Chapel Hill seems to have a love/hate relationship with developers. Well, except for the love part. And that’s a problem.
In recent years, the Chapel Hill Town Council has learned to appreciate new development. Even after last year’s election, in which the development process was a heated issue, the current council members continue to profess support for new commercial development. They recognize adding new places to work and shop in our community will improve our quality of life and add needed tax revenue.
But stubbornly, attitudes about the people responsible for development haven’t similarly evolved. Some continue to portray developers as greedy, insensitive and distrustful. Their motives and methods are often greeted with suspicion.
We were most recently reminded of this by local media reports this month, which singled out developers’ political contributions to incumbent candidates for Town Council last fall. When a developer decides to support council members who have embraced development instead of candidates making an issue of recent project approvals, it’s not news. The contributions themselves were all faithful to the letter and spirit of Chapel Hill’s contribution limits. No news there either.
Instead, the reporting covered critics who denounced candidates for accepting money from developers. They questioned whether developers were influence-peddling or providing payback for decisions. In other words, a negative opinion of developers was one of the focal points of the story.
Before discussing how this anti-developer bias hurts our process, it is important to understand what developers really do, because it’s more than simply building something. Developers combine land with improvements to create more value than those two components had separately. They create wealth where there wasn’t any before, and not just for themselves.
The first beneficiaries are the property owners. The development’s increased worth means those owners get a premium over current market value. Of course, the people who build the project also profit. Finally, and most importantly, our community benefits from the increased property valuation, which generates more tax revenue to pay for the amenities we enjoy.
Developers’ improvements over the decades have made Chapel Hill one of the highest-valued towns in the state. Our top-ranked schools and superior services are direct results of their creations. The community wealth created by developers fuels our unrivaled standard of living in the state.
Of course, it isn’t easy to earn your living as a developer. Oftentimes, there are enormous sums of money at stake. But even for the smallest developer, there is always inordinate risk. Every project is like a entrepreneurial start-up company. There is inherent uncertainty in whether the market will support the venture. Our special-use permit approval process greatly increases a developer’s costs, and uncertainty. Being treated disrespectfully can make a hard process intolerable.
Remember, developers are investors who can go anywhere, and our neighbors compete for their dollars as fiercely as they do for our retail sales taxes. It costs us nothing to treat developers with civility and gratitude. If we want people to invest in us, we should be courting rather than excoriating them.
Even those who don’t feel developers deserve to be embraced ought to suppress their feelings for practical considerations. If we want better projects, we’ll be better off working with rather than against the folks who build them. By considering developers the enemy, we create an adversarial relationship from the start. That invites defensive posturing and stifles generosity. Our high standards and tough negotiations should bear more fruit through collaboration rather than confrontation.
Chapel Hill is a product of developers, and we love this town. Now that we’ve learned to like development, we need to learn to like developers too. It’s the right thing and the smart thing to do.
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a real estate small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org