We have no real qualms with the Town of Clayton allowing a Sheetz at U.S. 70 Business and Rose Street. (The Town Council has not yet said yes to Sheetz, but the company’s requests are making their way through town hall.) U.S. 70 Business in Clayton has long been a largely commercial thoroughfare, and it helps Sheetz’s case that Clayton’s long-term land-use plan calls for commercial uses at the intersection, which is now home to houses.
But just a word of caution to Clayton leaders as they make room for Sheetz, which is expanding rapidly across North Carolina, even as the state’s economy remains sluggish: As a rule, towns should be reluctant to allow projects that push housing farther away from their central business districts.
Small towns, because their land-use plans think this way, tend to grow out, not up. In Clayton, for example, many Main Street businesses make their homes in houses where people used to live. Those are practical business decisions made possible by town rezoning actions, but they have the effect of pushing people farther away from the heart of downtown and businesses like the Coffee Mill, Flipside and Jones Lunch.
That’s potentially bad for business and certainly bad for the environment, because it pushes people and their gas-burning cars farther away from their downtown destinations.
The good news is that the trend in urban development is away from sprawl, and it’s happening in and around Clayton. Inside the town limits, for example, Riverwood is a planned unit development with retail space close to a variety of housing. Just outside the town limits is Flowers Plantation, which now has two grocery stores to serve its many residents.
Downtowns, of course, were the original mixed-use developments, with houses nestled up to compact business districts. But in many small towns, businesses now occupy much of that housing, and downtown is sprawling.
Clayton isn’t in danger of becoming another Houston, a city known for its sprawl. But with every house that gives way to a business, town leaders are making people rely more on their cars to to business in Clayton. And we’re not sure that’s a good thing for the town or its residents.