Our anti-social Town Council

There’s nothing in the town’s bylaws that says Town Council members have to be socially responsible. Or that they must exercise foresight in their decision making. Or that they should do their best to make certain the social fabric of our community is kept intact.

But it sure would be nice.

The council extravagantly funds the Inter-Faith Council. Council members have worked at the IFC Kitchen. They pass laws to fund election campaigns. They ban free speech on buses (unless you are a business). Some members go out of their way to trumpet their forays into socially responsible activities. They go to great lengths to present themselves as socially responsible.

And then they go and approve a short-sighted and anti-social project such as the Bicycle Apartments off Hillsborough Street.

How are council members anti-social? They approve laws that they have no intention of enforcing, such as building limits in Northside and occupancy limits for houses. They pass cell phone bans that police cannot enforce, thereby tying up tax dollars in legal fees (tax dollars that could have gone for funding maintenance costs for the renovated library or subsidizing workforce housing). And they allow developers such as the Bicycle Apartments folks to go forward with construction plans that violate town ordinances, disrupt the peace of mind of neighbors and suck rent dollars out of the local economy.

How is Bicycle anti-social? The council handed over to the out-of-state developers an opportunity to make money hand over fist without having to worry about the consequences of their project, its long-term effects on neighbors and its costs down the road. There are a lot of warning flags attached to this project and the company that will run it, not the least of which are poor management and wood framing (like Rosemary Village, which already is beginning to sag).

The council is anti-social when it overturns zoning regulations and requirements anytime a developer wants them changed. And it’s anti-social and deeply cynical when it goes to great lengths to let speakers at council meetings have their say, and then ignores every word by fast-tracking a project such as Bicycle Apartments.

What our town needs is council decisions based on farsighted reflection rather than on immediate action intended merely to clear an agenda. Council members are anti-social when they put the desires of out-of-state developers before the well-being of the town and its residents. Their lack of integrity and foresight ultimately degrade the community.

I do appreciate the humor that inevitably arises from council meetings such as the one that reviewed Bicycle Apartments. I was tickled to hear Chamber of Commerce executive director Aaron Nelson, who never met a development he didn’t like, step up for social responsibility by saying with a straight face that student housing will at some time become workforce housing.

Maybe he was taking his lead from Town Council.
– Don Evans

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28 Comments

  1. Avanti

     /  March 4, 2013

    There is also nothing in the town bylaws that say critics with a forum have to represent some element of truth and understanding of the way Chapel Hill does business when an attack on council members is launched. The Mayor, when referring to the way Chapel Hill has historically made development decisions, clearly stated the conundrum faced by all parties. We do planning (sometimes even good planning) to establish where and at what levels of intensity we want new residents or businesses to add to our town. Then we stop being forward thinking and start being NIMBY. But, rather than make it easy for builders and developers to do what we want by zoning the properties available for development so that they can know how much of what they will be allowed, we force an applicant to march thru a long process with no idea about the outcome. Is this bad for the applicant? Of course! But its worse for everyone else. Residents near any proposal and the council are the real losers – as are the rest of us when we see the amount of staff, council, and resident time and money wasted in the process. Is it reasonable for residents to have to go thru an 18 month process of vigilance? Is it reasonable for council members to be lobbied for 18 months – and intensely lobbied in the last 3 months? It might surprise most Chapel Hill residents that some (progressive) states have seen fit to adopt legislation that says that a town’s zoning ordinances must conform to its comprehensive plan and that the plan should be evaluated every 5 years. Such as in the thought process that would ask – are we maintaining neighborhoods as we desire and are we developing as we wanted and meeting our goals for workforce housing or increased business activity in town that keeps us off the roads to Durham. For Chapel Hill such a process would mean that if a land use plan identifies a residential density of 15 units per acre for an area of the town, the zoning must be changed to permit that type and intensity of development. We, on the other hand, make plans, show densities, keep the zoning at extremely low densities (for both residential and non-residential development) and hope we can stop most anything we don’t like by the pressure of NIMBYism. A complete and utterly backward way of creating the community we say we want.

