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.http://chapelboro.com/news/2014-community-forum/costs-partnerships-people-want-live/
WASHINGTON – Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt joined Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane in Washington, DC this week for the 82nd winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“This has been a very successful conference,” he says. “We not only had an opportunity to engage with each other and discuss the achievements of cities around the country, but we’ve (also) had great access to the (Obama) administration and cabinet secretaries and their deputies, who help cities like Chapel Hill accomplish the goals we have for ourselves.”
More than 250 mayors from across the country registered for the conference. Participants got to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other administration officials.
Kleinschmidt says mayors this year were especially concerned with urging the executive branch to take action on issues where Congress is slow or unlikely to move.
“A lot of mayors are concerned that Congress isn’t moving with policy changes that urban areas across the country have been asking for for years,” he says. “And there’s a great level of enthusiasm for the President’s commitment to make things happen now–and use his pen, when he has the ability to do so, in order to make things happen.”
One of those issues is transportation—and on that issue, Kleinschmidt says the Triangle is in a uniquely strong position, because the new Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is a former mayor of Charlotte.
“As you know, Orange and Durham Counties are submitting a transit plan that includes light rail, (and) we also hope that Wake County will come along (on that) soon,” Kleinschmidt says. “We had some good conversations with Secretary Foxx about that.”
And Kleinschmidt says Foxx also agreed to look into how Chapel Hill might resolve another recent transportation-related issue: whether or not the town is required to allow individuals with permits to carry concealed weapons on public buses.
The Conference of Mayors ended on Friday, but Kleinschmidt is staying in DC for one more day to attend a second conference—the winter meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project. Chapel Hill will play host to that conference’s summer meeting this August.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/u-s-mayors-conference-kleinschmidt-talks-transit/
Will return with part two of my piece on journalism tomorrow—here’s part one, if you missed it—but since it’s on my mind, I wanted to get this out of the way today.
Today’s news included a troubling story about a pedestrian who died after being hit by a car on Bethel Hickory Grove Church Road west of Carrboro. Just a couple days ago, a man in Mebane was killed after being hit by a train.
It’s been a year full of incidents like this, it seems. We’re not far removed from another pair of similar accidents that took place in September—one on 15/501 near Estes Drive that killed 31-year-old Lisa Baldwin and another, further south on 15/501, that killed two bicyclists, Ivin Scurlock and Alexandra Simou. Go back further in the year and you’ll find other incidents too.
Now I want to be clear: each of these was an isolated case, not necessarily a part of any larger trend.
Still, they’ve got me thinking again about something I’ve believed for a while now:
For all the talk about how much we care, neither Chapel Hill nor Carrboro is a particularly bike-friendly or pedestrian-friendly town.
I’m not saying this because there’s been a string of recent accidents. The accidents are just what got me thinking. I’m saying this because there are major thoroughfares with no sidewalks or bike lanes, because the bike lanes we do have are a millimeter wide and our sidewalks often end in seemingly random spots, because it’s impossible for me to look at a biker in town without feeling a twinge of sympathy terror on their behalf. I can’t be the only one who feels that twinge.
I use Estes Drive fairly regularly to get from Chapel Hill to Carrboro. Quite a few bikers use it too. There is a bike lane along part of the road, but it’s narrow—and it’s right next to the car lanes, separated only by a strip of paint that’s maybe two or three inches wide. Cars weighing a ton or more zoom past the bikers at 35, 40, 45 miles an hour, not even a foot away. This is what passes for ‘bike-friendly.’ I don’t bike in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, so I don’t know firsthand, but I’ve walked along the sides of busy roads often enough to know there’s always a little bit of nervous uncertainty every time a car goes by. I have to assume bikers in our town feel that same nervousness, all the time—or else they’ve grown so accustomed to the feeling that it doesn’t even register anymore.
