In Wake Forest, a growing town on the outskirts of Wake County, Judith Blaine isn’t happy with the way her community is changing. 

“There’s a lot of construction going on and a lot of houses being built and a lot of traffic developing as a result of that,” Blaine says. “Some of that is a real issue to lots of people that live here.”

Blaine is one of the many Raleigh residents who downsized once her children moved out of the house. She moved to Wake Forest about eight years ago, but even then, development hadn’t exploded like it has now, she says. 

“Part of it is coming from the decisions of the town council to give the leeway for that much development,” Blaine says. “In recent years, [the town council is] more pro-development, and the consequences of that do not appear to be quite as significant [to them]. It’s affecting some areas of town really significantly.”

Blaine isn’t the only person who feels this way. Across the Triangle, longtime residents are worried about the impact rapid population growth is having on the environment, public amenities like roads, and the character of their small-town communities. 

Neighborhoods all over Wake County are in flux, and none more so than those in historically rural-suburban towns like Wake Forest, Knightdale, and Garner. As Raleigh’s population shoots up, transplants are spilling out toward towns in search of affordable homes with short commutes. And more roads, shopping centers, and apartment complexes are under construction. 

As the election approaches, the biggest questions candidates are facing are how they will handle growth and development. In most places, there are two main teams. 

First, there are candidates advocating for what they call “responsible growth,” or a slowdown of current growth. Many say they want to preserve the old-school charm or character of their towns, as well as deal with the problems growth creates, such as environmental damage and increased demand for police and fire service. 

Second, there are the candidates who advocate for denser development, which they say will help address the housing crisis. As more people move to towns like Wake Forest and housing becomes unaffordable for some middle- and lower-class residents, they say more apartments, duplexes, triplexes, and quads would help. 

But the situation isn’t black and white. Candidates concerned about the impact new construction will have on the town aren’t necessarily anti-growth. And candidates who support rezoning approvals aren’t necessarily disregarding the cost. Here’s our rundown of the pre-election political ground in four towns around Wake County. 

Meet the next mayor of Garner: Buddy Gupton

Buddy Gupton, a lifelong resident of Garner, moved to the town as a child in 1958 but still describes himself as a “Johnny-come-lately.”

“I thought I was a regular until I got to know my wife and found out that not only was she at least 10th-generation Garner, but she was actually born on Main Street,” Gupton says with a chuckle. “That made me feel like a carpetbagger just coming in for the ride.”

Gupton works at a local insurance company, Jones Advisors. This year, his name is the only one on the ballot in the race for mayor. 

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Gupton says. “It’s a blessing that I don’t have to campaign very hard. … I don’t have to spend any time debating or actively soliciting [votes] or spending a bunch of money. … But it’s a curse, because it’s a shame that there are not more people interested and in line and eager to serve. In that sense, it’s discouraging.”

The Garner Firemen’s Festival, October 7, 2023 Credit: Courtesy of the Town of Garner

On the town council side, three of the five seats are on the ballot this year, with all three incumbents running for reelection. In addition, newcomer Rex Whaley has thrown his hat in the ring, trying to unseat Phil Matthews, Elmo Vance, or Demian Dellinger. 

But Garner’s longtime mayor, Ken Marshburn, decided to retire this year. In addition, none of the current council members sought the mayor’s seat—that’s how Gupton ended up stepping to the plate, he says. 

“My background is business: working with contractors, local businesses, local families,” Gupton says. “My hobby has been working with the chamber of commerce. I’ve been on the board of directors there for 37 years, and that’s kind of been my civic interest.”

For years, Gupton and other residents hoped more people and businesses would come to Garner. 

“Now suddenly, there’s a tidal wave of incoming stuff. It’s what we wanted, but now the challenge is how to make sure we’re getting not just more stuff, but better stuff,” he says. “Better neighborhoods, better housing, more diversity, better business opportunities, better infrastructure. There’s going to be more, whether we like it or not. Our challenge is to make it the best we can.”

Gupton says Marshburn and the current town council have “been doing an unbelievably good job.” He’s happy with their updates to the town’s comprehensive plan, which take into account the extension of I-540 and accompanying growth. Looking toward the future, Gupton says Garner needs to beef up its infrastructure, including roads and bus rapid transit. 

As far as development is concerned, “we can’t say yes to everything. We can’t say no to everything. We just have to find the best we can do from all sides,” he says. “As a community, we just have to adopt that patience and confidence to push ahead.”

Half a dozen vying for at-large seats in Wake Forest

Two members of the Wake Forest Board of Commissioners aren’t running for reelection, so there are guaranteed to be some newcomers on the five-person board next year. 

Incumbents Jim Dyer and Chad Sary are stepping down, leaving two at-large seats open for a large field of candidates. An additional seat, currently held by Adam Wright, is also on the ballot; Wright is running to retain it. If fresh faces win all three seats, they will also win a moderate majority, possibly leading to some policy shifts. 

Among the candidates are Joe Kimray, co-owner of Wake Forest family business B & W Hardware; Jim Thompson, an executive at a consulting firm and former commissioner from 2013 to 2017; Tom Ballman, a city planner and former member of the Wake Forest Planning Board; Ben Clapsaddle, a former candidate for the Wake County school board; and Faith Cross, a nurse, mother of three, and the only woman on the ballot. 