    With respect to university student housing (Bicycle Apartments or any other proposal), the development and review policies of the past 20 years have promoted the invasion of the neighborhoods near the campus and those neighborhoods north of Estes Drive. The Council decision to approve Bicycle Apartments is both farsighted and a responsible act and will not “degrade the community” as alleged. Might the Bicycle Apartments have arrived at a different and better design? Not with the current framework for review of projects and our low density beg for zoning approach to developments.

  2. Don Evans

     /  March 4, 2013

    Those poor developers! They have to put up with so much before they loot the community. They are saints who only want to make our town a better place. They only have the community’s best interests at heart. Right?

    Developers want to rig the game because they are concerned about one thing only — a big payday. They have no qualms about the impact of their projects on the surrounding community and its social fabric. They will tell the council anything it wants to hear if it will help them get their project past that last hurdle. They don’t care, they don’t have to, they don’t plan to stick around.
    Developers are most interested in getting in as quickly as possible and then leaving with as much money as they can carry. Some of them may actually come back if they think they can pull another one on that gullible town council.
    They have no interest in a project’s effect on neighbors — that’s where the council is supposed to stand up. But oddly enough, this council does not show any willingness to side with residents. Most often they seem more interested in shortening meetings than in giving projects the needed analysis that could ensure a result that benefits not just the developers.
    They may preach about 2020 planning, but who drove the 2020 sessions? Most often it was developers or their representatives. Ideas that would have favored residents were shot down in the sessions or ignored by the council.
    The lack of foresight and savvy shown by this council on development issues is appalling.

  3. Avanti

     /  March 4, 2013

    Mr. Evans: Your point of view is shared by many in NC and in Chapel Hill: If you “aren’t one of us” you are below contemptible when it comes to wanting to build or develop something. Funny (it is) to see how many of those despicable developers build good communities and end up living here. Meadowmont and Southern Village were vilified and fought against by many, even some council members that voted against those projects but now take credit for the high quality of development and the great social community that have resulted from the mixture of housing types and price ranges were developed. A city planning consultant that I know and used to live in Chapel Hill says, “All the broken arms in town are from people trying to pat themselves on the back for the good job of planning they think they are doing.”

    Twenty-five years ago I chose to live in Chapel Hill because I thought it was a “progressive” community. It is with several exceptions, including those residents who believe developers are evil and that the town actually does any positive significant city planning. If you want to look at where real improvements need to be made, look at the overcrowded, poorly maintained homes (three in my neighborhood) where prior town residents and homeowners have turned their property into de-facto student rentals and don’t give a damn about the affects on adjoining properties. Find a solution to that problem from in-town or out-of-town folks and you will be contributing more to the future betterment of Chapel Hill than anyone has to date.

  4. DOM

     /  March 4, 2013

    Don Evans

    Wow, with that kind of simplistic, closed-minded attitude you just might get selected for a seat on the Planning Board. Give Del Snow a call, I’m sure she could squeeze you in.

    And by the way, since you don’t want any profitable new development in town, pay the increase on my next year’s tax bill, would you?

  5. Don Evans

     /  March 4, 2013

    DOM

    Sally Greene’s already got dibs on your next year’s tax hike. Better cut out the lattes!

    And please share with readers any info on a project of your choice that actually pays for itself. Be sure to include the costs of police, fire, school, trash pickup, traffic, public transportation, etc. Not to be simplistic about it, you know.

  6. George C

     /  March 4, 2013

    Don,

    In your response to DOM you implied that the Bicycle Apts. project will cost taxpayers in terms of police, fire, school, trash pickup, traffic, public transportation, etc..

