Lake Norman & Mooresville

Leaders struggle with balance of development, preservation

Davidson’s leaders are working to protect the beauty of the town’s rural land while they allow growth that is inevitable.
Davidson’s leaders are working to protect the beauty of the town’s rural land while they allow growth that is inevitable.

Head east out of downtown Davidson on Concord Road, past Davidson College, and the surroundings quickly change.

By the time you reach the roundabout linking Concord, Davidson-Concord and Rocky River roads, just 2 miles from the iconic village green, the scene shifts to pastoral vistas that offer a glimpse of the area’s agricultural past.

Horses graze behind neatly constructed wooden fences, and aging barns stand in rolling fields, some still producing crops, some lying dormant, waiting for what comes next.

It’s the question of what comes next that vexes Davidson’s leaders. The recognize the appeal of the bucolic scenes that stretch to the Iredell and Cabarrus county lines. They also understand that development opportunities offer potentially enormous economic windfalls to property owners. And, they want to adhere to the town’s decades-old commitment to preserving open space.

In August, commissioners were confronted with balancing development and preservation. They unanimously approved conditional zoning for the Narrow Passage development, which would include 29 single-family homes on 60 acres of woodland, owned by the Mayes family since the 19th century.

The tract, bounded by Shearer Road to the east and Rocky River Road to the south, is part of what Davidson’s planning ordinance classifies as a rural growth reserve, where new subdivisions can include a maximum of six homes, regardless of the size of the development’s total footprint. The request by Narrow Passage developer and Davidson resident Karl Plattner far exceeded the number of homes allowed in a subdivision under the town’s existing rural development standards.

A group of residents urged commissioners to delay a decision on the zoning until the town could revise the rural development standards. The board instead followed the suggestion of Narrow Passage’s supporters and approved the zoning, but also instructing town staff to begin updating the vision for development.

The town turned to long-time urban planner Craig Lewis, a principal with the national firm Stantec, and a resident of Davidson, as a consultant to guide its efforts on a revised rural area plan.

Lewis has proposed a land use plan that envisions a collection of compact, residential communities connected by a network of roads, designed to encourage measured growth without adding traffic to existing two-lane roads.

“It’s about cultivated conservation and quality growth,” Lewis said. “It underscores two interests that are not competing. They’re very complementary – how we view growth, conservation and development in Davidson.”

The proposed plan would maintain at least half the rural land as open space, a goal the town already is well on the way to meeting, Lewis said. About one-quarter of the roughly 3,800 acres of rural land already is preserved as park land or through conservation easements. About 1,900 acres of “developable” rural land remains, according to Lewis.

Lewis also recommends that the town ask the City of Charlotte to extend water and sewer service to Davidson’s eastern edges.

Davidson’s proposed rural zoning revisions would permit one home per two acres in developments of up to 16 total residences while preserving 40 percent open space; or one home per acre in return for 70 percent open space. That would mean small neighborhoods built around open expanses, Lewis said.

The proposed plan identifies several large tracts – some individually owned, and some made up of assembled properties – as prime candidates for residential developments with small commercial elements. However, Lewis said, that doesn’t mean those property owners should feel pressured to follow the town’s vision if the board eventually adopts the plan.

“No one is forcing anyone to do any of this,” Lewis said. “This is all about willing sellers and willing buyers in a good market. There are lots of landowners out there who are not interested in doing anything at present. But at some point, they may. At some point, their heirs may. So it’s just a matter of how to manage that expectation when the time comes.”

Davidson Senior Planner Trey Akers said the next steps in the rural plan process are to gather citizen input in January before making a formal proposal to the Planning Board and, ultimately, the town board for approval.

John Deem is a freelance writer:

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Information on Davidson’s proposed rural area plan is at