Friday, February 26, 2016

February 2016 Worksession, Council Meeting and Town Clerk

On Tuesday the council held a worksession to discuss a number of items - half of which we never even got to as time ran out. It never ceases to amaze me how some things that seem so simple become so complex and vice-versa.

On the agenda was a review of quasi-judicial proceedings, consideration and discussion on a number of Imagine Cary chapters, and the impact of House Bill 44 on development adjacent to stream buffers.

House Bill 44 is entitled “AN ACT TO REFORM VARIOUS PROVISIONS OF THE LAW RELATED TO LOCAL GOVERNMENT” was approved and became law on September 23, 2015.

This law sucks.

Some of the “reforms” in this law include:

§ 143-214-23A.  Limitations on local government riparian buffer requirements.
(e)     Cities and counties shall not treat the land within a riparian buffer area as if the land is the property of the State or any of its subdivisions unless the land or an interest therein has been acquired by the State or its subdivisions by a conveyance or by eminent domain.  Land within a riparian buffer area in which neither the State nor its subdivisions holds any property interest may be used by the property owner to satisfy any other development-related regulatory requirements based on property size, including, but not limited to, residential density and nonresidential intensity calculations and yields, tree conservation purposes, open space or conservation area requirements, setbacks, perimeter buffers, and lot area requirements.

(f)      When riparian buffer requirements are included within a lot, cities and counties shall require that riparian buffer area be shown on the recorded plat.  Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to require that the riparian buffer area be surveyed.  When riparian buffer requirements are placed outside of lots in portions of a subdivision that are designed as common areas or open space and neither the State nor its subdivisions holds any property interest in that riparian buffer area, the local governments shall attribute to each lot abutting the riparian buffer area a proportionate share based on the area of all lots abutting the riparian buffer area for purposes of development-related regulatory requirements based on property size, including, but not limited to, residential density and nonresidential density calculations and nonresidential intensity calculations and yields, tree conservation purposes, open space or conservation area requirements, setbacks, perimeter buffers, and lot area requirements.

What all of that gobbledegook means is that for individual lots platted adjacent to a stream buffer, the area within the stream buffer must be treated as part of the lot for the purpose of determining compliance with lot size, setback and perimeter buffer requirements, and there isn’t anything Cary or any other municipality in North Carolina can do about it.

So if you’re a fan of development occurring closer to buffers, smaller lot sizes, increased storm water runoff and reduced environmental protections, you’ll love this new law. I don’t.

The council also had a refresher course on quasi-judicial hearings with Town Attorneys. The Council holds quasi-judicial hearings primarily for special use permits and certain subdivision and site plan applications – typically when minor modifications to town code is requested. In a quasi-judicial hearing, the council acts as judge and jury during deliberations. The council can only consider factual testimony from “experts” in our decision making process. Applicants and attorneys present their case and both sides can be cross-examined much like in a court of law. I believe the refresher was helpful both for existing council members and especially our newest council member, Ken George who hasn’t had much experience with the quasi-judicial process.

The council also discussed the proposed Green Level Special Planning Area and the types of development and uses we would like to see occur this area. We unfortunately did not have time to discuss the Carpenter Special Planning Area or the Shape Downtown Chapter – that will occur at a future worksession.

Town Clerk

I am pleased to announce that after a nation-wide search - of which there was 119 applicants, the council unanimously selected Virginia Johnson to serve as Cary’s Town Clerk.

The Town Clerk is responsible for giving notice of Council meetings; preparing the Council agenda; recording Council proceedings; serving as custodian of permanent Town records; keeping the Town Seal, attesting all Town documents; maintaining the Town Code; managing the citizen advisory boards and commissions; administering Hillcrest Cemetery; and providing support services to the Town Council. Staff includes the town clerk, the deputy town clerk and two administrative assistants. This position is only one of three that the council is directly responsible for hiring - the others being the Town Manager and the Town Attorney.

Virginia – or Ginny as she is known to most everyone – has served as our interim town clerk for the past couple of months as we went through the selection process and has done a phenomenal job. We are all confident that she will do Cary proud!
Ginny and her family with council members after her swearing in.
On Wednesday I taped the March edition of CaryMatters with Councilmember Jennifer Robinson. The topics of discussion were infill and redevelopment and the Eastern Cary Gateway Plan which is the area around Cary Town Center Mall to I-40. You’ll have to watch the episode if you want to know more!

