By Adam Searing
*Note: Adam Searing wrote TLR’s Bike Beat column from October 2019-March 2021.
Trust is a fundamental value for residents of Chapel Hill. We trust our neighbors to help push a stuck car out of a snowbank, we trust our schoolteachers to educate our children and we trust our nurses and doctors to use their skills as best they can to save lives. Trust also lies at the heart of representative government, from the smallest town to the halls of Congress. Indeed, our nation is founded on the principle of “the consent of the governed,” and without trust, there can be no consent.
Unfortunately, these days trust in government is on the ropes. Here in progressive Chapel Hill this decline in trust isn’t driven by disputes over pandemic public health measures or divisions about what books happen to be in our library. Instead, our town government is imperiling the trust of residents while trying to meet a widely-shared goal of building more affordable housing.
As it happens, Chapel Hill is already doing much better than many towns of similar size in working to make homes more affordable in a challenging environment. The Town has built or preserved over 1,000 affordable homes in the last few years at a cost of over $12 million with more units on the way. Many of these are on Town-owned property, such as the development at 2200 Homestead Road. Many private housing developments outside the Ephesus-Fordham area also are required to make a certain percentage of their units affordable to moderate-income households. Finding land on which to build more housing continues to be a challenge however, and Chapel Hill Town government has decided to address this problem in part by developing land long designated for public parks and preserved open space, creating confusion and conflict.
In just the last few months, our town council has voted to build housing on forested public park land on modest Johnson Street. The land was purchased with funds earmarked for parkland acquisition and contains a playground. This action was taken despite the Town’s taxpayers having paid just a few years ago to improve the playground at the park. This month, the council took over 7 acres of land along Jay Street purchased for conservation with open space preservation bond funds approved by voters and moved to develop housing on that land as well. Next up for development is over 8 acres of public land the Craige family donated to Chapel Hill for open space preservation and trails off Mount Carmel Church Road. Who knows what public park and open space land will be next on the list?
When voters approve bonds to purchase parks and preserve open space, developing that land is a breach of trust, no matter how worthy the cause. When other towns like Charlotte have faced this dilemma, their leaders made heroic efforts to execute a land swap — to replace the to-be-developed land with new parkland and open space areas elsewhere in town — before development starts. Similarly, when residents donate land for preservation, they should have confidence that the Town will use the land as the donor intended. If that confidence is lacking, donors will seek out other, more trustworthy land conservation partners, such as the Triangle Land Conservancy or the NC Botanical Garden. Finally, Chapel Hillians shouldn’t have to wonder whether the beautifully preserved public open spaces they enjoy, such as Merritt’s Pasture, may soon be slated for development. Unfortunately, now they do.
Betraying the trust of our voters in this way imperils future Chapel Hill bond issues on everything from greenways to affordable housing. After all, if voters and taxpayers can’t trust the town to keep its word on the use of land purchased with park and open space bonds, how can they trust that bonds issued to raise funds for libraries or a police station will in fact be used for those purposes? And why should anyone ever again donate land for preservation to Chapel Hill given that the Town is moving to violate the trust placed in us by the Craige family?
We have other ways to address our need for more affordable housing that do not entail violating residents’ trust in government. For example, there are several hundred empty acres in the middle of town where the Horace Williams airport once stood. As I have previously suggested, some of this land could be used to build housing for employees of UNC, who compose about 40% of the local workforce. We could work harder to preserve “naturally occurring” affordable housing by purchasing and preserving older, more affordable apartment complexes before they get demolished to make way for new, more expensive housing, as happened to the Park Apartments on Ephesus Road. Similarly, the Town could work with nonprofit organizations to try to buy the few remaining trailer parks in town before their residents are displaced by the next midrise luxury apartment complex with units renting for $2,000 a month. And we can expand our partnerships with organizations like UNC, the Community Home Trust and others to make new affordable development happen on other property.
As a town, we’ve demonstrated we can build substantial new affordable housing without breaking faith with voters. Recent Town actions, however, are straining the essential bond of trust between elected leaders and those who elect them. Let’s work together to find ways to preserve both Chapel Hill’s beautiful parks and open spaces and its inclusiveness.
Adam Searing is a public interest attorney and member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.