Chapel Hill: Opinion

David Schwartz: Chapel Hill growth machine on full throttle

A local Realtor writes yet another column calling on us to make it easier for new real estate projects to get approved.

A Town Council member returns from a trip sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and encourages us to build more meeting spaces.

The town manager recommends that the taxpayers subsidize road construction for a large new apartment building on Elliot Road.

A local real estate developer asserts that adding 1,000 new residents to the town’s population at Obey Creek will not cause our taxes to increase, when it almost certainly will.

What’s going on here?

Here’s one way to think about it: The distinguished NYU sociologist Harvey Molotch long ago introduced the idea that, in America, local political power often rests with those who profit from intensifying land uses, including large property owners, developers, Realtors, mortgage lenders and local media.

The most typical way of intensifying land use is through growth, and this growth usually takes the form of constantly increasing population in a given area. Sociologists therefore refer to the local commercial and political actors who promote growth as a growth coalition, and to the local governmental activities that facilitate and encourage growth, such as rezoning for higher density or building new road and sewer infrastructure, as a growth machine.

The growth coalition will typically claim that growth brings community benefits, such as higher tax revenues, increased employment and shopping opportunities, or affordable housing. Sometimes these benefits materialize; often they do not. But growth usually does lower the quality of life for existing residents, by increasing congestion, degrading the local environment and causing taxes to increase.

The natural adversaries of the growth machine are neighborhood residents who seek to preserve the quality of life they currently enjoy, environmentalists who seek to protect the ecological health and scenic beauty of the local landscape, and social justice advocates who object to policies that take from the many to benefit the few.

The growth coalition, which is well organized and well funded, is usually able to overcome efforts to either slow growth or redirect it in more beneficial ways, but not always. Sometimes, those who advocate stability manage to prevail, at least for a while. In fact, progressive university towns, such as Santa Cruz, Madison, and Ann Arbor, are among the communities that have been most successful at obtaining community benefits in exchange for allowing growth, such as affordable housing, parks, and support for schools.

Chapel Hill used to be one of them, which is why our town still remains such a nice place to live and visit. But all that now feels at risk. The local growth machine is on full throttle, and our elected officials, instead of balancing the broader community’s wishes against those of the growth coalition, seem to have embraced the pro-growth agenda, and to have lowered their standards for what kind of community benefits we should expect new development to deliver.

The clearest recent example is the proposed 266-unit Village Plaza Apartments, which will not include a single unit of new affordable housing. By contrast, when the same developer negotiated with the town seven years ago to get East 54 approved, he offered to make 30 percent of the new housing units affordable.

The town residents are beginning to wake up to what is happening, and are starting to question whether the frenetic pace of new real estate development in Chapel Hill is beneficial or desirable. Will they be able to rein in the local growth machine before it’s too late?

David Schwartz lives in Chapel Hill.