Council Meeting

Notable items from our council meeting this past Thursday include consideration of the comprehensive plan amendment for the Lewter property (the intersection of Carpenter Firestation Road and Green Level Church Road) and a rezoning on High House Road for 10 single family homes.

The Lewter property is where an applicant has proposed a Publix grocery store on land that is currently designated as medium/high density residential.

There has been a lot of confusion on what exactly the council was voting on. The only thing before us was consideration of a request to amend the comprehensive plan from medium/high density residential to medium density residential and/or commercial and to include the property in the Cary Park Mixed-Use Community Activity Center. The council was not considering the rezoning or approving any specific site plan. That will be considered at a future meeting.

Also note that the council does not consider the specific business(s) proposed during the comprehensive plan amendment process – only the type of use. Businesses come and go and plans can fall through. Sometimes applicants obtain entitlements and then flip the property to another buyer.

In its simplest form, the question before council was, “do we believe that medium density residential and/or commercial uses to be a better use for this site than medium/high density residential?”

Given the amount and intensity of residential development in the area versus commercial, the answer for me – and 5 of my council colleagues – was “yes”.

That does not however mean that we support the current site plan that has been presented to area residents thus far. I think we all are looking for something better than your typical shopping center - we are looking for something that creates a sense of place, promotes walkability and better protects adjacent residents.

Adding the property into the activity center is also a huge benefit to area residents as the required zoning would now be MXD (mixed use). MXD zoning requires the applicant to include a preliminary development plan (general site plan layout) which also becomes a zoning condition. It raises the bar in regards to gaining council approval as we get to see their site layout prior to approving or denying their request. If we don’t like what we see, we can simply say “no”. It also gives area residents a greater voice in the process.

Without the requirement of a preliminary development plan – as exists today – and as long as the applicant met Cary’s land development ordinance, the applicant could build high density apartments and there is absolutely nothing that area residents or the council could do to stop it.

There is still a lot of work to be done on this and I am optimistic that the applicant and citizens can work together to craft something both sides can be satisfied with.

The High House Road rezoning in itself wasn’t that controversial as it is only ten homes. The rub however is that a few other properties along High House have been approved for development – none of which met the threshold to trigger a traffic study. Had they all been considered at the same time however, it would have triggered a traffic study and possible transportation improvements.

The town is limited in what we can and cannot do by state law and NCDOT. Please know that council members are already meeting with area representatives and town staff, and will be meeting soon with NCDOT to see what solutions might be available to resolve resident concerns and improve traffic safety and movement.

That’s all for now. As always, thanks for reading!

Monday, February 1, 2016


This past weekend the council and town staff traveled to Greensboro, North Cackalacky for our annual council/staff retreat. The main focus of the retreat was on infill development and redevelopment.

Redevelopment is exactly what it says – the redevelopment of existing development to include the demolition of old buildings to make way for new construction, or the repurposing of older structures into new uses.

Infill development is the development of vacant land that is surrounded by existing development.

Infill and redevelopment is, and will continue to become more of an issue in Cary as there isn’t much undeveloped land left available for new development (roughly 15%) and as older development ages out (Cary Town Center Mall for example).

While Greensboro and Cary are very different cities, Greensboro has experience dealing with many of the challenges of redevelopment and infill development, and provided a good example for us to learn from. What did they do right? What went wrong? What would they do differently if given the opportunity?

We began the retreat with a session to better familiarize ourselves with planning updates in the Triangle region. We first heard from Mr. Lee Worsley, Executive Director of the Triangle J Council of Governments about how communities can better work together to achieve their goals. Mr. Bob Geolas, President and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation spoke about Research Triangle Park’s plans for a mixed use development project at the park. And after that we reviewed the land use plans of other Triangle communities and adjoining jurisdictions to not only better understand their plans are, but also how that might impact what we do here in Cary.

