For at least the fourth time this year, the denizens of a small residential enclave on Elon’s northern periphery descended on the town’s municipal building this week to protest a Raleigh-based developer’s plans for a new subdivision next to their neighborhood.
Residents of this well-established community ultimately pressed their way into the town’s meeting chambers on Tuesday when the GreenHawk Corporation formally presented its plans for this 129-unit development to Elon’s town council. The council also heard directly from 11 of this project’s opponents that evening when it convened a state-mandated public hearing on the proposed subdivision.
Known as Parc East, the project at the center of this neighborhood uprising is actually GreenHawk’s second foray into the countryside north of Elon’s municipal limits.
Last summer, the same Wake County firm received the town’s permission to build an even larger, mixed-use development at the northwest corner of University Drive’s juncture with Shallowford Church Road. Dubbed Parc Northwest, this project consists of 185 single-family homes, 200 apartments, and 54,500 square feet of commercial space, which GreenHawk proposes to squeeze into a high-density package that’s meant to evoke the sort of village-style community that pervaded much of the U.S. before the rise of the automobile.
Elon’s town council eventually approved the plans for Parc Northwest over the objections of neighboring residents due to a wealth of concessions that GreenHawk had made as part of a conditional zoning request for this project. Since then, the company has filed another conditional zoning request for the northeast corner of the same well-traveled intersection, where it plans to develop another, more traditional residential development.
GreenHawk’s plans for Parc East envision this project as an exclusively residential endeavor with 60 townhomes, 44 single-family homes, and 25 “attached” single family dwellings. These residences would be distributed across the project’s 33-acre site at a “moderate density,” allowing the balance of the property to be used for courtyards, a 40,000-square foot “park,” and a greenway along the northern edge of the site.
In addition to these recreational features, the developer’s plans also depict an internal street network with a primary entrance along Shallowford Church Road and a secondary outlet off Cable Road. This second access has proven quite the sticking point for residents who currently live along Cable and nearby Spanish Oak Road. In fact, it is these residents who’ve formed the core of the GreenHawk’s opposition and who accounted for the lion’s share of the critics who spoke up at the public hearing on Tuesday.
In order to follow through with its plans for this project, GreenHawk has requested a “conditional” form of urban residential zoning that includes 27 self-imposed restrictions on the development. These conditions include a detailed site plan of the proposed subdivision, along with specific provisions that address everything from architectural standards to parking and buffers.
During Tuesday’s public hearing, Jeremy Medlin, an executive with GreenHawk, pointed out that, under his company’s plans, the project’s proposed site would actually be developed less intensively than the property’s current zoning allows.
[Story continues below photo and graphic of subdivision’s proposed layout.]
“This is a down-zoning,” Medlin assured the town’s elected leaders, “and the reason it is a down-zoning is that when I first saw the property, I didn’t think it was appropriate to develop it according to the existing zoning.”
The developer’s assurances about Parc East’s suitability have nevertheless done little to appease the homeowners along Cable and Spanish Oak roads. In particular, these neighboring residents have objected to the project’s potential impact on these streets, which they insist are woefully insufficient to accommodate the additional traffic from the proposed subdivision.
Before Tuesday’s public hearing, Elon’s planning director Lori Oakley tried to address some of these traffic-related concerns, which had also been a source of friction when GreenHawk’s rezoning request went before the town’s planning board.
Oakley assured the council that GreenHawk’s plans for this project have posed no serious concerns for the N.C. Department of Transportation, which maintains Cable Road and other outlying streets. She added that Chuck Edwards, an assistant district engineer with the department, personally vouchsafed the adequacy of these roads when members of Elon’s municipal staff asked him to evaluate the developer’s plans before the planning board’s meeting in May.
“Mr. Edwards stated that the 20-foot-wide paved subdivision streets appear to be structurally adequate for residential-type traffic,” she elaborated. “He noticed cracking due to age, and crack sealing, [although he added that] Cable Road and Spanish Oak Road are scheduled for resurfacing in fiscal year 2025, although it was stated that the road has an estimated 5 more years of life.”
