When my husband and I moved to Chapel Hill from the Northeast, the ease of life delighted us. We loved the way the sun spilled across the low roofs in winter; how you could duck into the Community Center swimming pool for a mid-day swim, or find an unmetered parking spot on Franklin Street to grab a sandwich. Our dog ran free through woods given to UNC by a philosophy teacher, and a free bus delivered my husband from our home in Briarcliff to UNC.
Now high-rises block the light, and the meters on Franklin Street confound. Our pool is closed three days a week. UNC enforces its leash policy at “Carolina North,” where asphalt is incongruously labeled Greenway. My husband’s bus route? Discontinued. Our house in Briarcliff? Flooded, two summers ago. When I told the town’s stormwater manager we were standing in a filthy foot of water, she said, “What did you expect? You’re in a floodplain.”
I attended my first Town Council meeting after our pool closed, armed with dozens of signatures and backed by rows of supporters. I argued that if Parks and Recreation couldn’t afford to pay a lifeguard $130 a week, maybe the department shouldn’t be spending $10,000 week on “Public and Cultural Arts.” After a couple of minutes, a light flashed and beeped repeatedly – my cue to slink back to my seat. The council enforced the cuts.
When the town invited residents to take part in the 2020 planning exercise billed as “Our Town, Our Vision,” I decided to try again. But I soon saw the planners wanted us to get “excited” about what they wanted: high-rise, high-speed urbanization and gentrification. There was talk about the need to expand Chapel Hill’s tax base to lower our property taxes, although anyone who’s lived in a big city knows growth only raises taxes.
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The last straw – call it the last paving stone – was the series of public hearings held last spring to rubber-stamp the Town Council’s redevelopment plans. I was turned away several times, along with many others, because of the “fire code.” The one time I managed to get a seat, I heard impressive testimony. Some residents had created Powerpoint presentations, showing how adding millions more square feet of primarily residential construction would worsen the town’s traffic, flooding, and fiscal problems. After two minutes, they, too, got the bum’s rush – the flashing beep. And they were voted down.
People say at 50 you get the face you deserve. I’m worried that by 2020 we’ll have the town we deserve: more congestion, less decency, more spin. So I’ve joined the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town ( CHALT.org), a group of citizens advocating more responsible – and representative – town leadership. We believe Chapel Hill should maintain and improve basic services before lavishing tax dollars on outside consultants. We don’t think the town should subsidize underground parking garages and 10-story buildings downtown, or rush to urbanize the southern and northern fringes of town.
Want to raise our taxes because the police are overextended? Fine. But millions to reconfigure roads for private developers? No thanks. We’re not against growth. We’re just against the wrong kind. You can build in my backyard. Just don’t flood my basement.
Maybe Mayor Kleinschmidt thinks the opposition has been silenced. Town Council meetings have gone from overflow crowds to rows of empty seats, prompting political observer Nancy Oates to ask (CHN, Oct. 31): “If values fall in an empty council chamber, do they make a sound?”
CHALT is that sound.
I fell in love with a livable town. I’ll do whatever I can to keep it that way.
Ann Loftin is a writer and editor in Chapel Hill.