The Growth Boundary Dilemma

An earlier line of discussion on the "New Jackson Hole" post made it clear we needed a new thread for discussion of the urban growth boundary (or whatever terminology you want to use).

In my limited understanding of the issue, the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill have attempted to limit growth by creating a line in the sand and refusing to extend city services, including water and sewer, past that line. Since much of the land north of town doesn't perk and since much of the land west of Carrboro is in the University Lake watershed, this means that only lots larger than 5 acres can easily get through the process for development.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems. As was pointed out in the other thread, the agreement between the county and cities will expire at some point and there will be a lot of pressure to extend the boundary to increase the tax base. Also, as has been pointed out by a lot of balanced growth advocates, a 5 acre minimum is not exactly going to stop development... instead it's just going to create an extra large series of suburban neighborhoods around the city. Now I don't THINK that's what everyone had in mind, but it seems like that is what is coming to pass, whether we like it or not.

Balanced growth folks often advocate more extreme measures like 20-25 acre minimum lot sizes and more stringent regulations, but others argue that this would only continue to increase the cost of living in Chapel HIll and Carrboro and create a situation similar to Boulder where everyone except rich folk are priced out of living there. I'm sure there's a way to make it work to where we can have our rural areas be preserved and still have a diversity of folks living in town, but haven't heard anyone put that bold vision out there yet. Anyone want to try?


I'm pretty sure I heard Margaret Brown and Kevin Foy say that the rural buffer had just been extended for another 25 years, but I don't have time to verify that right now.

That would be great.... but I still can't help but think that it's only a matter of time before the market spills over into the county despite the current zoning rules. It seems like all it would take is a further buildout of town before there is even more pressure to put up the large, expensive dead end road communities we've been seeing so much of lately just outside of town.

Q: What is to prevent Durham from infilling all of the unincorporated areas in Orange County? Is Durham bound by the rural buffer agreement? Does state law allow Durham to annex wherever it pleases?

Mark--see for a recent discussion about joint planning/annexation intents between Orange and Durham.

It seems to me that the rural buffer was a great idea when Chapel Hill and Carrboro still had plenty of urban space available for development--the buffer prevented sprawl. But as the metro area builds out, the potential for growth within the buffer seems problematic, especially for water quality. On the Edwards' land alone, there could be 20 houses built, all of which would have individual septic systems. That's only a fraction of the undeveloped land out Old Greensboro/Jones Ferry. Does anyone know if the planners (either city or county) have done any modeling to predict the impact development would have on our water systems? Has OWASA done any predictive studies?

Thanks Terri. I had read about that effort in an article or on OP. That shows an attempt to "play nice".

What if Durham decides to forego any agreement and "annexes as it pleases" to increase tax base, etc. in prime Orange real estate?


Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but the entire concept behind growth boundaries are to encourage more dense growth in a single concentrated area. The idea is to grow upward rather than outward thus eliminating sprawl and making the most efficient use of resources.

I am not saying I am against these growth boundaries, but it is the unintended consequences that often go overlooked and present themselves as challenges to the growth boundary concept:

"Leap Frog" Development that occurs just on the other side of the boundary (in Chapel Hill/Carrboro's case, that would be Hillsborough, Chatham County, and to a lesser extent Alamance County). Developers leap over the boundary and develop on the other side where growth is permitted or regulations are not as steep.

Increased property values due to the limited amount of space for growth and development in the allowed area, which, in turn drives ... a new kind of segregation where only the wealthiest of the wealthy can afford to live and the less affluent or poor are more or less forced out.

Conflicts with the American dream. Many folks "dream" (granted not everyone, but moreso than not) is to own their own single family home with a front yard, back yard, two car garage, a dog, a cat, and maybe 2.5 kids. It takes real estate to accomodate most folks "dream" as our area's population grows and the "high rise", dense, urban life doesn't seem to be the most popular option for most.

How do we address these consequences?


That's the question I'm trying to get to the center of too. As a staunch environmentalist, the idea of very rigid growth boundaries appeal to me. But as a person interested in diversity/social justice issues/ access for housing to all, I have another opinion. But as the schools look at merger, making rural Orange County more viable as an option for those who think the Chapel-Hill Carrboro schools are the only option for their children, I think we'll continue to see even more pressure on the land we all hold dear as our place for escaping the city. I already pass mostly upscale developments all the way to Maple View Farms. But it could get even worse, from what I understand.

So what's the solution? How do we keep our city center vibrant, dense, AND affordable for lots of different types of folks while also keeping the rural areas somewhat intact? Is it an impossible goal? I hear Portland is doing things better than Boulder, but not without some detractors there too.