    Well, let’s look at those services one-by-one:
    (1) The project will be paying CH property taxes for both police & fire protection. And since the apartments will all have sprinkler systems they may be a lot safer than many of the homes in the area they abut. The developer is also required to provide on-site staff and security personnel.
    (2) schools – I suspect that few if any residents will be using the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools except for the few apts. that were required to be set aside for workforce housing.
    (3) trash pickup – the developer is required to hire a private contractor for this.
    (4) traffic – the restricted number of parking spaces (less than 1 per 2 bedrooms) suggests than the majority of students won’t have cars here. If they move here from another area of town they are more likely to be driving a car in that locale than in the one they are moving to. The developer is providing for traffic timing improvements.
    (4) public transportation – again, the developer will be paying CH property taxes, approximately 14% of which will go to transit. In addition, the students all pay for transit as part of their student activity fees so I guess you could say they are going to be double-billed (or you could say that the Town is making out pretty good on that aspect). The developer is also providing a bus stop shelter.

    So how this project will cost the taxpayers as you suggest is very difficult to see if you look at the terms of approval.

  7. Avanti

     /  March 4, 2013

    Mr. Evans – Your simplistic version of cost/revenue is wrong and it is evident you don’t understand the many local, state, federal linkages and revenues for capital or operating expenses for municipalities. As an ass’t City Manager (not here) I believe I do know $$ and costs.

    Virtually no residential dwelling unit (except those in the above $1 million range in Chapel Hill) or other residential development pays for itself. The studies done for and by Orange County are so general that they are worthless for making any real policy and tax decisions. All this is why we have collective purchasing – otherwise known as taxes – to pay for our trash, fire & police protection, etc. I do know that I put my daughter thru a private school for 12 years because when I moved here the school system was not as good as the one I left behind. So I do know that my school and county taxes put at least 12 underprivileged children thru our public schools. It appears that our current Town Manager – and for certain our prior Town Manager – have no interest in doing any serious study of cost/revenue – for what they think are good reasons. But it would sure help you to see a competent study to understand the linkages and pressure points.

  8. DOM

     /  March 4, 2013

    Mr. Evans -

    Regarding your comment: “Please share with readers any info on a project of your choice that actually pays for itself.”

    Every property owned by anyone in America pays for itself through the property taxes it has to pay. Shame on you for not knowing this.

    I sure hope your responses here are simply an attempt to generate controversy. If not, you’re woefully in need of further education on the subject.

  9. Nancy

     /  March 4, 2013

    Count me among the woefully uninformed. If all projects pay for themselves in taxes, why did Roger Stancil need to do an analysis before determining that annexing a neighborhood in the ETJ would be cost effective (and had the infrastructure not been in place, it would not have been)? Why is the town considering petitioning the state to raise its cap on fire district tax? Why has the ongoing debate about whether density pays for itself not been resolved?

  10. Avanti

     /  March 4, 2013

    For Nancy: The state requires a study for annexation. It is to determine if there are sufficient public services (those are specified in the statutes). The fire district issue is covered by other state laws on rates that can be charged for fire districts. The state legislation has been written for many years – and has been aggressively changed in the past 4 years in favor of those who do not want to be annexed and pay municipal taxes. The debate about high density and whether it pays for itself has been analyzed by many organizations. The general conclusion is that the only residential use that does not pay for itself is a single-family home, the type of use that generates the most children, most amount of road per person to maintain, highest amount of trash per person, consumes the most water per person, places the highest demand per unit on sewer services, and does the most damage to the water supply by the use of pesticides and lawn fertilizers. As a town, we have not had a good set of information provided by our municipal government so that we can understand the basics of municipal costs and services. Chapel Hill is truly an unusual town, but one that has a bleak economic future given our desire to have new housing that crowds the schools and one in which limited retail, hotel, and office growth will be allowed to balance the tax burden. We are at the edge of the region (and not just in the goofy branding adds) and so we will continue to purchase many goods elsewhere. Brace yourself, the next wave of budget cuts from the Feds will begin to hammer the local economies and we will not be spared.

  11. Terri Buckner

     /  March 4, 2013

    Avanti, Can you please clarify. In one response you stated: “Virtually no residential dwelling unit (except those in the above $1 million range in Chapel Hill) or other residential development pays for itself.”

    But then in your response to Nancy you said, “The general conclusion is that the only residential use that does not pay for itself is a single-family home…”

    Orange County did a study several years ago that agreed with the statement that single family housing does not pay for itself.