Each candidate has their own strategy to manage growth, with approaches ranging from support for high-density development to total opposition to urbanization, according to interviews by the Wake Forest Gazette. (The INDY was unsuccessful in reaching these candidates for interviews.)

Wright, the only incumbent on the ballot, supports staying the town council’s current course: encouraging high-density development along major roads and intersections (per the new land use map), supporting more affordable housing, and negotiating with developers to secure community benefits like sidewalks and moving assistance. 

As the housing market calms down, Wright told the Gazette that he believes “this period, marked by high interest rates and a slowing market, presents an opportunity to prioritize infrastructure upgrades to accommodate our growth.”

Kimray and Thompson also advocate for supporting high-density development near transit centers and negotiating with developers to create walkable, self-sustaining communities. 

Kimray has said he’s supported developments like this, such as Grove 98, and opposed developments that don’t include these types of amenities, such as Devon Square. Thompson mentioned the town council faces a challenge in improving street and sidewalk connectivity. 

“Residents throughout town need regular access to our parks and greenways and our downtown core for shopping and relaxing, thus maintaining our small town charm,” he told the Gazette.  

Ballman and Clapsaddle take more balanced approaches to growth. Ballman said he supports density but also individual homeownership as a form of building wealth. In other words, he’d prefer the town support condos and town houses over apartments. 

Clapsaddle favors environmental preservation, telling the Gazette that “deviations from the UDO [unified development ordinance] must be the exception and not the rule.” 

“Every project and development must include protection of green space, natural streams and waterways, inclusion of sidewalks and multi-use paths and the protection of our tree canopy,” Clapsaddle told the Gazette

Finally, Cross outright opposes the town council’s current trajectory, telling the Gazette that “with all the recent approvals of apartments, townhomes and generally higher density development, we are losing our small town charm.” The UDO should be modified to guide development away from urbanization, she added, and “protect the existing neighborhoods and character of the town.”

Mayoral challenge in Rolesville

In Rolesville, incumbent mayor Ronnie Currin is facing an unexpected challenge from public school teacher Scott Wagoner, who says he’s “in it to win it.” Wagoner’s decision to run for mayor was last-minute—he kept checking the candidate filings and seeing that there was no one else in the race. 

“Putting my name in the hat might have caught Rolesville off guard,” Wagoner says. “I have not been campaigning for years … but since doing it, it has enhanced my desire and my purpose for it. I’m committed to the race.”

“I think I can do better,” he adds. “It’s not about doing different. It rarely is. It’s not a black-and-white situation. I just think I can be what Rolesville needs for the next four [years].”

Wagoner, who moved to Rolesville three years ago with his wife and daughter, currently teaches at Rolesville High School. As a teacher, he’s experienced firsthand the consequences of staffing shortages. The high school is still having a hard time hiring, Wagoner says, because teachers and other middle-class workers can’t afford nearby houses in today’s real estate market. 

When Wagoner and his family first moved, “there were houses available, and we could afford them,” he says. “That is no longer the case. It’s been a real struggle that I’ve witnessed.”

Many people who live in Rolesville commute to Raleigh, where they earn larger paychecks, Wagoner says. He wants to attract people who will live, work, and play in the community. 

“[We need] to be able to attract and pull in the younger, educated professionals. There just isn’t a home for them here, and they’re the lifeblood of the community,” Wagoner says. “The town’s growing. There’s no stopping it. It’s just, can we shape it in a way where those new neighborhoods feel a part of our town? And they are welcomed and embraced?”

Wagoner says he thinks Rolesville can learn from surrounding communities that have already experienced this kind of growth. He supports the town board’s current efforts to connect streets, sidewalks, and greenways. Wagoner also wants to work with residents to figure out exactly how the town fits into Wake County, as well as give people a stronger sense of place. 

“Rolesville [High], already a huge school, is going to get bigger,” he says. “The future of this town and the future of this school need to be connected.”

In addition to the mayoral race, two at-large seats on the town’s board of commissioners are up for election. While incumbent Michelle Medley is defending her seat, Sheilah Sutton decided not to run for reelection. 

Two other candidates are also running—business lawyer Michael Paul and Lenwood V. Long Jr., a federal renewals manager at ServiceNow.

Nothing changing in Knightdale

In Knightdale, the only candidates on the ballot are incumbents. Mayor Jessica Day as well as town council members Stephen Morgan and Ben McDonald are unchallenged this year, meaning the town will likely stay its current course. 

Day, the Knightdale Town Council’s first African American woman member, was initially elected to the council in 2017. She served as mayor pro tem in 2019 and was elected mayor in 2021. During her time in office, she’s made significant investments in the town’s fire and police departments, as well as parks and greenways. 

Downtown Knightdale at Christmastime Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Under Day, the town council also adopted Wake County’s antidiscrimination ordinance, created a comprehensive transportation plan, and held its first Juneteenth celebration this year, which thousands of people attended. 

Residents seem mostly satisfied with the town’s performance, according to a 2022 survey. On housing, most residents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the range of housing types; about 33 percent said they were satisfied with the availability of housing options by price; and 42 percent said they were neutral about the quality of the town’s affordable housing programs.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Lenwood V. Long, Jr., a candidate for Rolesville’s Board of Commissioners, was a former pastor and now CEO of a nonprofit that supports African American–led community economic development, the African American Alliance of Community Development Financial Institutions. The story has been corrected.

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