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Council Member Jennifer Robinson: Preserving a high quality of life 

by Jessica Wells, NCLM Communications Specialist

Since moving to Cary in 1995, Jennifer Robinson has been a strong advocate for town residents. At the time, Cary was in the midst of its biggest population boom with a growth rate of 13 percent. She was living in western Cary, which she refers to as the "frontier" of the town’s growth, and became involved by trying to articulate concerns related to road networks and congestion.

"When I originally came to Cary, my first impression was the Cary Parkway – this beautiful street with four lanes and a

beautiful median, and I thought this is the place I want to be," Robinson said.

After frequently attending town council meetings, she joined the Growth Management Task Force to find solutions to complex issues, which were completely new to her coming from a software development background. Regardless, she excelled, and when a council member became mayor in 1999, he appointed Robinson as his replacement.

She was reluctant to serve because she was a mom to four young 

children and ran her own company, but she took the position and is serving her fourth term.

"Not only was I new to these issues, but I also flipped sides," she said. "I went from concerned citizen advocate to suddenly being the person who had to get familiar, pay attention, appropriate enough money, and make decisions. Before I was able to just say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here.’"

In the early 2000s, the council implemented growth management policies to maintain a steady 3 to 5 percent growth rate – a challenging goal that was achieved.

"You can’t squelch or manipulate those market forces. What I really learned as a public servant is rather than trying to control those forces, you should try to accommodate the growth in the best possible manner," she explained. "Meaning, make sure you have the best possible infrastructure for things to run well and operations that can handle more people."

The area of western Cary she once considered the frontier has been exceeded by miles of new growth and gained more than 40,000 new residents to help guide council making decisions.

"A council person cannot live in every neighborhood and drive every road or walk every greenway, so we rely on our citizens to help us stay 

accountable to provide the best services," she said.

Robinson and the rest of the council are focused on preserving the high-quality of life that originally attracted her to the town. Even during the recession, the council made deliberate budget cuts based on what was transparent to the citizens.

They cut things they thought citizens wouldn’t notice rather than not maintaining the medians or painting the fire hydrants — everything they thought citizens could see, they tried to maintain, so even though families may have had budget constraints at home, they wouldn’t feel like their town was having budget constraints, too.

"I want to be in a place where they take care of their medians and it looks attractive," she said. "If people are going to sit in traffic, we want it to at least look good."

In addition to minimizing traffic, planning for pedestrians and cyclists is a large part of road network objectives. The town has 70 miles of greenways with plans to add more than 100 additional miles at a rate of at least 2 miles per year.

One main objective is to link the American Tobacco Trail to Raleigh – making it possible to bike from Durham to Raleigh after the final two segments are complete.

Robinson is also a strong advocate for the town’s aesthetics guidelines, which drew a lot of attention during the last few legislative sessions. In the 2013 session, House Bill 150 threatened municipal authority to 

withhold residential building permits based on a builder’s design elements, such as his building materials or garage size.

Cary has aesthetic principles for commercial and multi-family developments that Robinson said are easy to meet and the town never receives pushback on the issue that has recently been overblown.

"I think one of the ideas people have of Cary is that it has to be all beige – we don’t need everything to look the same," she said. "What I do think is very important is that a city has the ability to respond as their citizens want them to respond, and that’s where we really talk about local authorities given by the state."

According to Robinson the bill would hinder council’s ability to attract developers because they won’t have a predictable standard, and it will be more difficult to respond to citizens’ requests.

"When developers go to make a decision about investing in a community, they want to know up front what the standards are," she explained. "When a government doesn’t codify standards and expects to be able to get a builder to adhere to standards through enticements or extractions, that’s when it becomes an unpredictable situation."

Robinson said for the most part, citizens are happy with the town’s design standards as most of them were inspired by citizens’ requests.

"I think people who don’t like that look and feel will choose another community, and that’s one of the beauties of our region — we have a variety of communities that offer different elements," Robinson said.

Although the bill did not pass last session, she said she anticipates local authority will continue to be a hot topic in 2015. Robinson keeps abreast of legislative issues by serving on the League’s Board of Directors and Legislative Action Committee where local authority discussions can relate to a variety of topics including aesthetic controls, tree ordinances, environmental measures or utilities.

She also stays connected to her representatives to maintain a good working relationship, which brings her back to her citizen activist roots.

"It’s to the point where we are exchanging Christmas cards – that’s what I think every local government needs to strive for. We’re the equivalent of that citizen activist."