As Cary was growing from rural town to suburban city (current population: 110,000) in the great leaps and bounds of the 1980s and '90s, its pay-as-you-go policy for roads, parks, sewers and the other necessities of municipal life kept falling behind its metastasizing subdivisions and clogged intersections. That brought slow-growth maven Glen Lang and allies to the Town Council, and Lang to the Mayor's office, for a period of catch-up. Over a period of six years, Lang & Co. put the brakes on growth, raised developers' impact fees, and asked Cary's voters if they wanted to borrow the money for the infrastructure improvements that the town had conveniently forgotten to provide in its salad days. The answer was yes.
Cary's voters approved a series of bond issues that have increased its indebtedness from almost nothing to the current $143 million. A major issue in this year's campaign is whether that's too much--and whether growth should speed back up to pay it off. A trio of Republican challengers are making that case. The incumbents they're challenging, two Republicans and a Democrat, say they're wrong--and point out that Cary has paid its debt service without the property tax rate budging even a penny. An independent candidate, a challenger, comes down somewhere in the middle--a little too much debt, but also a recognition that too much residential growth will only make the infrastructure backlog worse.
Frankly, Cary doesn't look anything like the town we'd have wanted if, with perfect hindsight, it followed sound growth-management ideas in its go-go growth years. Cary's all four-bedroom houses and four-lane thoroughfares, and it's almost completely car-dependent. Imagine if it had developed instead in new-urbanist form, with more people living more economically on less acreage, with more diversity of incomes and housing types.
But it didn't, and the fact is most Caryites like it fine the way it is.
Therefore, there are no wild-eyed progressives running in Cary, nor are the conservatives--as alarmed as they sometimes sound--likely to change things all that much from the status quo. We get that, too. If Money magazine thinks Cary's the "hottest town" on the East Coast--and it did in 2004--well, Money talks and who are we to argue the point?
But we do think Cary needs to be especially careful as it grows toward--and around--Jordan Lake, and chary of "waiving" buffer rules and density limits for wide-eyed developers. Similarly, it's going to take very careful redevelopment in the center of Cary, around the Amtrak and future TTA stations, to fit new mixed-used projects into the older neighborhoods nearby. And no, we don't think the debt's out of hand at a mere 1.6 percent of the town's assessed value. We think, rather, that Cary dug itself a hole--or let the developers dig one for it--and now it's digging itself out.
All that said, we recommend that Cary elect three candidates who take their planning--land-use planning and financial planning--very seriously. They are: incumbents Julie Aberg Robison, a Democrat, and Jack Smith, a Republican; and independent Ed Yerha, former chair of the Planning and Zoning Board.
Robison, who is the only Democrat on the ballot, ran for mayor two years ago and almost won in a three-way contest with Lang, also a Democrat, and current Mayor Ernie McAlister, a Republican. Now she's running for re-election to her at-large council seat. A definite wonk when it comes to planning issues, Robison's vulnerable to the criticism that she never gives a short answer when a longer one's available. On the other hand, when it's time to roll up the sleeves over a developer's application, she's the council's most knowledgeable, least doctrinaire member--a product of her experience as a land-use consultant to municipalities around the country for the Research Triangle Institute.
Her opponent, Republican Mike Curran, is one of the "sky is falling" bond-bashers, on top of which he's determined to stop Cary from spending money on a Triangle Aquatic Center--a project the town, and its nonprofit partners, have envisioned as a regional training facility for top swimmers as well as a recreation center for the community. Curran, an ex-swim coach who made his money in financial planning, heads a rival nonprofit that seeks to build smaller pool facilities around town.
It's an issue, but Curran's repeated suggestions that Cary's in debt because of the Aquatic Center is silly, since it's still just an idea.
Similarly, in District C, Jack Smith, an ex-corporate executive who now owns an executive search firm, is a 12-year council veteran with a record as a consistent moderate, able to work with the Langs and the McAlisters alike. His opponent, John Harvilla, also a corporate executive, is a conservative Republican who, yes, thinks town spending is out of control--though he's hard-pressed when asked where he'd cut. His best suggestion: the $49,000 a year public art coordinator, who according to Smith helped bring in $5 million in donated art last year.
In District A, we have no great issues with the incumbent, Jennifer Robinson, whom we've supported in the past and who continues to have the backing of the Sierra Club. But Robinson's district is in the western part of Cary where the growth issues are particular difficult. So we're a bit put off by her seeming eagerness to four-lane every road in sight, and also by her outburst recently when she dressed down the residents of New Hill--who are angry over Cary's annexation of a tract there, well outside the town's boundaries, for a regional wastewater treatment plant--for coming to the council and saying politely that they didn't like it.
On the other hand, Yerha, a retired corporate executive (what else?), has demonstrated a striking combination of financial and planning know-how together with a refreshing willingness to forgo the usual political cant--whoever's serving it up. An independent voice on the council would be a welcome addition, we think, and a useful check on the Republican majority. So would someone like Yerha, who pledges to follow in exacting detail the town's new northwest and southwest land-use plans, and to resist the pleas and pretty-pleases of the developers who inevitably will try to get around them.
The third candidate in this district, lawyer-CPA Tom McCuiston, is a well-qualified conservative and probably would do a fine job, too. But he hasn't avoided the cant when it comes to Cary's debt. He makes three good candidates, but we think Yerha's a cut above the others.