Christensen

Christensen: New law may stifle our cities

Staff WriterAugust 28, 2011 

Take a good look around you. This may be the high-water mark for North Carolina's cities.

If you follow the Interstate 40-85 corridor, you will find the greatest concentration of AAA-credit-rated cities in the country, according to one urban expert.

And you will find pleasant places: Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, High Point. And elsewhere in the state, Fayetteville, Wilmington and Asheville are cities that are nice places to live.

They are attractive cities, with modest urban crime rates and often livable, middle-class central neighborhoods.

The cities are growing. They are economic engines, helping generate jobs, rather than going hat in hand to the state legislature asking for subsidies as cities do in many other states.

North Carolina's cities are not places to escape; they are places to move to.

We take all of this for granted. But it is hardly true across the country.

Nor is it clear that this will be the case in 20 years.

All of this just didn't happen.

There were specific urban policies designed to help North Carolina's cities thrive. There were efforts to keep the county school systems racially integrated - an effort that prevented white flight from the cities and racial polarization between the cities and suburbs.

Since the 1950s, North Carolina also had one of the nation's most flexible annexation laws - which allowed the cities to expand as new subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers were built. That is why North Raleigh, for example, is part of the city and not a series of small suburban towns.

The state's annexation law was for all practical purposes gutted by the legislature this year. Annexation can still occur if a land developer requests that his undeveloped property be brought into a city.

But involuntary annexations, in which cities were able to bring in surrounding developed subdivisions, can be blocked if residents oppose it. If you ask people whether they prefer to live in a metropolitan area and pay city taxes or live in a metropolitan area and not pay city taxes, what do you think their answer is going to be?

North Carolina is one of the nation's fastest-growing states. It is predicted that it will surpass Ohio and Michigan over the next 20 years.

Tar Heel cities, many of which have significant land areas, will likely continue to grow over the next decade as vacant land is developed and density increases.

If you are an optimist, you can argue that the annexation laws and the school assignment policies have given North Carolina's cities enough breathing room to avoid the problems that have occurred in other American cities.

But there is also a good chance that from this point on, we will see a gradual decline of North Carolina cities - one that may not even be noticeable for 20 years, when today's policymakers are long gone from the scene.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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