The Town has a requirement that 15% of all new housing must be affordable which is a start.

The trend while subtle that disturbs me is the upzone (increased zoning density) without down zoning anything. Of course developers don't mind more density - it is more profitable for them -- fewer miles of infrustructure which is very expensive. southern village even has a premium to live there.. Again developers seem to have figured out the game ask for immense density (on relative standards not true city ones) throw in a few affordable crumbs, but don't downzone or contribute land elsewhere as a compromise. Councils/alderman should make sure something is downzoned and donated as green space or donate land somewhere else in town to offset increased density...

Obey's creek will be interesting to see if the council sticks to past promises, gets some greenspace, and doesn't get wooed by a few affordable units...

I'm not sure that Durham County needs to annex prime Orange County real estate, at least in the Southwest part of Durham County. (You might have been thinking up north, I guess.)

The reason: there's plenty of undeveloped land in SW Durham that the city/county already has plans to develop, and these areas run right up to -- and in some cases, _into_ -- Chapel Hill and Orange County. Check out their new UDO and their new Comprehensive Plan, and see what they're planning for the area bordered by 54, 40, Old Chapel Hill Road, and the county line. Then go drive down Ephesus Church Road and see if you recognize it from 8 months ago.

There is no place for a boundary between Durham and Chapel Hill, and Durham is already pushing to the edge. In the next 5-10 years, areas along Pope Road and Old Chapel Hill Road will be developed to the point that you won't be able to tell where Durham leaves off and Chapel Hill begins.


OWASA's planning is based on the current Water & Sewer Boundary agreement and thus does not speculate on development impacts beyond that boundary. The planning is quite thorough and looks out to 2050 - way more than most municipalities or utilities. The planning outside the boundary is specifically geared toward watershed protection and looks at what would happen to water quality at build-out. Surprisingly, there is a lot of undeveloped land in the University Lake watershed (maybe Edwards will help change this...) and there is an excellent program by OWASA to buy land and/or easements in the Cane Creek watershed. The watersheds are increasingly well-protected and monitored.

Where to begin?

First, let me say that my American Dream is to own my own home, attached or detached, in a real town where I can choose to walk to dinner, the grocery store, the video store, friends' homes, a child's school, etc. I want a miniscule front yard, if any at all, so I can have a much bigger private space BEHIND my dwelling. I want to live close to bus routes and if possible, rail transit.

The "dominant" American Dream is as much a product of taxes, subsidies, lending practices and laws that make anything other than traditional suburban development extremely difficult. Meadowmont and Southern Village command premium prices over the so-called "dominant" American Dream. Which form is being undersupplied?

"Getting to Smart Growth II" has 100 policies that work on these questions. Download the PDF here:

The hard truth the Triangle is just beginning to grapple with is that you can't keep rural vistas around long with zoning that produces conventional suburban subdivisions. Those who fear the county will turn into large lot McMansion country are right to be concerned.

Things to do:

1. Price driving correctly. Parking in the Triangle is massively subsidized, and none of the externalities of driving are captured in the pricing of auto travel, locally, regionally, and nationally. As long as spreading out is made inordinately cheap by public policy, it will keep happening.

2. Look for opportunities to redevelop existing areas, and go to it. Tear down the Wicked Burrito and put up a 4-story building. Get rid of that corner building across from Jiffy Lube at the corner of Merrit Mill/Franklin and develop a 4-story building. Reduce required parking ratios.

3. Employ Transferable Development Rights programs to allow rural landowners to sell their development rights to those who wish to add density in appropriate areas.

I'm glad to hear that OWASA is purchasing land within the watershed as one means to protect water quality. But....zoning within the rural buffer/watershed allows for the first 5 lots of a lot of record to be subdivided into 2 acres lots, and the remainder of the lot divided into 5 acre lots. While there are other restrictions that limit the amount of development even further (roads, open space), the potential density levels are still too high to be considered rural. I understand the county and Carrboro/Chapel Hill are forced to work within state zoning regulations, but it seems to me the rural buffer concept needs to be revisited and possibly restricted even further--if the goal is to constrain the sprawl of Chapel Hill Carrboro.

Like Rickie and others, I have mixed feelings about all of this. I love undeveloped land, but those who have owned their land over time should have the option to capitalize upon that investment. Then there's the whole services issue for rural dwellers that I don't feel like getting into right now. I agree--the question is how to balance equity/social justice with environmental protection.


There is a solution: Allow denser development in town, but require that it include affordable housing. And, truthfully this is the rule in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, to some degree. Both municipalities should re-examine their procedures on this front.

