By the time the vote was taken Monday night, Steve Stroud and Gary Pendleton were long gone, the failure of their effort to get commercial development rolling in the Falls Lake watershed around I-540 already apparent. For the record, the vote was 7-0, a unanimous Wake County Board of Commissioners choosing watershed protection–and a meeting-room-full of its advocates–over ex-commissioner Pendleton’s little project on a little site selected by Stroud’s firm, Carolantic Realty.
Stroud. Pendleton. I-540. Need I say more? Steve Stroud is chair of the authority that built the RBC Center in Raleigh, a position he obtained due to his enormous political clout as a big-time developer, land broker, fund-raiser and–this term sounds so harsh, but I mean it only in a descriptive way–influence-peddler. Gary Pendleton, a wealthy man, too, by virtue of his commercial insurance clientele, was the Karl Rove (“the Architect”) when conservative Republicans grabbed control in Wake County for a time a decade ago. Their agenda: unmitigated sprawl and under-funded schools.
Officially, Pendleton was merely acting as a member of Wake’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board, a volunteer body that oversees the 19 liquor stores run by the county. Officially, the ABC board merely wanted to put a new store on a 3.5-acre lot at the corner of Creedmoor and Baileywick roads, just south of I-540, which isn’t even in the “critical” watershed area, as the county defines it, only the non-critical one. Just a simple rezoning. What possible harm could a single store, with two or three employees and a few hundred customers a day, do to the water quality in Falls Lake? What a great location to sell booze!
Pendleton’s recollection was that when Carolantic “found” the site, he rejected it immediately. “Nope, it’s in the watershed. Let’s build it somewhere else,” he remembered saying. Everyone knows, you don’t build much around a lake, especially if the lake is the main source of your region’s drinking water. Runoff, whether from a parking lot or the fertilizer on the lawns, soon equals huge water-treatment costs, if you can treat it at all.
But then, Pendleton said, he got to pondering things awhile. And he decided that since you could have a “convenience store” in the watershed if your site was a designated “activity center,” and even though this wasn’t a designated activity center (for good reason–it’s right next to a stream that flows directly into Falls Lake), maybe he could get it designated as such; and even though the only people who need a “convenient” liquor store–as opposed to a convenient place to buy diapers and milk–probably shouldn’t be driving on a highway, well, I-540 would be so handy for the North Raleigh host or hostess who’d forgotten to restock their Cutty.
Anyway, Pendleton said, it just seemed like the right thing to do for the county, which after all makes money selling liquor and shares its bounty with numerous worthy nonprofits serving the homeless and substance-abusers. To underline this point, there followed several nonprofit organization directors who testified that, yes, the ABC been berry berry good to us.
Now came the people of Heritage Point and the other neighboring communities to say “S-T-O-P.” (They were all wearing red.) This wasn’t about a liquor store, they said. It was about developers getting their hooks in, talking the county into making an exception to the rule of no commercial development in the watershed–and then the exception would become the rule, because developers would be able to point to it as a precedent for more rezonings.
Before long, they feared, there’d be strip malls all around I-540, on the south side anyway (the north side, closer to the lake, is the “critical” area).
Said Sherry Johnson, the opponents’ spokeswoman: “Who among us is so gullible” as to believe that Carolantic just happened to pick out a site almost a mile inside the watershed boundary as the one and only place in North Raleigh that the Wake ABC should consider for its new store? Not only that, she said, the minutes of their meetings indicate no discussion whatever about the asking price for the tract ($700,000) nor any effort to have it appraised or its topography studied. “There’s no mention of any due diligence,” Johnson told the commissioners. “We are going to be gracious and say that we find that to be highly irregular.”
Who owns this tract, you are probably asking? It’s owned by the Bailey Land Company, which owns land on both sides of I-540, and was paid $500,000 by the DOT for nine acres when the state punched the highway through. Strangely, though, DOT left one acre out of the purchase, then added two more to Bailey’s holding when it realigned Baileywick Road, moving it a bit to the south. The resulting three-acre “remnant,” as it’s termed, is zoned for residential use, which makes it pretty much useless right next to a highway–except perhaps for purposes of crocodile tears, as in, oh, we’ll never be able to build anything there unless we can get it rezoned.
But all’s well that ends well, right? What’s most interesting about this 7-0 vote is that three of the commissioners openly acknowledged how they’d almost been seduced into voting for the rezoning. (Until 100 people in red showed up?) One, Republican Phil Jeffries, sounded like he was going to vote for it right up until he didn’t. Another, Democrat Harold Webb, said he’d come to the meeting Monday undecided, but was finally persuaded that it would “set a bad precedent.” Even Democrat Betty Lou Ward, ordinarily a stalwart environmentalist, said she initially considered the case benign before she actually drove out and looked at the site.
They were enticed, in part, by the 6-1 vote of the county planning board in favor of the rezoning. The planning board even rejected the recommendation of the county’s planning director, Melanie Wilson, so they could side with Pendleton and Stroud. Who’s on the planning board? You guessed it–developers. And their lawyers. And their representatives. Folks like Mason Williams, a builder. Bobby Lewis, a builder. Beth Trahos, a lawyer. And Chris Sinclair–yes, the same Chris Sinclair who runs the Triangle Community Coalition, the “balanced growth” group funded by the real estate industry that’s brought us such memorable programs as “The Cost of Sprawl Reconsidered.”
This is who can afford to spend two Wednesday afternoons every month listening to land-use cases, Sherry Johnson says. Off her longtime environmental advocacy work with the Watershed Protection Council, she adds, she’s been asked by county commissioners to accept appointment to the planning board. But she’s got a job to do, as a public health educator, and can’t take the time off. Generally, only people who work in the industry can justify sitting on a planning board all day–for them, it’s a two-fer. Extreme Makeover in Raleigh? Given the way development interests dominate on the county planning board, what happened a week ago to Raleigh’s city planning commission is all the more fascinating. Long story short, by a 6-5 vote the commission chose as its chair Erin Kuczmarski, a chiropractor and former Democratic state legislator, in what amounted to a takeover by pro-neighborhood members.
It wasn’t that long ago that current City Councilor Thomas Crowder was the only pro-neighborhoods member of the planning commission, and was frequently the odd man out on 10-1 votes. But gradually, the tide has turned. And when builder Dickie Thompson’s six-year term expired recently, forcing him to step down as chair, his expected replacement, real estate consultant Mark Everett, lost out to Kuczmarski.