Matt Schwabel knew two years ago when he bought his home that the woods adjacent to the property, in the Arlington Park subdivision in northwest Cary, could be developed some day. The land is zoned as residential in the town's comprehensive plan. So he expected more single-family homes or townhouses.
"I thought I might have backyard neighbors," Schwabel says. "I can live with that. You don't think, 'Oh, they're going to rezone that commercial, I'm going to have shops back there.'"
But that's what will happen if the town approves a proposal to build a 150,000-square-foot, Publix-anchored shopping center on the twenty-two-acre site. Doing so would require amending Cary's comprehensive plan—something the town's planning board agreed to in January—and then rezoning the land to allow for commercial retail. A town council vote is scheduled for February 25.
In many ways, the Arlington residents' situation is typical of the growing pains neighborhoods face all over Wake County. There's an immediate comparison to be made with the failed rezoning of a Publix-anchored shopping center in North Raleigh, as well as with a recent decision by the Apex Town Council not to rezone a residential property to allow for a Lidl. As in those controversies, residents here are worried about how their quality of life will be affected by bright lights, noise, long operating hours, and truck deliveries—and how the shopping center will affect their home values.
But this case is different because the applicant—the Lewter family, which has owned the land for more than a hundred years—wants to change Cary's official land-use map, which has been in place since 2002, a heavier lift than a simple rezoning.
"There are legal requirements that the town council adopted to evaluate whether they can change the comprehensive plan," says Ben Kuhn, an attorney who is working on behalf of Schwabel and other residents. "One requirement is demonstrating that they need more grocery-anchored shopping centers in Cary."
That seems a difficult argument to make.
"Publix is great, but this is the wrong location, and it's not suitable based on the comprehensive plan," Kuhn continues. "You have places like southeast Raleigh that have been described as food deserts; Cary is a veritable food oasis."
Indeed, the town of 155,000 already has twenty-six grocery stores, including a Harris Teeter a half mile from the proposed Publix site and a planned Whole Foods nearby. In addition, Publix owns another piece of property less than three miles away. (Big grocery chains are attracted to the town because its families are relatively well off and have lots of kids.)
The Florida-based Sembler Company, which wants to acquire the Lewter property, argues that northwest Cary is underserved by retail, that there are plenty of places in Cary where retail centers sit adjacent to neighborhoods, and that the rezoning meets the town's goal of creating more walkable retail centers. Spokeswoman Amy Spoor says Sembler hosted three neighborhood meetings; residents' feedback led to some changes.
Still, many neighbors aren't convinced. They claim town council members have ignored them or been indifferent to their concerns, even though a petition is circulating with 299 signatures in opposition.
"It's this whole condescending 'Oh well, we know what's best and you'll thank us later,'" says resident Martine Goldman. "It's very patronizing. If you're trying to do something for us as residents of this community and citizens of this town, then you should take into account how we feel."
Town council member Don Frantz, however, paints the aggrieved residents as a distinct, though loud, minority. He told the INDY in an email that he had "no interest whatsoever in helping any media outlet present a one-sided story that further divides our community and pits neighbor against neighbor. There are as many folks—if not more—in support of this proposal than those who oppose it." (Other council members have not responded to the INDY's request for an interview.)
If the council signs off later this month, opponents argue, that could indicate how Cary will deal with the town's many other large, undeveloped tracts of land.
"In the past, commercial developments came first and then the houses came second," resident Peter James told the planning board last month. "That's perfectly OK, but this is almost the first time we've had the residential first, and then a change in the adjacent area to be commercial. That's a precedent that will be back for the future—and will create uncertainty."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Grocery Store Invasion"