Furthermore, we should figure a way to transfer development rights from the rural buffer to within the town's jurisdiction, but alas . . .

But alas what?...

but alas, that is easier said than done. I think we would have to have a level of co-operation between Carrboro and Orange County that has not been there in the past. Perhaps Valerie will freshen things up . . .

Here is a strawman version of the idea:

Down zone the rural buffer so that 10 acres is the minimum lot size (or whatever) and give a transferable development right voucher to every landowner in the rural buffer at a rate of one voucher for every ten acres they own (or whatever). The voucher can be sold on the private real estate market and allows the owner of the voucher to increase density (and commensurately lower lot sizes and/or street & lot line setbacks) to allow for one additional dwelling unit in a development that is located within the urban services boundary.

Mark c.

what about getting something permanent in the deal?

Chapel Hill has in a couple instances gotten landed deeded to the town as greenspace in such upzonings...

Is this not possible?

Permanent land ownership for the towns is much better than down zoning for now and hoping in the future that no one reupzones an area... Future leaders can always change zoning... It seems permanent solutions are better approaches...

Is it possible to structure the rural buffer into something more permanent so that it won't always be subject to zoning ordinances?

Deeding land to the town/county is no more permanent than changing the zoning -- future governments can also sell land. (In terms of process, it's probably easier for a government to sell land than to rezone it.) Removing land from private ownership removes it from the tax base, and pretty much eliminates agricultural uses on it. Sure, public ownership makes sense for parkland, and for around water supplies to preserve water quality, but otherwise, I think there's a lot to be said for keeping land in private hands.

So what will make the rural buffer stay rural long-term? I guess the best we can hope for is well-thought land use plans, updated regularly, that describe the reasoning behind the policies. That's the way we will develop a prevailing culture that values preserving open space and recognizes that higher urban densities are a necessary trade-off to achieve that. (We're fortunate to have that "prevailing" culture, if not universal, in Orange County.) Along the way, many will also recognize that higher urban densities can be their own reward -- as Patrick McDonough points out, Meadowmont and Southern Village are getting premium prices, and when's the last time you tried to buy real estate on Franklin St. or Rosemary St?

It's worth re-reading McDonough's post: the current state of affairs in this country with respect to roads vs. transit/walking/biking, open space vs. suburban sprawl, etc., was created by government policies and government spending, and the trend will only be reversed by the same.

Fascinating document from

I hope someday someone will redo this type of $$$ analysis on the county commissioner race. I think some of the See-Error-Club types were really duped ....

From the 2001

"Who’s Who of Chapel Hill Donors:

Chapel Hill citizens who want to run for mayor will also have some connections to some of the

best-known town families. Some highly recognizable names also were on the major donor lists of

Pavao and Foy including:

o Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue: Her husband, Robert Eaves, gave $100 to Pavao.

o Elected officials: Moses Carey Jr. (Orange County Com.), Pat Evans (CH town

council), the wife of David Price (Congress NC 4th), the husband of Teresa

Williams (CH-Carr BOE), Ken Broun (former mayor CH), and the husband of

Rosemary Waldorf (former mayor CH) each gave $100 to Pavao.

Contributors to Kevin Foy included Bill Strom (CH town council), Margaret

Brown (Orange County Com.), the husband of Dorothy Verkerk (CH town

council), and Julie McClintock (former CH town council).

which camp are you in - or does it really not matter who gets elected and are we destined to have subdivisions from Northeast chatham to Hillsborough so why bother?

The torturous process to site the third high school in the southern part of the district highlighted, to me, the downside of having a sacrosanct fixed boundary. There was one piece of property looked at initially which was just outside the USB, but utilities were stubbed out to the edge of the property line. Since it was outside, though, no go.

It wouldn't have been the best location, but it would have been better than the current one.

I like the voucher idea from above.

Ultimately it comes down to what's in black and white and codified in Land Use Ordinances. Developers whose environmental harmonics are a major factor in their "vision" are few and far between.

Jay was right on about requiring downzoning in concert

with upzoning. This is exactly what the CH council did in

approving Southern Village. We calculated the buildout

of about 2500 acres, then upzoned its core for SV and

downzoned a donut around the core, keeping the total

buildout the same. It worked and will continue to work

as long as the council maintains its committment to the

downzoned areas which are condified in the southern

area land use plan.

But there is another point about

the Obey's Creek proposal to build high density land

in the SV donut and the developer Scott Kovens' promise to build

affordable housing there.These are based on my recollection of

the 1995 approval of the Kovens development Columbia Place.