  12. Many

     /  March 4, 2013

    The town is petitioning for an increase in the fire tax because 1) the tax hasn’t been raised in many years and 2) the CHFD has taken a serious hit in the voluntary payment from the university system on their properties. Basically the state has a pot of money that is divided up across all fire districts with university property in it. That pot of money has not grown, and I think it has likely been a victim of University system budget cuts.

    Avanti has it basically right, although I think s/he over states the effects somewhat. I do not think anything here is going to be bleaker than anywhere else. The good news is that because of intrinsic wealth, Chapel Hill faces choices about what is critical and what is “would be nice” and likely has options other municipalities do not.

    I do *completely* agree that it is far too hard to parse useful and relevant information wrt puts and takes about “critical” vs. “would be nice” from either the county and town budgets.

    As an aside, I posit that a reduction in taxes going to the feds (to supposedly be redistributed to the states and local governments) might turn out to be a real benefit in the long run when kept locally.

  13. Many

     /  March 4, 2013

    BTW. I think “NIMBY” is unjustly vilified. I can think of several cases where a so called NIMBY argument exposed flaws in a plan that were not apparent to someone who does not live in the immediately affected area.

    Just my 2 cents.

  14. Avanti

     /  March 4, 2013

    Nancy: FYI – The state requires a study for all annexations. It is to determine if there are sufficient public services (those are specified in the statutes). The fire district issue is covered by other state laws on rates that can be charged for fire districts. The state legislation has been written for many years – and has been aggressively changed in the past 4 years in favor of those who do not want to be annexed and pay municipal taxes. The debate about high density and whether it pays for itself has been analyzed by many organizations. The general conclusion is that the only residential use that does not pay for itself is a single-family home, the type of use that generates the most children, most amount of road per person to maintain, highest amount of trash per person, consumes the most water per person, places the highest demand per unit on sewer services, and does the most damage to the water supply by the use of pesticides and lawn fertilizers. As a town, we have not had a good set of information provided by our municipal government so that we can understand the basics of municipal costs and services. Chapel Hill is truly an unusual town, but one that has a bleak economic future given our desire to have new housing that crowds the schools and one in which limited retail, hotel, and office growth will be allowed to balance the tax burden. We are at the edge of the region (and not just in the goofy branding adds) and so we will continue to purchase many goods elsewhere. Brace yourself, the next wave of budget cuts from the Feds will begin to hammer the local economies and we will not be spared. It is certainly reasonable to ask – have we peaked with respect to municipal services? A strong case can be made and the library issue for operations is just one of the first cutbacks we will have to make if we don’t have the nerve to raise taxes locally. Our elitism is starting to really hurt.

  15. Ed Harrison

     /  March 4, 2013

    The legislative package adopted by the Council last week does not include “petitioning the state to raise its cap on fire district tax.” The only body that could allow this would be the General Assembly. While the “fire tax” is not directly related to the large costs incurred by the Town to serve the UNC main campus — equivalent to as much as 2 cents on the tax rate — it is related in that the CHFD is stressed fiscally, along with the rest of Town government.

  16. Avanti

     /  March 5, 2013

    For Terri – I wrote a badly worded sentence about expensive single family homes. My error. It should have said that expensive single family homes may cover the service costs – including schools, but that other single-family homes generally don’t cover their service costs. To your question about single-family or other residential and paying for government services. Based upon this year’s tax rates, a single family home in Chapel Hill valued at $500,000 for tax purposes will generate $8,300 split about as follows: 28% County Services, 32% Chapel Hill Services and 40% for Chapel Hill Carrboro School Services. A $1 million home provides about $15,400 in combined property taxes to be split the same three ways. I’ve done fiscal impact analysis and modeling for development for about 35 years in many different communities and would say that for most – including Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County – the services provided to single-family homes and traditional family households (those with children) is subsidized by the other uses (rental residential, office, retail, industrial, etc. in a community). Does this mean that we should get rid of or not approve anymore single-family home development? No it does not. But it does mean that those who would clammer for denial of other uses on fiscal impact grounds aren’t very well informed and are using smokescreen tactics about incremental and cumulative costs from new development.

