motion passed 4-3.

The council also discussed whether or not to opt out of the 2009 Permit Extension Act. This legislation, passed by the NC General Assembly, extends the period of validity for previously approved development projects. The act was amended this past year to add an additional year to the previous extension period, but local governments have the option to “opt out” of the additional extension. The council voted 4-3 to not opt out. However, after our closed session meeting, council members Adcock and Robinson made a motion to reconsider. That motion passed 4-3. A follow-up motion was then made to consider another alternative at our December meeting. This alternative would support the extension for previously approved development plans and site plans, but that buildings would have to be constructed to today’s standards. We will consider that request in December.

I opposed the request to reconsider for two reasons; first, these are trying economic times and this legislation provides a little more economic opportunity to projects that were already approved at Cary’s high standards, and secondly, for the council to reconsider something we already publicly debated and voted on – after coming out of a closed session on a different topic – is bad governance and lacks transparency. The Mayor had already announced prior to going into closed session that there was no further business, and that at the conclusion of our closed session we would adjourn the meeting. That did not happen. How then could anyone watching not come to the conclusion that the permit extension act was discussed behind closed doors?

Friday evening I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the Graduation Ceremonies for 16 of Cary’s newest Firefighters. Being a firefighter is not just a job, it’s a calling. A job is something that folks do from 9-5 to earn a living. A calling is a career with purpose – it goes beyond a monetary pursuit. It takes a very special person to respond to a calling. Over 850 people applied for these 16 positions, and after meeting and speaking with the new cadets and learning more about their backgrounds I am confident that we hired the best of the best. Thank you for answering the call.

That’s all for now - as always, thanks for reading!