Affordability, taxes, housing, solid waste, economic development, and the future of Carolina North and Rogers Road: all longstanding hot-button issues in Orange County, and all requiring strong partnerships between the local municipalities as well as UNC.
Orange County leaders say the time is now to make those partnerships stronger.
“One of our major issues is to renew the strength and vitality of our partnerships with the municipalities,” says Barry Jacobs, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “I think we’ve lost touch to some degree.”
At the center of the conversation is the eternal question of affordability: how to manage the cost of living while preserving a desirable community, in a space with little room to grow.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt says that’s often an issue in college towns – and it’s certainly the case in Chapel Hill.
“University towns are very, very highly sought after,” she says. “I try every day to recruit faculty and staff and students…of course they’re concerned about price of living, (but) mostly we hear that people want to live here. So I think we are still on the positive side of this equation: this is a very high-choice place.”
But with that desirability comes a number of challenges – including, perhaps most notably, the cost of housing. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says those costs are worth it: “I sometimes look around (my house) and think, wow, for this price I could be in a much bigger place in Durham,” he says, “but I’d rather be in Chapel Hill.”
And while higher property values still mean Chapel Hillians are paying more dollars in taxes, Kleinschmidt notes that Chapel Hill’s property tax rate is actually lower than many of our neighboring communities.
Still, the cost of housing is a strain, one that makes it difficult – if not impossible – for many people to live in Chapel Hill. And not only Chapel Hill: Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens says the affordability question is affecting his community as well.
“We’re seeing rising costs (too),” he says. “It’s a little bit less expensive to live here, so we’re finding families move out (of Chapel Hill-Carrboro) and folks wanting to be in Hillsborough – (but) as prices go up, we’re finding a lot of our families are moving to Mebane.”
The housing crunch has driven local leaders to explore creative policies for developing more affordable housing in all of Orange County’s municipalities.
But as Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle points out, housing is not the only factor driving the cost of living.
“We’ve studied extensively the interplay between transportation costs and affordable housing,” she says. “A typical income earner spends anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their income on transportation – owning a car, taxes, insurance, and so forth.”
That, she says, gives local leaders a strong incentive to develop housing downtown – so residents don’t need vehicles to get to and from work. Kleinschmidt adds that he’s equally proud of Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system, which also keeps the cost of living down.
Taxes too are a primary concern – and local leaders are quick to point out that they’ve managed to maintain services while avoiding tax increases, even through the long recession. (Lavelle says she expects Carrboro to maintain that streak this year too.) But Barry Jacobs says that, at the end of the day, it’s just as important to preserve the services that make Orange County a desirable place to live.
And the most important of those services, he says, is education.
“We’re proud of public education (and) we’re going to fund it to the best of our ability,” he says. “Going through the recession, and then having a state legislature that’s attacking public education, we have actually raised the per-pupil funding…and in the last 20 years we’ve built 14 schools in this county. And three of them were high schools. Those are expensive suckers…
“And that’s part of what makes this an attractive community. That’s what draws people here. It’s a double-edged sword, to use a cliché.”
But Jacobs adds that the need for education spending must be weighed against the concern for affordability – particularly the fact that many Orange County residents are seniors on fixed incomes.
And so the question returns to partnerships: town, county, and UNC officials working together to promote efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve the standard of living. Local leaders agree that’s already happening (if slowly) on the issue of Rogers Road remediation, and Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt says he’s confident it will also happen on the issue of solid waste: “I think we’re going to come together with a solution,” he says, “(and in) four, five, six years, we’re going to have a site for a transfer station that we’re all going to use.” (Kleinschmidt says there are several attractive candidates for that site in the northern part of Chapel Hill, including one off Millhouse Road.)
It’s also happening on the question of economic development, where UNC is actively partnering with the towns and county on projects ranging from the LAUNCH entrepreneurial incubator to the redevelopment of 123 West Franklin, the former University Square – though Chancellor Folt says little is happening right now when it comes to Carolina North. (“We’re really not having any active plans there right now,” she says. “It’s really not at the top of the list.”)
In the end, though, while local leaders seem to agree that municipal partnerships have been stronger, there’s also a shared commitment to strengthening them in the months and years to come.
“How we should go forward is together,” says Jacobs.
Folt, Jacobs, Kleinschmidt, Lavelle, and Stevens made those comments during the “Town and Gown” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum; they were joined on the panel by outgoing UNC student body president Christy Lambden.