Drive down any major thoroughfare and you’ll see houses and apartments rising from the dirt, part of a wave of new residential construction rolling across the Lake Norman region.
That’s good news for people who want to live here, or trade up to a new home. But all the new population growth brings concerns, especially about how it will affect town services, schools and traffic.
Many projects under construction or on the way were approved years ago, but only now are being built as developers rev back up following the economic downturn of 2008-9.
In Mooresville and Iredell County, building permits for new houses and apartments bottomed out in 2011. This year, builders have taken out 916 permits across the county, as of September, already more than any year since 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
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In Mecklenburg, building permit issuance hit a low point in 2010 but has bounced back over the past two years to levels not seen in a decade. As of September, building permits had been issued for more than 3,000 new homes, and more than 3,300 apartment units, according to census data.
New housing construction is especially strong in north Mecklenburg and south Iredell. And with thousands more housing units approved by area governments, and land sales continuing, the trend is expected to continue.
“The economy is getting better, things are happening and things are starting to go back up again,” said Jack Simoneau, Huntersville’s planning director. The town’s 2030 Community Plan foresaw the growth, especially the idea that “multifamily housing was going to be taking an uptick and hitting its real stride in 2015 and on up.”
Huntersville last saw a housing boom a decade ago, when building permit issuance for new housing peaked at more than 1,000 annually. As in other towns, building then slumped. But it’s growing again Simoneau said.
Get ready for another lurch forward in the Lake Norman area’s not-so-gradual – and not so graceful – transition from small towns to congested bedroom suburbs.
Thousands of new housing units have been completed over the past two years, and many more are in the works, at new construction sites and existing neighborhoods around the area.
Implications of growth
All these new homes and apartments mean more people.
Davidson Mayor John Woods has been talking a lot lately about the coming population growth, in radio interviews and public meetings. He cites figures from the Centralina Council of Governments, which predicts the Charlotte region’s population could double over the next four decades, adding 2 million people.
“I see us entering another period like the decade of the ’90s was for the greater Charlotte region, when the population just completely exploded,” Woods said.
That can’t bode well for those who already live here.
“You see the incredible, just recent, concentration of traffic congestion, which really has come in the last 18 months,” Woods said. “I-77 is crowded every day. Our towns are congested with the traffic that flows off I-77. Every day now, it’s routine that we experience those drags on our quality of life.”
Trying to halt development isn’t the answer, he said. “I just don’t think you can do that. We can’t close the doors, we can’t say ‘no more’ if folks are willing to sell their property. That’s way into a gray area of property rights,” Woods said.
As he tried to explain to a crowd at Davidson Town Hall a few weeks ago, thoughtful planning is the key. “You have to stop and think about how we’re going to plan and absorb all that and maintain some kind of quality of life, from a convenience standpoint, from a schools standpoint and everything,” he said.
Everything, including transportation. Woods and local planners say when it comes to transportation, the region’s commuters eventually will have to adopt a wide range of solutions, from using I-77 toll lanes to carpooling to riding the bus. And, although the Red Line project is dead, they hope someday the region will get a commuter train.
As for roads, Huntersville planning director Simoneau noted that every residential project developed since 2007 has been required to do a transportation impact study. Developers now are required to pay for road widening, turn lanes and intersection improvements deemed necessary to handle new traffic created by their projects.
The towns of Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville keep an eye on transportation through the Lake Norman Transportation Commission. The group’s executive director, Bill Thunberg of Mooresville, says plans are in the works for road improvements that will handle all the coming growth.
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” he said. “We have significant projects in the region that are going to help improve mobility.”
Those include widening and other improvements on U.S. 21 and N.C. 115 throughout the area, a whole string of projects planned on N.C. 73 from Lincoln to Cabarrus counties, and new bridges over I-77 to improve east-west connectivity in Mooresville and Huntersville. All are on the state’s long-range transportation projects list.
Still, as the region adds commuters, I-77 will continue to be a headache. The N.C. DOT’s $650 million project to add toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville by 2018 or 2019 will provide some immediate relief, Thunberg said.
“But there will be the need for additional capacity in that corridor at some point,” he said.
He said the region is benefiting from a new state road funding formula that will “allow us to make improvements we would not otherwise have been able to make.”
But overall, Thunberg has a mixed view of how the coming population growth will affect transportation.
“The outlook is improving. But when you’re behind, it’s very difficult to catch up,” Thunberg said.
David Boraks is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org