Columns » Bob Burtman

Money talks

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The aftershock of Money Magazine's December issue naming Cary as the "hottest town" in the East can still be felt in what the mag designated One of the Nation's Six Most Desirable Places to Live. The town's movers and shakers are so gaga over the honor that they've decreed a year-long celebration, complete with official celebration logo that prideful citizens can put on banners, flags or their letterhead, as long as they don't violate deed restrictions. And don't deviate from the logo's approved color scheme, warns Cary's website, which includes a color chart for easy reference.

It's not apparent what constitutes hot or desirable in Money's book--its hottest town in the West is the rather grim Plano, Texas--but the mag's very brief description offers a few clues. Cary exudes a certain "folksy calm" but is "deceptively high-powered," as evidenced by the high percentage of PhD's within its borders. More importantly, the town has the highest median income in North Carolina at a tax-bracket-busting $77,091. Cary may rank relatively low on the leisure and culture indexes, but Money keeps its priorities in order.

Though some people actually pack their bags and move to Cary or Plano based on Money's recommendations, it's doubtful that Angel Morales went that route. The head of an extended Mexican immigrant family, Morales was looking to expand his square footage and rented an old wood-frame house on Kildaire Farm Road last May. Folksy calm may not pertain to much in a town littered with strip malls and exclusive, walled-in subdivisions, but it does describe the Morales home--modestly furnished with generic art and family photos on the wall, grandkids scooting around on a weekday afternoon as adults chat and traditional food bubbles on the stovetop. Outside, four older-model but clean-looking vehicles sit off the road, joined by a couple of large plastic children's trucks and a rocking horse.

It didn't take long before the neighbors started complaining to town officials. The grass grew until it exceeded Cary's eight-inch limit, so landlord Jerry Hailey provided Morales with a lawnmower and the lawn standards thereafter. But the complaints persisted. The police were called to investigate crowds of people that would gather at the house on weekends (they were friends and family), and Cary Minimum Housing Inspector Dexter Lanier was asked to investigate reports of abandoned vehicles on the property (there weren't any). "It seems like the neighbors are not very pleased with the way they live out there," says Lanier. "They don't set up their household like someone in the middle of Lochmere."

Two of those neighbors called Hailey and asked him to do something about the problem. Particularly galling, griped Frank Twohig, is the habit of Morales and his friends to work on their cars at the house on weekends--in broad daylight, no less, and in plain view of passersby. "That's a great idea, except it's right in the middle of our neighborhood," Hailey says Twohig told him in a Jan. 29 phone conversation. "These houses are going for a couple hundred thousand dollars."

"They're not on the same wavelength," continued Twohig, who lives down the street and around the corner from the offenders. "To them, it's normal to do that stuff. To us, we're just trying to figure out how to get it to go away."

Twohig, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, also claimed that he had 45 neighbors "on the case," and that they were prepared to file a petition if nothing was done. It's not clear what such a petition would demand, however, because home auto repair is not an illegal activity, even in the East's hottest town.

In a friendly community like Cary, which Money praised as a place where "neighbors know each other by name," one might think that Twohig and others would first have addressed the problem directly to Morales. But that didn't happen, and hasn't yet. "I haven't talked to him," Twohig told Hailey. "I don't even know if he speaks English."

If all else fails, Twohig might try and get relief from the town Board of Adjustment, which has authority over zoning matters. On Feb. 9, the board prevented a "problem" from developing in the first place when members voted 9-1 against a proposed group home for the mentally ill. Though the property in question is not currently zoned for residential use, it's been continuously used as a residence under a grandfather clause and appeared to meet legal requirements.

That didn't stop the board from voting no, despite the admonition of the lone dissenter, attorney Charles McDarris, who has considerable expertise in zoning matters. According to case law, McDarris noted, vague provisions in a zoning ordinance should be interpreted in favor of the free use of the property, and the group home was clearly such a case. "That's what I tried to argue with them, and essentially they cut me off," McDarris says.

The decision angered Phyllis Helms, who would have operated the group home and runs six similar facilities in Wake County. Helms is well acquainted with the fear and loathing people have of her clients, most of whom are in transition from a hospital setting and trying to get their feet back on the ground, and she sees the discrimination they face on a daily basis. "I can write a book about the crap these people have to endure," she says.

According to Helms, the property was ideal for a group home--an affordable 3,800-square-foot house in good condition on four acres, with no neighbors nearby to fly into a panic if one of the residents ventured into view. And the need was there--Helms has clients who attend a day program in Cary, and the location was perfect. But it didn't take long at the Board of Adjustment meeting for Helms to realize that none of that mattered. "They came in there with their minds made up," she says. "We didn't have a chance."

"People are very afraid of what they can't understand," Helms says reflectively. "That's what I saw in Cary--they didn't want to understand."

On the other hand, perhaps the majority on the board understood all too well that to remain atop Money Magazine's hot list, the town can't be burdened with low-income housing, group homes for the mentally ill and other potential nuisances that could drag down median income and other important statistics. And everyone knows that riff-raff means crime, and Cary prides itself on being a safe place for even those citizens who can't afford guards at their subdivision entrances--one survey recently pegged the town as the fifth safest city in America, a selling point that routinely appears on town promotional materials.

Statistics can be deceiving, though. When mild-mannered plumber John Jablonski died in a house fire last July 4, early media accounts reported that authorities suspected a homicide; police and fire department investigators told landlord Jerry Hailey that an accelerant had been used. Two days later, they declared that Jablonski had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette; the fire was officially deemed an accident, and the case was quickly closed.

But Hailey and Jablonski's neighbors remain unconvinced. Interviews with witnesses yielded conflicting accounts and finger-pointing. Several said that just a few weeks before the blaze, someone had burst into Jablonski's apartment and threatened him with a gun; that same night, the tires on the van he was using were slashed. If the police followed up, it's hard to tell. "I don't really think they did a thorough investigation," says former neighbor Willie Wynn, who shared the apartment with Jablonski and another man and told officers of the gun incident and slashed tires. (A Cary police detective asked about the case said he'd find someone to answer questions and call back, but the call never came.)

Michelle Harris, who still lives next door to the burned-out apartment, says police never even talked to her, even though she saw Jablonski every day and was barbecuing outside when the fire started. Harris says that when investigators pulled the mattress out of the apartment a few days after the blaze, it didn't look like the origin point of a raging blaze. That mattress was not burned," she says. "That would have been the first thing to burn up, I would think."

But investigators never bothered to interview Harris. "I was the one that called 911," she says. "You would think they would have come to me. I thought that was strange."

Maybe not so strange, says Harris after a pause. "I feel like they felt John was a nobody," she says. "He might not have lived over by Preston, but he was somebody. He was a human being."

At least Jablonski's friends and family, along with Angel Morales and the residents who would have lived in Phyllis Helms' group home, can take solace from the fact that when Money Magazine comes calling next year, they won't be getting in the way of another shot at glory. EndBlock

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