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Town, Transportation Officials Discuss N. Mecklenburg Growing Pains

Daniel Coston
Local leaders sit down with WFAE's Mike Collins to discuss issues facing development in Lake Norman area towns.

Population has boomed in the Lake Norman area towns of Davidson, Huntersville and Cornelius. In 1990, the three towns had a total population of about 10,000. Nearly 30 years later, the number of residents has grown tenfold – to more than 100,000.

As these towns continue to grow, development is trying to catch up, town leaders say. At a Charlotte Talks Public Conversation last Thursday, local officials gathered to discuss the growing pains that come with rapid growth. 

That conversation will air on Monday at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on WFAE 90.7 FM or online at wfae.org. Here are some of the highlights of the discussion. 

Transportation is among the growing pains. As delays in the controversial Interstate 77 toll lane projectcontinue, a “tsunami of transportation projects” is heading to the area, said Huntersville Transportation Planning Director Bill Coxe.

“We are teed up on projects to begin in 2020, 2021, 2022,” Coxe said.

Scott Cole, of the N.C. Department of  Transportation,  estimated the planned projects would cost half a billion dollars.

He said that instead of “build it and they will come” projects, funding is going to areas such as north Mecklenburg, where there are significant transportation issues.

But, Cole said, building more roads is not a sure-fire way to solve congestion issues.

“We can make a dent in improving mobility and improving safety, but you’re not going to pave your way out of it,” Cole said.

There are other solutions to help ease congestion, Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell said. He brought up the idea of hardening road shoulders and making them a part of the roadway during peak drive times in the morning and the evening.

Russell said congestion in the Lake Norman area isn’t just an inconvenience to drivers. He said it has larger ramifications.

“This isn’t just a quality-of-life issue,” Russell said, "This is an economic development issue.”

The growing pains in north Mecklenburg towns go beyond transportation, extending to issues such as  overcrowding in schools. More residents coming to the area means more students flooding Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in the three Lake Norman area towns, said Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox.

“The growth in our schools has been exponential,” Knox said. “With the growth that we have … we have schools where the day they open, there are mobile units in place.”

Such overcrowding has led area leaders to look in to alternative schooling options, such as charter schools. That has created friction with CMS, especially following the passage of House Bill 514, which allows Cornelius, Mint Hill, Matthews and Huntersville to operate their own charter schools.

CMS has said the move will lead to more segregation in schools. The bill's supporters argue it will ease school overcrowding, while expanding choice.

“514 for Cornelius was about preserving options,” Cornelius town manager Andrew Grant said. “Options are our future.”

Cornelius and the other towns included in the bill have created committees to explore the viability of charter schools in their areas, said WFAE reporter David Boraks.

“They are looking at if the cost of starting a school is worth it. The towns will assume the costs,” Boraks said. “Can they do it without raising taxes?”

Local leaders also discussed another unavoidable repercussion of growth – the deepening need for affordable housing.

Boraks, a long-time Davidson resident, said in the most recent valuation, homes in his neighborhood were valued upwards of half a million dollars. He said he would be hard-pressed to afford a home in the area if he tried to buy today. 

Boraks added that with the attraction of Lake Norman and the expensive real estate in its surrounding areas, the towns face a significant question about culture:

“The issue that the towns face … with house prices rising like this, how do we keep the populations somewhat how they are right now or do we turn it into a wealthy resort?”

That’s a problem Cornelius is facing. With much of the town consisting of Lake Norman waterfront property, Grant said there’s no room to grow.

“Land is disappearing, especially in Cornelius,” he said.

Grant said the town has taken a “very practical approach” to try and keep Cornelius affordable. He said the town is working with local organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Davidson Housing Coalition to strategically plan ways to increase Cornelius’ affordable housing stock.

But Huntersville has the room to grow, said its planning director, Jack Simoneau.

“Average home sale prices were only about 5 percent higher than Mecklenburg County as a whole,” Simoneau said. “We are in a different position than our neighbors to the north.”

Russell said increasing the area’s affordable housing stock is a priority for the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.

“You’re not a community if your teachers and your firefighters can’t live there,” he said. “We have to increase affordable housing.”

To hear the entire conversation, tune it to WFAE on Monday, April 22, at 9 a.m. and at 7 p.m. You can listen at 90.7 FM in Charlotte, 90.3 FM in Hickory, 106.1 in Laurinburg, 93.7 FM in Southern Pines and www.wfae.org, and on the WFAE and NPR One apps. 

Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.