Published: Aug 14, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 14, 2012 05:17 PM
In your July 21 editorial, you ask Is growth in Chapel Hill inevitable? Implicit in your editorial and many local debates is the assumption that growth means bringing large numbers of new people to town through the construction of new homes. James Carnahans response furthers that assumption when he challenges the applicability of carrying capacity to urban design.
Unlike James, I believe carrying capacity is an important consideration. Density may be one smart approach to manage growth, but growing sustainably means doing so within the limitations of our local resources such as water and K-12 education. James asks How would one determine capacity for a couple of towns or a political entity like Orange County? Heres my answer.
More than a year ago, OWASA informed elected officials that due to more frequent and intense droughts, we will need to formalize access to Jordan Lake as a backup water supply, at least until 2030. Although we have done an admirable job of reducing our per-household water use since 2008, OWASA staff believe that we have maximized our current conservation opportunities.
Since we cant assume we will always have enough water, doesnt it make sense to review our residential growth patterns? Do we want to continue adding population if it means going outside Orange County for water, even if only every few years when there is drought? Or could we become a community that strives to balance human population with the availability of water within our southern Orange County ecological footprint?
During the Chapel Hill 2020 meetings, we were told there is only one remaining site for a middle school within the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. There are no other sites for elementary schools after the new school is built in Northside. Carrboro High has room to expand, but new residential developments are more likely to be built in the northern section of the district. New northern developments will mean redistricting and, possibly, longer commutes for high schools students.
We could reduce the footprint of our existing schools, but they cannot go up and still comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and fire marshal requirements. Do we want to continue adding population if it means school overcrowding, longer commutes, and/or reducing the size of playing fields to accommodate new trailers? Or could we be a model community that makes population growth decisions that prioritize our collective belief in the value of quality education?
I do believe growth is inevitable, but I dont accept that growth has to mean adding the 20,000 to 50,000 new residents town planners say we need to prepare for. Chapel Hill has new modeling software. We need to use it to help us to constantly review the balance of resources and demand for new development. Neither are static and both will change constantly due to extraneous factors. But thats why the modeling software is so important; it will help us make data-driven decisions about how many new residents we can accommodate with our limited resources. To ignore those constraints is to negatively impact the quality of life for those already here.
My continued hope is that the 2020 plan will focus our attention on fashioning an intentional design for how to balance population growth with the resources available to our community.
Terri Buckner works in Chapel Hill and lives in Orange County.