I worry about the cars too. The other day I was on Greensboro Street, heading north from Merritt Mill toward downtown Carrboro, and as we were driving up the hill, in front of us was a biker, plodding along at three miles an hour in the middle of the car lane. Three miles an hour because he was pedaling up a steep hill; in the middle of the car lane because there is no bike lane on that part of Greensboro. Nothing about this was his fault. Behind the biker, there was a line of five, six cars—we’ve all been in that line, right?—and to get around him the cars were steering into the opposite lane. Well, it’s only a two-lane road. That opposite lane was oncoming traffic. Everybody was careful and everything was fine—but still, it’s partly just sheer luck we didn’t see a head-on collision on Greensboro Street that day.
And that’s only the most recent example I can think of. How often do you see people veering into oncoming lanes of traffic to avoid a biker or a pedestrian who’s in the car lane because they have nowhere else to go? How often have you done it yourself?
Drivers and bikers are always getting in each other’s way. Drivers are more likely to be the pushy jerks, I think—when in doubt, always blame the guy with the bigger muscle—but the truth is, this is not really anybody’s fault. This is just what happens when you force two very different modes of transportation to coexist on the same strip of asphalt. Bikers are forced to make do in a car’s world; inevitably they get pushed to the side; and it isn’t good for anybody. We want to be “bike-friendly,” we need to give bikers their own asphalt. (Same as we do for planes and trains.)
Otherwise you end up like Calvin’s dad.
We do a better job, I think, with pedestrians. I don’t bike in Chapel Hill, partly because the thought terrifies me and partly because I’m an out-of-shape weakling. (Me bike, in a town with the word “hill” in its name? Please.) But I do walk. I live near the Fordham/Franklin split, very close to the Booker Creek Trail, a 10-minute walk from Eastgate, 20 minutes from the library, and if I’m feeling really frisky, a 45-minute walk downtown. (Also 45 minutes from WCHL.) I’ve done all these walks. It’s nice. Same deal in Carrboro, where I could walk from my old apartment near Carrboro Plaza to the Carr Mill Mall (sorry, “Historic Carr Mill”) in about 25 minutes.
All these walks are possible because Franklin Street and Main Street are both sidewalked. If you have an hour or so to kill, you can walk all the way from Carrboro Plaza to Trader Joe’s, a little more than five miles down Main and Franklin, sidewalks the whole way. Pedestrians get their asphalt.
Once you’re off those two main drags, though, it’s much more of a crapshoot whether you’ll get a sidewalk or not. Estes Drive? Not so much. Weaver Dairy? Not so much either. From where I live now, it’s a straight shot up the Weaver Dairy hill to get to WCHL—but lacking a sidewalk, that’s not the road I use when I walk. I take the back streets, cutting through roads like Kingston, Honeysuckle and Brookview. (There’s a hill on Brookview that’s a beast.) Even then, more than half my walk is on the street itself. There’s a nice sidewalk on Kingston, but that’s it. I’m walking on curvy roads, up and down hills; when a car comes the other way, it’s a surprise to both of us. I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out where I have to jog across the street to make myself more visible to any cars that might be coming. It’s something of a maze. (And forget ever doing this at night. Now that we’re on standard time, I won’t be doing that walk again until April.) The same goes for when I’m driving on those roads: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rounded a bend or crested a hill to suddenly spot a pedestrian in front of me, out in the street where a pedestrian shouldn’t be—and wouldn’t be, if they’d had a sidewalk to work with.
Why are there so few sidewalks in Chapel Hill? I grew up in Lansing, Michigan—not a wealthy town, and not one that ever blew its own horn about being “pedestrian-friendly”—but as far as I can recall there were sidewalks everywhere. Not just on the main drags—on the side streets as well, in every neighborhood. There was hardly a street in town that didn’t have them.
Maybe I was spoiled. Maybe I’m misremembering.
But it really seems like this should be an attainable goal.
Because we do try to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly. We really do. We have awesome trails all over town, Franklin and Main and Weaver Streets are great places to walk, and we’re constantly actively encouraging folks to ditch their vehicles whenever possible. (Promoting infill and density help make towns more walkable too.) Chapel Hill’s put in some nice pedestrian islands along MLK and Weaver Dairy, Carrboro staff have worked long and hard on their bicycle master plan, and we make a point to talk about adding more bike lanes whenever and wherever we can. Sometimes we even do it.
