Troutman officials stress importance of managing growth
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Few people are more attuned to the rapid growth that will change the Town of Troutman in the coming years than Town Planner Erika Martin.
During the town council's recent retreat, Martin helped frame the change on the horizon by presenting highlights from the past year.
The town annexed 185.96 acres into the town limits and handled 14 rezoning applications, of which 11 were successful. The town has also advanced various transportation projects such as the addition of the Park and Ride service to Charlotte and the Richardson greenway gap and SIHS greenway project.
Other important planning-related projects in process include rewriting the Unified Development Ordinance, advancing the town’s wayfinding and re-branding project, and revising the ten year-old Bicycle/ Pedestrian Master Plan.
Non-residential development included the opening of Taco Bell, All American Towing, Cedar Stump Pub, Let It Flow Yoga, and Orobí Café. Several other ventures are in process, including Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, Godley Warehouse 1, R Kids Car Lot, and Mattress Ninja, as well as the SIHS auditorium and ropes course construction projects.
Martin also announced that the old KFC property has been purchased, but she is unaware what the new owners intend for the property. She also looks for development at the new industrial park site and is monitoring for any action on a shopping center at the Troutman Commons property at the Highway 21/I-77 intersection after media reports of such a project.
The town approved 249 subdivision lots in Sanders Ridge and Falls Cove Phase 2A, with about 2,000 more pending. Martin’s department also issued 171 Zoning Permits and 86 Certificates of Occupancy.
Sutter’s Mill 2, the Howard subdivision (behind the Iredell Charter School), and Brookside residential developments are also in progress.
Martin presented Finance Director Steve Shealy's estimates that one-time fees on 230 housing units, assuming a $215,000 average value, would bring the town $875,825. The general fund net gain would be about $317,575 each year, after deducting town service costs. The utility fund should gain about $101,123 annually after costs.
2035 LAND USE PLAN
Much of the ensuing council discussion centered on the 2035 Land Use Plan approved in 2015. Young noted that a perception existed that the plan was outdated, but “I feel like we just did it, and the community was involved in that. If we are saying it’s outdated, and they are saying it’s outdated, do we need to everybody to refresh on the plan or do we need to make sure to communicate that out in the community?”
Planning and Zoning chair Layton Getsinger noted after the wave of growth after years of economic stagnation, “this plan does appear outdated because the growth has started happening quickly.”
However, he said that “the plan itself is a valid plan and it should be a component part of the town’s strategic plan. It won’t have be reinvented. It just needs to be updated with data that represents the current status.”
Council member Paul Bryant agreed, saying that the plan itself was “not outdated, it needs updating.”
Young said that in talking with the community, “we’re saying it’s outdated, so the community assumes this is an outdated plan we are not following. However, we just did it three years ago, and so we either need to get very familiar with that plan so as we go through this project of an operational plan, we need to update and refresh it, but we stay on task, that this is what we said then and it is still valid today.”
“Those things are either not valid today or they are not,” continued Young. “Do you describe the whole plan or do you say the plan needs to be refreshed? I just want to make sure of the language we’re using.”
Young wants to ensure the new operations manual resulting from the strategic planning process will incorporate up-to-date land use, park, and greenway plans, all of which included community input received during their creation.
Martin agreed that the data in the 2035 Land Use Plan does need updating but disagreed with that the entire plan is outdated. “Some of that is perception because of what’s come along recently, but in reality we are still following the plan, and it’s still a good plan.”
Martin suggested arming council members and staff with “information and metrics that you can show the public.”
Bryant felt strongly that the council needs “to revisit and refresh our vision that we all in this room have with our citizens’ vision to find consensus on the definitions for each one of those elements” in the 2035 vision.
“We need to have a shared definition of what is balanced housing, what is road construction that we can control, what is each of these that we all agree to and then march forward together to accomplish those things,” Bryant concluded.
Getsinger stressed that in his previous technology career, he had to constantly reinvent his vision with the quick pace of that world. “I found that what got us here would not keep us here, so in some cases, I think that we will find, because of external economic forces on Troutman, we will have to every year evaluate where we are compared to where we thought we’d be and what has happened since we talked last, what has changed.”
“What got us here won’t keep us here. External economic pressures are coming, and we don’t want to follow but lead it so that the changes meet the majority’s expectations. It’s scary leaving our comfort zone, but change will happen, with or without us,” said Getsinger.
Bryant agreed that they cannot “put a stake in the ground today and expect it to look that that in 2035. It’s got to be reviewed and refreshed every year.”
Council member Paul Henkel pointed out that if they continually refresh plans with changes in situation, data, and circumstances, they will never become outdated. “Troutman is a dynamic situation between two growing areas, and we have got to look at it consistently.”
“It’s got to be a living, breathing document,” Getsinger emphasized. “It has to be modified to reflect the realities going on now.” He believes that the land use plan needs to be looked at every two years because of how quickly things are changing.
DIVERSE HOUSING OPTIONS
Attracting the mix of diversity in economics, race, and ethnicity that the town envisions will also be a challenge. “How do you get people to come here to build moderate, medium and higher income housing?” asked Getsinger.
After identifying the highest and best use for each area, “we have to go out and visit with these builders of higher and middle end homes and have them come to Troutman and give an opportunity to see what the potential is,” said Getsinger.
“It’s going to take some new dance steps to figure out how to make that happen, but that’s a piece I would love to play a part of,” added Getsinger. “We get one good shot at making the town the way it needs to be or at least the best and closest to that which meets the majority’s expectations.”
Getsinger conceded that “it’s scary because we are leaving a comfort zone that we all love. Everybody came here because of the charm and quaintness and affordability, but things are going to change, with or without us.”