Oakley went on to note that the transportation department has found the anticipated traffic from Parc East to be insufficient to warrant a formal traffic analysis by the developer. She added that, according to the DOT’s estimates, the entrance along Cable Road would draw about 40 percent of the traffic that the subdivision is expected to generate.
“The traffic on Cable Road would double from its current rate of 30 trips to 60 trips,” the town’s planning director added. “That number is still considered a small volume by DOT, and Cable Road and Spanish Oak Road were stated to be capable of handling all generated additional trips.”
Oakley informed the council that she shared Edwards’ conclusions about these two roads with the planning board before it rendered its verdict on GreenHawk’s proposal in May. She added that the members of this appointed advisory board ultimately voted 5-to-2 not to recommend approval of the developer’s request.
Oakley nevertheless noted that the project’s prospective developer has accepted some additional development conditions in response to some of the objections raised by the planning board’s members. These latest concessions include a pledge that the proposed outlet onto Cable Road would be closed off during construction as well as a pledge that the open space within the development will be made available to the general public.
The town’s planning director also alluded to the potential installation of raised crosswalks or “speed tables” to slow the velocity of vehicles that use the Cable Road outlet. During Tuesday’s hearing, Landon Massey, the town’s fire chief, gave his tentative nod to these measures, although he conceded that he generally frowns on these sorts of obstructions as an anti-speeding device. Meanwhile, Medlin pointed to a variety of “traffic calming” features, such as crosswalks and curves, that he and his colleagues have already proposed along the development’s roads.
“If you factor in everything we’re doing, there’s like seven traffic mitigation measures,” he added. “But if it creates some comfort with the group, I think it would be fine [to have speed tables installed].”
The concessions that Medlin and his associates presented on Tuesday didn’t exactly sap the momentum of the development’s critics, who continued to press their case against GreenHawk’s request during the public hearing on Tuesday.
Among the most persistent complaints that the council heard from the project’s detractors concerned the traffic that Parc East is expected to generate.
David Ehmig of Olsen Drive recalled that the potential impact of these additional vehicles was also a primary consideration for the town’s planning board when it evaluated the project.
“It was a safety issue; that was the issue of the night,” he recalled. “We have school buses that stop right across from our entrance…and that’s a dangerous situation.”
Bill Mann of Spanish Oak Road challenged Oakley’s conclusions about the amount of traffic this project would disgorge onto Cable Road.
“The traffic flow will probably be double or triple what she is estimating,” he added. “Our neighborhood roads are not built to handle the traffic. Two buses cannot pass on that road without the mirrors hitting on each other.”
“The road that’s proposed is going to go right in front of our houses, and I’m concerned about the traffic,” concurred Cable Road resident Paige Vignali. “The roads are small – I pull over for the Amazon truck. They’re just not built for a lot of traffic.”
“This new road will become a permanent cut-through for anyone and everybody,” added fellow Cable Road resident Marian Christian, who went on to warn the council about the impact the proposed development could have on public services such as law enforcement and fire protection.
Meanwhile, Mark Luck, another homeowner along Cable Road, admonished the council to consider the effect that developments like this one may have on Elon’s carefully curated image as an idyllic small town.
“My question is what does the town of Elon want to stand for? What image do you want to project?” he went on to inquire rhetorically. “Do you want to continue to overload and then deal with the problems when there’s havoc?”
In response to these objections, Medlin cautioned his company’s critics that they could easily find themselves in the sights of a developer far less accommodating than GreenHawk.
“If you win and run me out of town, what happens when someone else comes in and embraces the current zoning?” he added. “We didn’t come into this light-hearted…We didn’t think about how we could maximize what we’re doing. We’re thinking about how we can enhance the quality of what you already have.”
The council, for its part, didn’t render a final decision on GreenHawk’s request after it heard from the community on Tuesday. Even so, Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe expressed some sympathy for the developer’s position when she announced that the council would resume its consideration of the project at its next meeting on Monday, June 26.
“There’s been a lot of things brought up around safety and traffic,” Sharpe acknowledged after the public hearing. “We get it. But I want you all to ponder…is what can be built there today without ever coming before this board.
“We will continue to look at this and ask questions,” she added, “and if you have questions about what conditional zoning can and can’t do, contact us.”