Urban sprawl: a tale a thousand times told. Cloudburst of urban growth - neighborhoods up for sale and mushrooming shopping malls

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN John and Teresa Strasser bought a house outside this small bedroom community near Raleigh, N.C., four years ago, they could see a cornfield, a horse farm, and a 150-year-old barn from their porch. The handful of other houses in their subdevelopment were tucked back out of sight in a wooded cul-de-sac. Occasional cars passed on Kildaire Farm Road.

Today, even on a Saturday, cars whiz steadily by their house - so steadily that this year Kildaire Farm Road is being widened to five lanes, like similarly located roads around the country.

A 56-acre shopping center is under construction at the new stoplight, and a $24 million hospital is planned across the road. Just beyond the Strassers' split-rail fence, fire trucks rush out loudly at all hours from a new fire station not far from where they live.

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Fast growth has shocked many residents of this town, until recently known for its quiet, village-like atmosphere. This is a tale that could be told countless times around the United States.

Eight miles from the high-tech industries of Research Triangle Park - and now touching the city limits of Raleigh - Cary has become one of the fastest-growing towns in the urban South.

Its present population, about 40,000, represents a 100 percent increase since 1980. And the rapid growth is expected to continue. `SUDDENLY, we're surrounded,'' says John Woodward, a neighbor of the Strassers, referring to the shopping malls, subdevelopments, and office buildings that have sped like a line of wildfire out Kildaire Farm Road.

Mr. Strasser and his neighbors are proposing an unusual solution to the encroachment on their neighborhood: They have put their entire 10-year-old subdevelopment - all 22 acres and 11 houses - up for sale as commercial property.

``An island of nice homes in an area of high building doesn't make much sense,'' Strasser reasons.

He stacks a load of firewood in the yard as his two-year-old daughter and four dogs romp nearby.

Raising his voice over the roar of a passing truck, he explains that the homeowners hope to sell their subdevelopment, called Ponderosa, for a price that will allow them to buy again farther out of town.

The selling of an entire neighborhood, while unusual, has happened before in high-growth areas.

In 1985, nine homeowners in a nearby development sold out to an investment group, which resold the property to a developer of an office complex and shopping center.

In Atlanta, the nonprofit group Research Atlanta has documented proposed buyouts of 16 complete neighborhoods near the city.

In the Ponderosa, all of the neighbors had to agree before they could put their property on the commercial market. Among the 11 families here, there were very different feelings. When the idea was first discussed 2 years ago, some didn't want to sell.

`WHEN my wife was living, we laughed at them for talking to us,'' says Henry Donleycott. His son, Pat, and daughter-in-law also built a house in the subdevelopment to try to keep the family close.

In a front yard as harmonious and meticulously tended as a Japanese garden, Mr. Donleycott walks along a gravel path, calling out the names of crepe myrtle, rhododendron, wax myrtle, and dogwood, along with holly, azaleas and ligustrum.

``My missus had a lot to do with the planting - we worked on it together. We planted that photinia when it was four foot high,'' the 78-year-old man recalls, referring to a 15-foot hedge along the edge of his yard.

From behind the wooden fence Donleycott added to block off Kildaire Farm Road, the constant traffic pounds like a frenzied and wearying surf.

As he talks on this Saturday morning, a telephone truck parks in front of his house. Workmen kick on a generator. They are marking the underground telephone line so it won't be cut when the road and nearby bridge are widened.

Even with the noise, Donleycott says, he'd just as soon stay here. But some of his neighbors have to move whether they can sell their houses or not.

DAVID and Sheila McLean live with their three children on a wooded one-acre lot beside Donleycott. They will leave this summer when David, a student, begins his first job.

Like many of the families in the neighborhood, the McLeans had their house custom built. ``We built it right before the big boom,'' recalls Mrs. McLean, meaning when the road was still mostly undeveloped in 1982.

``A house always takes on character,'' muses Mr. McLean, adding that the family likes the children's playroom and the stone fireplace in the living room.

But even if they could stay in the area, they are ready to leave. Last year their house was robbed, ``which statistically goes along with increased access,'' Mrs. McLean notes. ``Hundreds and hundreds of cars go past our house every day.''

Others here feel little sentiment for their homes.

`IF they brought a bulldozer in here and pushed it over, it wouldn't bother me,'' says Jerry McLaurin, referring to his family's contemporary-style house with its two-story living room, skylights, and waterfall on the porch.

``I like a change,'' explains Mr. McLaurin, a developer, who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years.

Even without the traffic on Kildaire Farm Road, the McLaurins say, they were ready to go.

Most of the neighbors say they want to settle in a more rural place, ``to re-create the life we had five years ago,'' in the words of John Strasser.

But unless the local economy takes a downturn, they will simply be the vanguard of suburban sprawl, McLaurin acknowledges. Strasser envisions moving again when city life bustle reaches his next house.

Some, considering the prospect of continued change, wonder where they can go to find a serene life.

``An awful lot of the problems in a town like Cary are caused by people who come here to get away from those problems,'' says John Woodward, citing the congestion, the noise, and the hurried pace of modern life.

Mr. Woodward, a stocky, bearded man who favors plaid shirts and country crafts, plans to move ``away from all this progress'' with his wife, 12-year-old daughter, and their two golden retrievers.

``I grew up in a small town,'' says Woodward, originally from North Carolina. ``I like the values in a small town. I don't need three malls within a mile of me.''

Donleycott, who lived for 32 years in New York, moved to Cary when his son Pat was transferred to a job in the Research Triangle Park. ``He said, `Dad, North Carolina is beautiful. You've got to come down here,''' the elderly man remembers.

But ``it's hard to judge the Southern way of living in Raleigh and Cary,'' says David McLean, recalling the slow-paced, easygoing life in Eagle Springs, N.C., where he spent his adolescence. ``Here there's a whole lot of tension in all that traffic.''

The wanderings of modern families can weaken a sense of connection among people, McLean observes. ``People are so transient that you don't know anyone anymore.'' He notes that, ironically, the Ponderosa neighbors never really got together until they began discussing the sale of their neighborhood.

The neighbors mostly just drive by, without stopping to talk, when he is out working in his yard, Donleycott says. ``People are so caught up in life today. They both have jobs. They got no time.''

But others like the feel of city living.

``I like a fast-paced life,'' says Jerry McLaurin, who grew up on a farm in the nearby agricultural town of Fuquay-Varina. There, everyone knew everyone's business, he recalls, and choices and conveniences were limited. ``I've seen Cary come a long way.''

And the changes here, with all their suddenness and stress, have a certain inevitability, McLaurin observes. ``When you live in a good community, other people are going to want to live there.''

``It's a big-city life now,'' he adds. ``It's just a question of whether people can adjust to that or not.''

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