Del Snow: What the growth consultants left out

October 4, 2013 

I attended the chamber-sponsored talk on “True Cost and Benefits of Development” (CHN, Oct. 2, and left with a very skeptical reaction to conclusions presented.

The overall thrust of the Minicozzi/Marohn presentation was that building “up” cuts infrastructure costs. What was left out, in my opinion, was that the infrastructure costs that are cut are those that are footprint related, such as sidewalks and roads. Associated with this was the emphasis put on the costs of sprawl. That may be applicable in cities where sprawl has a radius of 50 or 100 miles, but Chapel Hill’s entire land area is under 21 square miles. Many of our longest roads, MLK, 54, Estes, Weaver Dairy Road, and 15-501, are state maintained.

Left out of the equation were any of the increased costs of infrastructure based on population, such as increased need for police and fire personnel and equipment, for social services, increased waste generation, and strain on future water supplies. Even the cost of just one new fire truck necessary for protecting taller buildings, approximately $1 million, was not part of the calculations necessary to determine whether development is revenue positive, neutral, or negative. No fiscal impact analysis was even suggested.

Additionally, the consultants tried to illustrate the perils of debt. They did not document any of the interest rate assumptions shown which clearly impact the length of the payback period. By simply changing the scale, the results could be used to illustrate opposite ends of the spectrum. Orange County is considering $100 million in school bond debt to finance one of those consequences of growth. Residents are the ones who will bear that cost.

Mr. Minicozzi related his success in revitalizing the Asheville downtown as proof positive that Chapel Hill could use the same model. There are many reasons that this is not the case. Asheville’s land area is double that of Chapel Hill’s, so sprawl takes on a different meaning. Also, Asheville’s downtown had an existing infrastructure of tall buildings that were in need of renovation. Asheville, unlike Chapel Hill, is a center for commercial activity as the only urbanized location within around 100 miles.

By approving form-based code and giving up our ability to obtain the high-quality development that we should be known for, our big take away was supposed to be that sales tax and property tax revenues will pay for everything and leave us in fiscal heaven. My take away was that by analyzing in a vacuum and with non-congruent analogies, an effort can be made to convince anyone of anything. Sales tax revenues of $3.81 on $1,000 worth of sales extrapolate to the need for millions of square feet of additional retail areas to result in a significant increase in revenues. Where will that go? Also ignored by the presentation was our symbiotic relationship with UNC which leaves a high percentage of land area as tax exempt.

Rather than competing with Durham and Raleigh for the title of most chain stores in the area (a battle that we will likely lose), Chapel Hill should be building on its strengths as a beautiful historic town that lives the values it professes to have.

I leave you with a quote by Arthur Frommer which Joe Minicozzi shared with us: “Tourism doesn’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”

Del Snow lives in Chapel Hill.

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