Commentary

Gene Pease: Why we should embrace change in Chapel Hill

March 4, 2014 

Over the past couple of years there has been much community angst around development in the areas of Central West, Obey Creek, and most recently the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard Focus Area. All of these areas were identified as potential growth areas from the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan process, undertaken in 2012 and 2013 with an unprecedented amount of community input.

Most of us have moved here, gone to school here, or grew up here, and stayed for the charm, character, diversity, public schools, and creative stimulation our community offers. Most of us want Chapel Hill to remain this wonderful village we love. So resistance to change is natural.

But for a moment let’s look at a bit of history and where we are now.

In the 1950s the community decided to create the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) to manage growth, preventing Chapel Hill from becoming strictly a bedroom community and avoiding urban sprawl. Thus in the future any town growth would have to be infill, not out.

In 1974 we created a free-fare bus system in partnership with Carrboro and UNC to mitigate traffic, parking and environmental issues related to students, administrators and faculty members driving to the university. Our bus system is a nationwide model, has won multiple awards and currently serves I believe over 8 million rides annually.

In 1991 the Community Home Trust (formerly Orange Community Housing and Land Trust) was founded and along with several other nonprofits, has tried to increase the affordable housing in our community. In addition our town, being good stewards of social programs, has significantly funded many services that have traditionally been the responsibility of the county – our library and the men’s homeless shelter to name a few. And during this period we invested in and built one of the best public school systems in the state. Chapel Hill has consistently been recognized as one of the best places to live. And we love living here.

But I believe there have been consequences, some intended and some unintended. Our housing prices and property taxes are some of the highest in the state and many retirees, teachers, firefighters, young adults and lower income folks can’t afford to live here anymore. It’s difficult to see how our town infrastructure needs (in excess of $100 million) are going to be funded in the foreseeable future. Our free-fare bus system in its current state is unsustainable because federal and state support has been reduced. And we currently do not have a long-term financial plan for our affordable housing objectives.

So what are our alternatives?

• We can continue to increase taxes which I believe will continue to further the divide between those who can afford to live here and those who cannot.

• We could cut town and county services – transitioning to more services where we individually pay for what we use - such as paying for trash collection (our solid waste) based upon weight of what we put at the curb.

• We can increase town revenue through increased commercial development and investments in such as areas such as tourism, the arts and entrepreneurism (i.e. increasing creative class jobs).

I believe the long-term solution to our problems will be a combination of all three. Which gets me back to the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard Focus Area and angst around development. This area is one of the very few which gives us a tremendous opportunity to significantly increase over time our commercial development, and in turn our commercial tax base.

If we don’t embrace change and address the points made above in this commentary we will become one of two types of communities: Carmel, Calif., or Detroit, Mich. Carmel is one of the most charming towns you can visit anywhere in the U.S. It substantially has not changed in character or scale since the 1970s due to no-growth policies. Carmel’s starter homes start in the millions, if available at all. Detroit, as we all know, is in bankruptcy due to not being able to survive the the recent recession, and its crippling debt that could not be paid. Do we want Chapel Hill to become either model? I don’t think so.

So I would encourage you to support the Town Council’s efforts to increase and diversify our tax base so we can address the problems I have written about and continue to live in one of the best places in America.

Gene Pease is a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.

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