It’s for that reason, after all, that Chapel Hill and Carrboro receive so many honors and awards and accolades for being bike- and pedestrian-friendly. In fact the League of American Bicyclists has recognized Carrboro as one of the 40 bike-friendliest towns in the entire country, and number one in North Carolina. Chapel Hill’s not far behind.*
Those accolades are great.
But I really think they say a heckuva lot more about all those other communities out there than they do about Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
We still have a long, long way to go.
* – The League has given Carrboro its “silver” award for bicycle friendliness; Chapel Hill has won a “bronze” award. (The League recognizes Lansing too, as it happens–also with a “bronze” award, same as Chapel Hill.)http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/friendly/
Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn at Tuesday’s presentation. Photo by Donn Young, courtesy Orange County Visitors Bureau.
CHAPEL HILL – Town and county officials have talked for years about making Orange County a place where people can “live, work and play” all in one location—but despite the effort, recent data show we’re still more of a bedroom community than county planners would like.
“Every morning 43,000 people wake up outside of Orange County and drive in, and every morning 39,000 wake up in Orange County and drive out–and only 21,000 people wake up and work in Orange County,” says Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
In all, about two-thirds of those who work in Orange County live outside the county lines—and about two-thirds of Orange County residents leave the county to work. Those percentages have been steadily increasing for at least a decade—and Nelson says it’s putting a strain on the roads.
“The transportation planners should be really concerned,” says Nelson. “The challenge is (that) we have one of the best transit systems in the nation, but these people live outside that transit service area. They’re (using) park-and-ride lots, they’re driving in from all sorts of other places.”
The trend even extends to municipal employees: as of 2010, only 22 percent of those who work for the Town of Chapel Hill actually live in the Town of Chapel Hill. (That’s down from 41 percent in 1995.)
The most obvious would-be explanation for all the migration is simple economics: the cost of living in Orange County is high, so presumably people with low-paying jobs in Orange County have to live elsewhere, while residents of the county commute to higher-paying jobs in other parts of the Triangle. Nelson says that’s what he thought too—but the numbers actually say otherwise.
“Now, I had believed–and had even used the rhetorical ‘hey, it’s BMW out and Oldsmobile in’–that we had been importing our unskilled and semi-skilled labor and we were sending out our white-collar workers in order to work in the (Research Triangle) Park,” he says. “(But) that is not what is happening.”
In fact—contrary to popular belief—the number of individuals commuting into town for jobs paying more than $40,000 is nearly identical to the number of individuals commuting out of town for jobs paying more than $40,000. And the same is also true for jobs paying between $15,000 and $40,000, as well as jobs paying less than $15,000.
“So the disconnect between worker and work opportunity is not about wage,” Nelson concludes. “Some of it’s just about work opportunity. Adding work opportunity in any of these ranges will lower the commute.”
Interestingly, despite the increase in the percentage of people who drive into and out of Orange County for work, the average commute time has remained fairly steady for the last five years: Orange County residents in 2011 spent an average of 21.9 minutes to get to work—up only slightly from 21.4 minutes in 2007. (The average American’s commute is 25.4 minutes.)
Nelson delivered these numbers on Tuesday at the Friday Center, as part of his annual State of the Community report. You can see the whole presentation at this link.http://chapelboro.com/news/business/transit-planners-should-be-concerned-about-long-commutes/
ORANGE COUNTY – It’s no joke, the half-cent transit tax approved in November went into effect Monday at midnight.
The County has plans for services totaling $661.1 million. Those plans include $131.1 million in new and enhanced bus service, express bus lane improvements on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd ($24.5 million), an Amtrak rail station in Hillsborough ($8.9 million), and a light rail system together with Durham County totaling $496.6 million.
To see a complete breakdown of the plans and some frequently asked questions, click here.http://chapelboro.com/news/transit-tax-in-effect-in-orange-county/