Published: Oct 09, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Oct 09, 2012 04:24 PM
When Chicken Little retires to Chapel Hill she will likely change her mantra to the growth is coming, the growth is coming! In doing so, she will join a chorus who characterize every new development as a threat to life as we know it in Chapel Hill.
That happened this summer, when a local developer proclaimed growth is inevitable in defense of a new project. Cultural Malthusians quivered when they heard that.
But is this a genuine concern? Is growth really inevitable? Recent history in our area suggests not. Chapel Hill-Carrboros resident population growth since 2000 has averaged just over 1 percent per year. Even when you add UNC students, the total is below 2 percent. Thats hardly rampant or worrisome growth.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro have learned to avoid the inevitable by choking off growth. Heres the well-documented recipe. First, encircle your towns with a low-density buffer in which water and sewer are prohibited, known around here as the Rural Buffer, or the urban services boundary. That will serve as a firebreak, depriving the fuel needed for expansion.
Then, within town limits, enact restrictive zoning codes, impose burdensome costs and conditions on new development, and severely constrict the approval process. That will forestall new projects and minimize their eventual impact. Its a deliberate strategy, time tested, and it works.
Compare our results with those of our neighbors. Durham grew at a rate nearly twice ours. Raleigh expanded over four times faster. In fact, the Triangle was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Except for our neck of the woods.
So rather than be inevitable, growth is actually a choice, and we have chosen here to keep growth to a minimum. There are many people who agree with that, and a majority of voters have consistently elected candidates to put those policies in place.
But proponents of these policies should understand that choices have consequences, at times unintended ones, and its worth exploring what those consequences have been.
By restricting growth youre limiting supply. Unfortunately, demand cannot be similarly limited. Schools alone make Chapel Hill and Carrboro high demand areas. Lots of demand and little supply produces high prices for property.
Its not surprising this is the most expensive place to live in the Triangle. The average selling price of a home in Chapel Hill Carrboro last year was $374,000. Thats 60 percent higher than Raleigh and more than twice that of Durham. That price gap will widen as our surrounding communities add to their supply, and our share of the Triangles population, now below 5 percent, continues to decline.
Other consequences stem from the relative lack of commercial real estate. Most jobs are a commute away, as are popular shopping destinations, which is inconvenient, expensive and harms the environment. Residential real estate has to shoulder most of the property tax burden. Sales tax revenues are meager.
Taken together, the cost of living is much higher in this low-growth area. That results in perhaps the most fateful consequence. Over time, the community becomes less diverse and more privileged. Newcomers need more wealth to move in while taxes move low and fixed income residents out.
Thats already happening. The median household income in Chapel Hill increased 32 percent in the last 10 years. Household income of property owners in Chapel Hill is more than double that of North Carolina.
Growth is not inevitable, but change is. Those who worry that Chapel Hill and Carrboros character is going to change are right. But growth is not the cause of that change; the lack of growth is. Ironically, our progressive elected officials policies have been making the town less progressive.
If anything, these changes will accelerate given the Triangles projected growth over the next 20 years. The Rural Buffer will function more like a moat protecting a medieval castle and our towns will increasingly become enclaves for the affluent. Of course, they will remain special places, at least for the special people who can afford them.
Such are the consequences of the choices we make. If Chicken Little does want to retire here, shed better be saving her Henny Pennies.