    For Many – You are absolutely correct that many – perhaps all – neighbor or community reviews of development proposals discover important missed considerations. Sometimes this information is learned from residents that are seeking to make a development a better neighbor. Sometimes the information is from someone seeking to stop a project for legitimate environmental impact or other reasons. Sometimes the information is from someone who just doesn’t want any more development – especially on a wooded property immediately behind their home or neighborhood. Are these folks “NIMBYS”? Not always, but we do have our share.

  17. Avanti

     /  March 5, 2013

    For Many – I don’t share your thoughts about potential positive outcomes from the current federal budget process and outcomes. Federal increases in revenue from the added income taxes to the wealthy will not offset federal budget cuts. The current NC Governor (A figurehead Mayor in Charlotte’s form of Council-Manager government) and the house and senate are on a march to reduce the state budget in very draconian ways. That leaves us as a town with fewer $$ for many years – at least 10 by all seemingly thoughtful estimates that I have seen as the only new revenue we might see is from new development and increasing our local tax rate – applied of course to property that might be worth less than it was 4 years ago. I don’t see any good coming from this string of events – nor do I see a resident population that is willing to increase property taxes. Yes Chapel Hill has some tough decisions to make. Compared to most economically healthy small college towns we really don’t have that many “Luxury” or “would be nice” services. Perhaps our biggest luxury service is the inordinate amount of town resources that are used for the review of development proposals. As Council Member Pease has said numerous times, the development review system is broken and almost everyone agrees that it needs to be changed and fixed. Would making changes to the process and how we designate land for development be a game changer? Not by itself, but the pain from continuing to do what we have done for the past 25 years is clearly not how we should approach the next 25 years. Lastly, this discussion isn’t about how good a place Chapel Hill is to live today or in the past decade. It is about how – as a community – we deal with constrained resources (land, water, $$) and manage the future.

  18. Terri Buckner

     /  March 5, 2013

    Thanks for the clarification, Avanti. Sounds like getting the proper combination of commercial and residential (with the emphasis on commercial) is more important now than ever.

  19. Many

     /  March 5, 2013

    Ed,

    Do not know for sure, but I had heard from a pretty reliable source last year that “State Property Fire Insurance Fund” had been reduced by 10% when the funds were transferred from the Office of State Budget to the DoI. The total cut being ~400K state wide. With Chapel Hill having a lot of state property in the in relation to population, a large proportional share of the impact hit CHFD.

    I stand corrected.I took Nancy’s statement that CHTC was “considering” petitioning the state for an increase as a no-brainer. BTW, the 15 cent per hundred limit applies to fire departments covered by NCGS 69-25, which in this case would be the new Fire Protection District on Mt. Carmel Church Road not Chapel Hill proper.

  20. Many

     /  March 5, 2013

    Avanti,

    I think you missed my point. The reduction of taxes at the federal and state level would need to be made up by local taxes or services would need to be cut. Taxes spent closer to the point of collection tends to increase participation and better appreciation for how those monies are to be spent. I view that as a good thing.

    Chapel Hill has a wealthy demographic and a developmentally desirable zip code. Much more so that other places. Chapel Hill has many more choices than less advantaged places.

    IMO Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Hillsborough has a lot of fat. Much more so than other places. Many of these changes are overdue and the reality may eliminate some very expensive sacred “would be nice” budgetary cows, or at least stop feeding milk to those cows. The library comes to mind, but the excessive redundancy between county and three town services infrastructures is where the real savings are. No one will take it on right now, but the single biggest savings is probably in the multiple school budget redundancies. The local view of taxes and increased participation should expose some of those trilateral redundancies that in the past have been easier to ignore. The time is fast approaching (as you point out) to really understand where the money goes and make some intelligent long term choices.

    …..but the sky is not falling.