Henkel indicated that there are some things officials cannot foresee or that are out of the town’s control. “You still have property rights. Other people feel like we can be dictatorial and can tell someone exactly what to do with the property if their neighbors are doing something that they don’t like.”
“It’s a hard thing to get across to individuals that we are limited by state law, federal law, and the state constitution as to what we can do about regulating somebody’s property,” continued Henkel. “There are elements that we have no control over. Even if you zone something a certain way, what you envision may not end up being put there. It could be done by right.”
Henkel said the town can do their best to prepare and stay ahead of growth and hopefully steer housing and business in a way that is best for the community. “You can guide, lead, hope, but things may not always turn out perfectly.”
Martin noted that the NC legislature took away North Carolina towns’ ability to regulate the design of single family homes, but the new strategic plan could help the town figure out how to still get some control through conditional zoning.
Bryant added the town needs to attract medium and low density homes to balance the high percentage of high density homes approved in the 2000 homes currently approved for construction. “We need to have balance and make choices available for everyone.”
Getsinger noted that right now 1100 to 1200 people are now carrying the financial burden of running the town and that officials have a fiduciary duty to help spread out that responsibility.
“The reality is that the town has a break even point on net new housing - if its drawing money from the town’s coffers as a result of the price point at which it’s sitting on the tax books or is actually contributing to a net increase in tax revenues,” continued Getsinger.
Getsinger feels the only the only way to spread out the tax burden is to bring more medium and low homes into the mix. “We’ve got to have some homes in this community that are adding to the tax base rather than taking money out of the tax base,” concluded Getsinger.
Martin acknowledged the concern of some that Troutman will lose its character as growth and change come to the town, including traffic congestion, lot sizes, safety, and compatible uses. However, she advocated for the smart growth strategy that the 2035 Land Use Plan utilizes.
“Smart growth is about wise choices for everyone within the context of what makes Troutman Troutman,” Martin said, pointing to the added Park and Ride service, the improvement of the greenway and sidewalk network, and the Main Street improvement plan that keeps the area’s character while also improving it for better regional efficiency.
Martin said the recent debate over lot sizes and density is really a conversation about housing choices. The town looked at how current neighborhoods were or not contributing to the tax base and how proposed neighborhoods could help with that.
Martin observed that some have the perception that Troutman has just “opened the gates and that we are on a runway train of monotonous 50-foot lots. When the mixed residential zoning district was amended to allow 50-foot lots, I remember noting that very little of this district existed in our community, which meant that you all could be careful in your decisions to utilize it, and you have been.”
“You have allowed increased residential growth in areas that support the economy of downtown and Exit 42,” said Martin. She also presented maps that show only 22 percent of lots, existing or proposed, are on less than a quarter acre. This represented only 3 percent of the land area, “a very efficient use of land.”
Lots from one quarter to one half acre account for 16 percent of lot inventory, or 3 percent of land area. Lots of one half to up to 3 acres account for 51 percent of lot inventory and 20 percent of the land area, while lots 3 acres or larger account for 10 percent of the lot inventory and 70 percent of the land area.
Martin urged council members to use the information to set metrics on lot sizes that can be measured on a regular basis to ensure balance.
ATTRACTING MEDIUM- AND LOW-DENSITY DEVELOPMENT
Of the 2,200 approved houses on the books right now, less than 100 properties are medium density of 1/2 acre or larger, noted Bryant. He pondered what efforts the town can make to get more houses on larger lots to better balance this growth and provide more variety in housing choices.
Getsinger supported using the new strategic plan to identify which parcels are best suited for that type of housing and then recruit builders by marketing the available land and resources to them. He also wants to get the Planning & Zoning Board deeply involved in the discussion of housing variety.
Martin said all the calls she is currently getting for residential development are about small lot development. She suggested that officials determine a percentage of small lots they are comfortable with and stick to that goal. She also added that a larger-lot home does not necessarily mean a higher home value.
Getsinger noted there is a demand for higher end homes on larger lots, as evidenced down Perth Road. He cautioned that officials must be careful not to let all the available land get developed before the medium and low density demand gets to Troutman in the belief that “smaller houses are better than no houses.”
Bryant recommended showcasing parcels that can be annexed into the town, like those available on Autumn Leaf Road, to these larger home developers. “If we market our resources, our location, our properties, and our amenities to builders, the growth will balance itself.”
Henkel suggested finding ways to keep this type of land available by rezoning to preserve these properties for lower density residential opportunities, even if the town has to slow down housing growth to achieve the balance of options it desires.
“We are going to have to draw a line in the sand,” said Henkel. “You can still build, but you are going to have to build here until the other diverse sections of the market have caught up.”
Mayor Young said that there is still room for pockets of townhouses and other affordable housing with conditional zoning. However, he does not want large parcels of land developed with high density housing.
Henkel believes the town is still ahead of the curve in guiding its growth at this point but also sees the need to get the message out to developers that the town is looking for a balance of low, middle, and high density growth.
“I want to make sure that we are being proactive and protecting the areas of town as we are trying to play catchup with the diverse housing that we are shooting for,” added Henkel. “I don’t want to wake up someday and say, ‘oops, we’re too late.’ ”
Henkel favors a “grand plan” be quickly constructed early in the strategic planning process that clearly dictates the town’s desires for housing types in various areas. Bryant agreed, saying it should be part of a marketing plan that the town uses to attract the kinds of housing development it desires.
Young pointed out no excess of high density housing will happen unless the council approves it. He noted that Martin can also make developers aware that the council will not look favorably on their plans if they seek to build homes in areas that do not fit the town’s land use vision.