Stan Norwalk, the new Wake County Commissioner-elect, has been called slow-growth, anti-growth and worse by the development lobbies. It's all bogus, Norwalk says. He's pro-growth. And pro-schools. But he is anti-development lobbies.
"I certainly don't want to slow growth, if I somehow had the lever to do it, which I don't think I do," he told the Indy after his 55-45 percent victory over incumbent Kenn Gardner. "I want the jobs. But I also want growth to pay for itself."
That last bit about growth paying for growth is fightin' words to the N.C. Association of Realtors, which enjoys its reputation as the biggest and best-financed pro-development gang in the state. To NCAR, the outspoken Norwalk was Public Enemy No. 1 in this election—and it went after him with a vengeance.
On paper, Norwalk, a Democrat, was running to unseat a Republican incumbent. But in fact, Gardner was never a factor in the race after it was revealed two months ago that, contrary to his public statements, he was paid as the architect for a swimming center in Cary that he had also championed as a commissioner.
Thus it came down to Norwalk versus the Realtors. And Norwalk won.
His 10 percentage point margin was only slightly less than those of fellow Democrats Betty Lou Ward and Harold Webb, incumbents who were re-elected against token Republican opposition—and no Realtor noise. Those three, plus incumbent Lindy Brown who was not up for re-election, will now comprise a 4-3 Democratic majority on the county board, reversing the current 4-3 Republican margin.
"Stan's victory just demonstrates that the people of Wake County want a vision for the future and aren't going to fall for the fear tactics of the developer and Realtor lobbies," said Karen Rindge, chairperson of WakeUP, a grassroots citizens' group, on election night.
Exactly how much money the Realtors spent trying to stop Norwalk isn't clear from public campaign reports, and NCAR's public affairs director didn't respond to our written questions nor to those posed by a dissident member, Raleigh real estate agent Bob Mulder, who asked for the information.
But between the Realtors' political action committee and a second committee it created and euphemistically entitled the "N.C. Homeowners Alliance," NCAR's leaders slammed Norwalk in four slick, negative mailers and a stream of robocalls over the closing days of the campaign. They called him "too radical" and—in a shrieking pre-Halloween fright piece—"too scary for Wake County."
"I'm guessing they spent close to $300,000," Norwalk crowed when the results were in. "It was pretty ineffective, and it blew up in their face." His own campaign treasury: $47,000. Gardner, with generous contributions from developers and the Realtors PAC, raised $35,000.
Campaign filings by the Realtors PAC show that it put $880,000 into the "homeowners alliance" and spent another $38,500 for its polls. How much of that money, and the Realtors' own funds, were used against Norwalk are unclear.
But in June, NCAR's board announced plans to spend $10 million statewide "educating the public" on the evils of the proposed 0.4 percent transfer (sales) tax on all real estate transactions. In 2007, the General Assembly authorized counties to enact the transfer tax, subject to voters approving it by referendum. So far, 19 of the state's 100 counties have gone to the ballot seeking approval. NCAR has beaten them all.
For its "education" efforts, NCAR dunned its 60,000 members an additional $50 per year in dues, money they're required to pay if they want access to the organization's multiple listings service. The money is separate from what's raised by the Realtors' PAC, which annually ranks as the state's best-funded political action committee.
In Wake County, Norwalk has been the most vigorous proponent of the transfer-tax idea, impact fees on new development, or any other measure that would help to finance new schools and other growth-related costs in lieu of continued property tax increases.
Norwalk lobbied hard in the legislature for the transfer-tax bill. As an alternative, he's pushed the idea of an Adequate Public Facilities (APF) ordinance in Wake County that would make new residential development contingent on having sufficient classroom space ready for the additional students.
In practice, APFs can require developers to either pay voluntary impact fees to finance the needed classrooms, or wait to build until new schools are financed some other way.
Union County, near Charlotte, is collecting about $14,000 per new house from APF fees, Norwalk noted, after the development lobbies tried and failed to block them in the courts.
None of this sits well with the Realtors or their allies in the development industry, who advocate higher property taxes or sales taxes to pay for growth's costs, instead of fees on development.
"We have to build schools, we have no choice," answers Norwalk. "The difference is that I want the new people coming in to pick up at least part of the costs, so county taxpayers don't have to lay out so much more money."