I will soon be confirming this in the minutes and will present

the info to the town council at the appropriate public hearing

in the fall. Kovens promised to sell the Columbia Place

condos for 99K each, and since the council then as now

favored affordable housing, we (including me) approved the

development. However a year later when the construction

was in process, the condos were put on the market for

199K, double what Kovens promised. So I would take

his Obey's Creek affordable housing promise with a

huge grain of salt -- or is it a bridge?

It seems to me that the only way to get a valid set of answers to such complicated questions is to be very well grounded in the logic and validity of one's measures and assumptions.

We are discusing the imperative of preserving the "value" of this rural land and in the same breath condeming some of the motivations of how others would want to "value" (use) the land as if their rights are inferrior to ours. We can manage to sweep that mental/moral flip-flop under the carpet by calling "those" people "developers", "profiteers", etc., but the reality is those uses only hold as much value as WE (all of us) give them because WE are the users "those" people build for.

I don't say this to complain (well...maybe just a little), but to point out that the real solutions will come by measuring ALL the values we find in our land and pursuing ALL of those values in an affirmative way. Otherwise, we are fragmenting our own behavior (claiming to want one thing, but contradicting ourselves with our own life style choices), or we are just attacking the rights/opinions of others to advance our own, and in so doing devaluing everyone. Defending "property rights" isn't always about defending ownership, it is also about defending respect for the "other" in any struggle for how our society uses its resources.

The "ying/yang" of a rural buffer bordering "urban" development has wonderful potential. Do we have the maturity to embrace the "urban" part as part of the system that creates these wonderful benefits? In the last ten years, the local development community has (honestly) found little or no opportunity to use density bonuses and the like on "in town" sites and is virtually never encouraged to use the full permitted density of the EXISTING zoning, let alone "up-zone", because the OVERWHELMING assumption is that fewer of anything is better. If we "talk the talk" about the rural buffer, but push for as little change as possible in town, we've screwed ourselves as much as anyone else has.

I would assert it is the balance between tight regulation of land use and the abilitiy to use it , that has made chapel hill a great place to live.

giving anyone e.g. land owners carta blanche to do whatever they want is a long term recipe for disaster... Chapel hill has done a great job of making this a highly desirable place to live..

On the question of whether or not Durham can unilaterally decide to annex parts of Orange County, it seems highly dubious.

The annexation boundary between Chapel Hill and Durham is set forth in a judge’s consent order that reflected settlement of a lawsuit in 1986 between the City and the Town about a proposed annexation.This annexation boundary is just east of the County line south of I-40 and the boundary follows the County line above I-40 to the northern limit of the rural buffer. This consent order does not have an expiration date to my knowledge. If you look at a map of OWASA’s service area, the eastern limit is the same as the part of the annexation boundary below I-40. My understanding is that Chapel Hill and Durham could agree to change the boundary but neither could unilaterally.

That 15% "affordable" housing isn't going to turn around the expensive housing situation here, all things (the buffer) being equal.

Can anyone tell me, since the Land Trust (or someone else) owns the land on these units, how the appreciation of a 15% home is determined? That is, how much does the new homeowner (or partial owner) get on the appreciation (since presumably some of the appreciation remains with the Land Trust)? How different is the arrangement from a rental? (Except of course for the added burdens of home ownership.) I honestly don't know.


Here's the answer from OCHLT's web site ( applicable page: ).

Basically, instead of selling the houses as freehold estates, they sell the non-freehold interest in the property (the rights of possession, use, exclusion, and enjoyment), which the owner/tenant can then transfer or sell. But because you can't sell the actual ownership interest in the property (the additional rights of control and disposition), the value of the non-freehold interest is relatively low. Still, it's likely to increase in value over time, a little, and that appreciation can be collected by the tenant at the time of sale. Just to make sure that those houses -- or rather, the non-freehold right to live in and enjoy them -- aren't overvalued so much as to exclude families in need of affordable housing, the actual "lease" that the leaseholders sign (of 99-year duration) governs the price which the non-freehold estate can be sold for.

This does not mean that the "homeowner" doesn't benefit financially. They are eligible for tax deductions on their mortgages, of course, and they're also building equity with principal payments, instead of paying rent. The big difference is that the market doesn't contribute much to the accretion of that equity, but that's the point: the market won't keep those houses permanently affordable, which is the mission of the organization. (The organization owns these properties outright, and in the free market tradition, can do whatever it wants with them; they've chosen to use them this way.)

Maybe it's not the greatest investment in real estate for the tenant/homeowner, but it's not meant to be. The ability to live closer to work and to raise one's children in a safe and stimulating environment might, to many potential homebuyers, be well worth the sacrifice of (some) potential profit.

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