  21. anonymous

     /  March 5, 2013

    it’s not that complicated. Since ~48% of the county tax bill is for schools, construction that does not generate public school attending children will to some degree subsidize other tax payers in the county.
    So commercial and lots of 1/2 bedroom buildings probably won’t produce many kids attending public school.

    And Avanti is right in that large mansions are probably the only type of single family housing that really pays for itself… However, I do wonder if commercial tends to use more of other services e.g. police? fire? that single family may not.

  22. DOM

     /  March 5, 2013

    Another call for Del Snow’s resignation. A definite step in the right direction for Chapel Hill.

    http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2013/03/05/75302/chapel-hill-councilman-planning.html

  23. Avanti

     /  March 5, 2013

    Many, I did think that you were postulating that there would be more local tax revenues because of cuts to federal and state taxes. I do agree decisions are usually better when the decision makers are close to the tax payers. With regard to the prospect for additional tax rate/type cuts – I don’t expect to see any. So what I envision locally (municipal or county level government) is a loss of revenue from state and federal programs (especially military and transportation spending) and state programs (funding for education or environmental protection in NC) and no willingness on the part of local elected leaders to increase taxes. There was a great public involvement voting experiment in England last year. I’ll dig it up and post it for examination. It might be the way we should approach letting our council members/aldermen/commissioners know what we really value and if we are willing to pay for it.

  24. Many

     /  March 5, 2013

    Avanti,

    Thank you. I expect that there *might be* more taxes as well as more opportunity for private enterprise to take up slack, but that these decisions will have more participation and be (hopefully) better thought through for the reasons I stated.

    I would be interested in reading the voting experimentation regarding voter participation.

  25. Diogenes

     /  March 5, 2013

    Oh boy. Our world is upside down. Bill Bell votes “with his neighbors” against a “luxury apartment project”. According to the Chapel Hill Herald ” As usual in south Durham development quarrels, density was a factor in the debate.” Seriously — that argument is so over! Smart growth is … well you know, smart! Somehow Del Snow has gotta be behind this. Hopefully Commissioner Rich will demand the Durham Council dismiss Mayor Bell. Durham clearly needs help from the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce ASAP or they’re gonna get a rep for being unfriendly to business.

    http://www.heraldsun.com/news/x670461668/Council-votes-down-project-on-N-C-54

  26. Many

     /  March 5, 2013

    Shocking! So others are struggling with the same issues and one size urbanization does not fit all.

    A corollary noticed over time; the more desirable an area is for developers, the less resistance it takes for the planning board and voters to be vilified as “unfriendly to business”.

    It seems like this super majority roadblock might be averted if zoning & land use matched and the area on highway 54 and Barbee (part & parcel) was appropriately zoned in the first place.

  27. Bonnie Hauser

     /  March 5, 2013

    I just want to echo Many’s comments on infrastructure redundancy. The combined tax revenue from the county and its 3 towns and 2 school districts is roughly $275 million. Certainly combining overheads for finance, payrolls, parks,transportation, solid waste, police, fire, etc – could save a lot of money without impacting service. Schools too – but not yet.

    An easier first step might be to share facilities – like invite Carrboro and the county to move into Chapel Hill’s $52 million Town Operations Center so everyone can enjoy the public art and sustainability trails.

    The next problem is that a large portion of our real estate is tax exempt – and it seems to be growing. Not just UNC and UNC Healthcare – but governments, faith centers, and not for profits. Consider the impacts of tax exempt county offices, Durham Tech and UNC Hospital, the TOC, and the Blackwood Farm all along I-40. What about 54 East?

    So with an unsustainable fiscal foundation – and no interest in discussing costs, cooperation, or the eroding tax base, its hard to imagine that development is the silver bullet to make this all work. Its just one piece of the puzzle.

  28. Many

     /  March 22, 2013

    Others are struggling with the same trade offs albeit on a larger scale. So far, Portland seems to have avoided negative branding of opposing viewpoints. I will be interested to see the outcome of this proposed development….

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/dilemma-bike-crazy-portland-parking-cars-18787862?page=2#.UUxKXBesiSo

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