Union County and Indian Trail Successfully Plan for Monroe Expressway Growth

Authors: Bjorn Hansen, AICP, Union County Transportation Planner and Katie See, Town of Indian Trail Senior Planner

With less than a month before the first expressway in Union County opened to the public, Union County and Indian Trail adopted a small area plan for two square miles of land adjacent to an interchange along the Monroe Expressway, the Charlotte region’s first toll road. Indian Trail, the county’s largest municipality, approached the Union County Planning Department in early 2017 about the potential to develop a joint land use plan for the area around the Unionville-Indian Trail Road interchange, an undeveloped area with scattered large-lot residential and forested lands. Both the County and Town had been approached by several developers interested in rezoning to a range of more intensive land uses and there was fear of disjointed development being approved without a common vision. The two jurisdictions focused on a planning process that focused on how to best harness the development pressures to implement a vision of the local residents.

Research: While the interchange was the geographic and economic center of the study area, Secrest Short Cut Road was the historic focal point for residents and drivers. The stakeholder committee for this process therefore recommended the study be called the Secrest Short Cut Small Area Plan. The study began in December 2017 with a comprehensive assessment of existing zoning, adopted land use plans, infrastructure, and environmental features, and was led by Gresham Smith and Partners. The local planning staff determined the 2045 growth projections and allocations used in the 2012-2015 Connect our Future regional visioning process using the CommunityViz growth allocation tool were consistent with the build out potential of the adopted land use plans for the area. These projections and allocations are used by many of the region’s transportation planning organizations, so this consistency increased local confidence in both the growth allocation process, and the need to accommodate this growth in the plan recommendations.

Outreach: The County and Town engaged the public in two rounds of input and feedback. The Centralina Council of Governments were an integral part of the public engagement process with their Metroquest engagement tool and experience in meeting facilitation. The first open house was held on February 22, 2018 at the Carriage House, a local wedding venue within the heart of the study area. Remarkably, over 120 members of the public attended the event to speak with staff, take a short survey and collaborate with their neighbors in order to determine the desired type of development for the area. Even more importantly, nearly 400 residents completed the on-line survey over the next couple of weeks, representing a wide range of ages and length of tenure in the area.

Identifying a Vision: The stakeholder committee worked with staff to prepare three draft land use scenarios based on feedback received during the first open house and MetroQuest survey. The second open house was held on May 31, 2018 at the Indian Trail Town Hall and was attended by more than 50 people. The purpose of this open house was to solicit feedback on the three land use scenarios in order to help staff prepare one recommended land use scenario as well as goals and strategies to help achieve the community’s vision. While there were some comments about “leaving the area as is,” the stakeholder committee and staff both recognized that residential development on one-acre lots (the default zoning for much of the study area) was not an ideal scenario next to an interchange. The community supported the mixed-use scenario, which envisioned a community activity center at the interchange, with a focus on retail and commercial activities. Higher-density residential was immediately adjacent to this area, with an emphasis on integrating these uses. Based on a need to address flooding and loss of natural features, staff recommended clustering higher density developments with a higher percentage of undeveloped land in areas ideal for preserving rural character and reduce stormwater impacts.

Finalizing the Plan: The recommended small area plan land use scenario projects a buildout potential of approximately 2,800 dwelling units and two million non-residential square footage for the study area. Remarkably, this dwelling unit total is within a few percent of the 2045 regional growth projections for the area, as well as the build out based on the existing land use plans. Most of the land in the study area is recommended for residential use, which is consistent with the existing land use plans, but the small area plan provides much clearer guidance on where differing densities are appropriate, as well as what to preserve for employment. Employment and service type land uses are identified for much of the newly-created land between Secrest Short Cut and the Monroe Expressway. Since nearly 70% of Union County residents travel outside of the county to work, the plan recommends employment land uses be protected against rezonings to residential uses. The parcels located in this area were bisected by the expressway and would be ideal for employment uses, which can include office, medical, light industrial and service uses. Retail uses should be a secondary focus of land uses in this area.

Adoption and Implementation: The Secrest Short Cut Small Area Plan was unanimously adopted by the Indian Trail Town Council on September 25th and the Union County Board of County Commissioners on October 15th. The largest homeowners association in the immediate vicinity sent a letter of support to the Town of Indian Trail commending the planning process and recommendations. Proposed projects representing over 1,100 homes have already been submitted to both jurisdictions for review with the Small Area Plan serving as the guiding document. Between the successful use of social media, on-line survey tools, a range of visions for the future from which to choose, and opportunities for incorporating feedback into the plan, this process and product is considered a success for the county, town, land owners, and local residents.