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The Commentators: How Much Would You Pay to Keep New Neighbors Out?

Commentary by Matt Bailey

How much would you pay to keep someone from moving into your neighborhood? $500?  $2,000? How about $7.9-million?

That’s what the Chapel Hill Town Council has decided to spend to buy the American Legion Property on Legion Road, in order to block 400 new apartment homes on the site.  That’s $19,750 for each person who won’t be calling Chapel Hill home.

Of course, no one’s admitting we’re buying the land to keep new residents out of Chapel Hill. Why, that would make us sound like jerks!  We’re not jerks. We’re open-minded, inclusive people in Chapel Hill.

It says so right in the Chapel Hill 2020 plan; “a place for everyone.”

The stated reason town officials are paying $7.9-million for the 35-acre property is to create a park. Supporters claim they’ve wanted a new park on the American Legion site for years. Problem is, there’s no evidence anyone actually petitioned the town to buy the land for a park until after the American Legion announced they were selling it for apartments in December 2015.

Don’t get me wrong:  I personally love the idea of a park on the eastern portion of the American Legion site. The new park could become a real community gathering space, something sorely lacking on our side of Fordham Boulevard. With bike and pedestrian paths connecting the park to the area’s disconnected subdivisions, the new park could even enable more kids to walk to Ephesus Elementary.

I’m also not shedding any tears that the specific development proposed for the site won’t get built.  With its abundance of paved parking, the proposal was the antithesis of the pedestrian-oriented design town leaders are striving to create in the area.

Some neighbors in the Colony Woods subdivision had highly legitimate concerns about the impact this specific development would have had on the cherished wooded trails that connect their neighborhood and Ephesus Elementary. I agree that those walking paths should be nurtured, not destroyed.

Most importantly, I’m relieved that the American Legion Post 6 will finally get paid for their property. With Chapel Hill’s unpredictable, expensive, and notoriously slow development approval process, it could have taken almost a decade to get fair market value for their land.

In a decade, we may well all be thankful for the outcome of this purchase.

However, don’t kid yourself into believing that blocking new homes isn’t a reason we’re buying this land. Some of the same people who suddenly became long-time park supporters a year ago are the same people who opposed new apartments in the Ephesus Fordham district, opposed new apartments on Franklin Street, opposed off-campus student apartments, opposed new homes in Obey Creek, and have been opposing new homes anywhere in Chapel Hill since the Reagan administration, when they formed Chapel Hill Alliance for Neighborhoods to bring the creation of new homes to a standstill.

They’re also some of the same long-time homeowners who donated big money to the political action committee (PAC) that helped put several town leaders in office.

Given that anti-growth pressure, it’s no surprise Chapel Hill elected officials have done little this year to address our severe shortage of market-rate housing. That shortage, which makes Chapel Hill substantially more expensive than neighboring communities, is driving out everyone from fixed-income retirees to the young professionals those 400 new homes planned to serve.  Even UNC graduate students are increasingly choosing to live in Durham instead of Chapel Hill.

So much for the Chapel Hill 2020 plan of being, “a place for everyone.”

Now that we’ve spent $7.9-million to buy it, let’s work to make American Legion Park the amazing community gathering space the east side of Chapel Hill deserves.  However, let’s also work vigilantly to ensure that it won’t be only wealthy, long-time homeowners who can live close enough to enjoy it.

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