Terri Buckner: Growing predictions

July 22, 2013 

Terri Buckner


With work underway on three of the six focus areas identified by staff and consultants during Chapel Hill 2020, it’s probably safe to assume that growth will be the major debate topic in Chapel Hill this upcoming election season. Here are my predictions for how that topic will break down:

Affordability: Despite a median household income that is significantly higher than the rest of North Carolina, many Chapel Hill homeowners are paying over 40 percent of their income on housing and associated costs. Typically 30 percent is considered affordable. The town has pursued an inclusionary zoning approach to increase the inventory of housing for those residents who earn less than the median wage of $68,700 (town fact sheet). But as long as the average purchase price of a home remains at a whopping $368,200, it’s not just those who earn less than the median income who will have trouble purchasing or maintaining a home within this community. The recent focus has shifted from home prices to affordable rents. How does increasing the inventory of non-student rental property impact overall affordability?

Despite the high cost of living, residents continue to want amenities like an expanded library, sidewalks, transit, public art, and so forth. But as anyone who follows the discussions around the annual budget process knows, those amenities come at a high cost. With the state legislature passing more and more costs for many social services down to local governments, future budget discussions will become even more contentious. How do we balance quality of life that comes from amenities with affordability?

Economic development: One of the keys to affordability is economic development. There seems to be nearly universal agreement that until we have more commercial development, the cost of running the town will continue to fall heavily upon homeowners (and renters). But when we get down to the details of what type of businesses we want and where they should be located, that agreement starts to break apart.

UNC has spawned several business incubators recently, but the question remains as to where those new businesses will go once they become mature enough to leave the incubator nest. Can we keep them here in town with our current high rental costs for office space?

Will Roger Perry’s proposal to build a Target or other big-box store across from Southern Village survive the Obey Creek Compass Committee? Is sales tax revenue really the saving grace for our local economy?

Will a new six-story hotel be approved for Southern Village? How many hotels are really feasible in a town this size?

Redevelopment: One of the most repeated complaints coming out of the Central West planning process has been the underlying assumption that redevelopment will occur under a high-density scenario. That conflict isn’t unique to Central West. It’s been the basis of disagreement around Bicycle Apartments/Trinitas, the 15-501 South Discussion Group, Glen Lennox, and many other development proposals.

Years ago, the town, in conjunction with Carrboro and Orange County, established the rural buffer with the agreement that urban-type development (density) would occur inside that boundary. In theory, many residents continue to support that idea. But when it comes to practice, there is a split.

Many of our younger residents like the idea of living in a densely-developed, walkable city. Older residents treasure our past as a village (which was also walkable) and struggle to adapt to the reality of a more densely-developed town. Many young families straddle those two positions. They want their children to have yards to play in and safe walk zones for getting to and from schools, but they enjoy the amenities that come from living in a larger city.

It will be interesting to see how the candidates handle the inevitable questions around this issue.

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