We then visited Center Pointe, a redevelopment project in downtown Greensboro that used to be the home of Wachovia Bank. It is a 17 story building that had sat vacant for a number of years and was falling into disrepair. The building was ultimately redeveloped into luxury condos and has become a huge success story for downtown Greensboro. The first floor of the building also includes a restaurant. This was a very impressive project, and while Cary thankfully does not have any abandoned 17 story buildings, we do have a number of empty shopping centers and buildings that we are concerned about. Center Point was a good example of how a city and a developer working together could achieve something remarkable.

The building also provided a great look at Greensboro’s new downtown library which has a parking deck adjacent to their new Downtown Park and arts center. Sound familiar? ;-)

After our visit to Center Pointe we heard from Greensboro’s Planning Director, Mrs. Sue Schwartz, about their efforts to amend their development ordinances, policies and procedures to better incent redevelopment and infill development in and around Greensboro’s downtown area, and how they worked to manage a number of challenges to include inadequate infrastructure, community opposition/cultural tension and the economic viability of such projects.
Some of the key takeaways include:

·         Growing inward is harder than growing outward as the development of greenfield sites is much easier than redevelopment of existing properties. Ordinances and policies must be different for redevelopment vs new development.
·         Change can be very uncomfortable for folks.
·         Public/Private partnerships are an important part of redevelopment.
·         Historic preservation is also important – you don’t have to knock every building down to accomplish something great.

The following day began with a bus/walking tour of downtown Greensboro to see firsthand and learn more about many of their redevelopment and infill projects. I was impressed at how well they blended into their surrounding communities – you wouldn’t have guessed it was new development.

Now the fun part, right Ed? ;-)

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel for a hands-on exercise with our staff. Each council member was teamed up with a few staff members and were given a large aerial photo of an actual 18 acre site in Cary that we would like to see redevelop one day….. and Legos…..yes, Legos.

The Legos represented different types of development, and each Lego block represented 2500 sq ft. Red blocks were commercial, blue was office, orange was multi-family and so on… Each council member then redeveloped their site by placing the different color Legos where they thought they were best suited on the site. We also had to account for things like road access, parking requirements, buffers etc…

Here is my development.

The orange is multi-family very similar to what we have at the Arboretum to include structured parking wrapped with residential. The yellow is townhomes with garages underneath. The red and blue blocks are commercial on the first floor with office above. The tall blue building represents a hotel or office building and the dark gray around it represents structured parking. The green is a small park and/or gathering space, and last but certainly not least, the single red buildings are a Chili’s and a Red Robin. Hey, this is my development remember? ;-)

So, ya, it needs work. I only had an hour to work with ok? And trust me, nobody’s Lego development was perfect. But the jist of this exercise wasn’t to design a perfect development – it was to better identify what is important to us, and more importantly our community, when it comes redevelopment or infill. What types of uses do we want and where? How dense are we willing to allow those uses to be? Structured parking or surface – or maybe both? Things like that.

Each council member then presented their development to the group and explained why they developed it the way they did, and then we talked about it.

It was a good discussion with few surprises - it’s not like we haven’t had similar discussions before. We prefer a mix of uses and development that creates a sense of place. We value protecting the character and charm of adjacent communities but could support increased densities where appropriate. We support transit friendly development yet understand that the car is and will continue to be the predominant means of transportation for folks. We love structured parking. We would consider public/private partnerships. We expect public gathering spaces – stuff like that.

We also understand economics. We get that in order for redevelopment to occur, it has to be economically viable. Like it or not, the reality is that if the developer can’t make a buck, he aint gonna build it; and while market forces might be beyond our control, regulatory reform isn’t.

Cary’s land development ordinance has historically applied to new, green-field development – and the overwhelming majority of Cary’s development over the last few decades has been exactly that. But if we want to encourage the redevelopment of older, underperforming sites in Cary – and we do – it will require changes to Cary’s land development ordinances to make it happen.

With the ongoing Imagine Cary process to include our recent worksession to discuss the Eastern Cary Gateway Plan, it was a very timely discussion and I look forward to seeing the work that comes of it.

Thanks so much to our town staff for all their efforts to make this year’s retreat a success and to the city of Greensboro for their hospitality. It is greatly appreciated.

2016 Town of Cary Council/Staff Retreat