Garner prods developer group for ways to build houses, tear down school stereotypes

kjahner@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2014 

— A “chat” between town leaders and an outreach group of developers suggested developers like much of what they see in Garner, while the town would like to tear down a few old stereotypes so it can entice developers to build more homes.

Garner council members and a few department heads spent Wednesday morning at the Garner Performing Arts Center with representatives from Triangle Community Coalition, a group of that aims to create open lines of communication between the towns that keep tabs on zoning and construction and various professions involved with development.

At the two-hour “coffee chat” Garner leaders spoke about the various events in Garner ranging from commercial development and the succesful bond issue to schools, transportion and recent awards and distinctions. Meanwhile they also prodded the developers for ways to further their goals and encourage development, particularly residential development to accompany the commercial boom at White Oak. The developers were more than happy to offer “free advice,” as TCC representative and engineer Jim Bell called it in a meeting several TCC members called one of their longer and more productive such discussions.

One topic emerged that seemed to surprise the group, which includes developers, engineers and real estate agents. Garner leaders complained that they still heard about real estate agents not giving Garner the looks that other towns did because of a perception the town had bad schools.

“It was surprising to me that realtors still aren’t selling homes in Garner because of the schools. I thought that perception had been overcome, considering the commercial activity going on in Garner,” said David York, a lawyer who specializes in land use, commercial real estate, municipal and environmental law and ran the meeting for TCC.

Town leaders talked about being named an All-America City as well as ranking highly among places to live based on quality of life, local economy and cost of living. One such listing released March 6, though, seemed to underscore the issue. While Garner ranked 11th statewide in Nerd Wallet’s Best Places for Home Ownership in North Carolina, Garner competes with many of those it trails. Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, Wake Forest, Clayton, Apex and Morrisville all posted significantly more rapid population growth in the last few years and all except Clayton have higher median home values.

Councilman Buck Kennedy noted with dismay the six to eight houses a month being built in Garner, contrasting it to higher rates elsewhere.

“It looks like a misprint. Other communities not even our size are beating Garner hands down,” Kennedy said.

The town has spent significant time reaching out to local developers in the last year as it works to revise water allotment policies as well as permit requirements and procedures to adjust to increased water capacity availability and new realities in the housing market.

Bell, a Garner resident himself, said planned changes make it a perfect time for TCC to work with Garner. He also said the town already does a good job of streamlining the permit process with clear and reasonable regulations.

“I’ve developed a number of sites here (in Garner). Working with Brad Bass and the staff and the mayor and the council has always been a pleasure,” Bell said.

Town Manager Hardin Watkins said some are starting to come around to the potential value, of Garner particularly with the massive planned project on the northeast quadrant of Jones Sausage and White Oak roads as well as commitments from Wake County to build new schools. in southern Garner, where the town hopes residential construction will take off.

“I had a developer tell me ‘If you’re getting a Cabela’s and a new high school, I’ve got to get over there and start buying lots before they get expensive,’” Watkins said.

Avoiding headlines

The TCC, York said, aims to create a cooperative relationship rather than an adversarial one between developer and the municipalities trying to ensure growth is good for the town long term through regulation. Every town, company and even project can create different dynamics, but he said good development benefits both sides.

“Our purpose is to meet before the first major headline in the newspaper,” Rick Emerick, senior advisor for developer Income Properties of Raleigh. “We want to avoid that Monday morning headline that none of us want to see.”

Bell didn’t shy from the fact that a developer’s goal is to make money, and York also noted that they will go to the path of least resistance. But Bell said the TCC has incentive to avoid strong-arming or taking advantage of towns.

“We live here. Some of the developers come in from around the country. Our intent is not to do something that is going to harm the community because when the developer leaves we’re stuck and it’s our reputation. So we are trying to protect both sides,” Bell said.

Bell called the meeting “better than most” because of a vibrant back and forth with the town leaders rather than one sided presentations. That, he said, builds relationships, though he admitted that a couple of the representatives live in Garner helped with familiarity with the issues. Bell vowed to work to get information – suggesting a simple, informative one-page fact sheet – to real estate companies regarding Garner schools as a way to battle any misconceptions. He also vowed that this meeting wouldn’t be the last.

“This gives us a lot of a lot more information. It sets us up for the next one,” Bell said.

Non-Garner residents backed up Bell’s optimism at the end of the meeting.

“I think you have a lot to offer that people don’t know about,” said Stephen Greene, vice president of Ramey Kemp, a transportation engineering firm based in the Triangle.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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