Will Efland's day come?

This Monday (May 23) the Orange County Commission will be holding a public hearing on a proposal to downzone most or all of the land in its planning jurisdiction. The purpose of this initiative is to stop suburban sprawl from overtaking the rural areas of the County. And I think we should all be in support of that goal. Preserving the remaining farm land in our community is not merely an aesthetic issue, it is also a national and regional security issue. (What will happen to the availability of food as the price of shipping our food across the globe increases?)

However, the County is missing the boat on one important issue. While we do need to find more sustainable ways to grow, we also need to ensure that we will have areas where we can grow sustainably. Rather than eliminating the possibility of new residences in the unincorporated areas of the County, we could be transferring the presently allowed density into a few, well-chosen sites. That is, we should keep the dwellings, but have them be in appropriate locations (where there is potential sewer-access, low-impact on streams, potential access to public transportation etc.)

Our existing towns in Orange County are currently working internally to manage their own growth. While we may not all agree on which towns are doing well at it, it's not really the County Commission's role to interfere in that process. However, the County does have jurisdiction over Efland and some of the area around Mebane. In the Efland-Mebane area I believe there is significant opportunity for better development in the future and improved public service.

Efland sits on important transportation corridors in Orange County and could one day be a public transportation node, but we would have to consciously move in that direction starting now. We should be redistributing currently permitted growth from area farmlands to parts of the Mebane-Efland area, while tightly circumscribing which areas along US-70/the rail corridor will be allowed to grow.

Big “Urban Village” type projects should not be allowed, but rather the already-diversified ownership of property in the Efland area should be allowed to gradually redevelop over the course of the next 25 or more years. This would allow for the gradual and organic formation of a small community. If done thoughtfully, I think this could allow our County to continue to have some affordable housing, agricultural land, walkable communities, social diversity, public transportation and environmental protection.

Closing the gate behind us without leaving ourselves some room to grow sustainably will only lead to further sky-rocketing housing costs and even bigger transportation woes (already many Chapel Hill workers drive from two counties away every day). I think the process of identifying areas for limited growth should begin now.

The County Commission will meet Monday May 23, at 7:30 PM at the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough.

Issues: 

Total votes: 160

Comments

Is it possible that such actions by a County Commission, which does not reflect the roots or composition of rural Orange County residents, may just serve to fuel the sense that Commission elections need to be by Districts. Is Faison right that these folks aren't being heard? I'm not sure people in Efland care to have the County Commission potentially stifle their economic growth and property values in this way.

In a way, I think this is a good example for the need of District Representation on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

I do not know for sure so I could be wrong, but I imagine that the majority of folks who live in Efland have *not* asked the County Commission to undertake such an endeavor. This idea may appeal to those who live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but how does it appeal to those in who live in Efland?

In a way, that is the essence behind the cry for District Representation. The folks in Efland don't even have a voice on the County Commission yet they must endure legislation from them. "Them" who are chosen and elected by and for Chapel Hill / Carrboro residents.

As a former resident of Mebane, even if just for a short time, I find it hard to believe that the people living there wouldn't support some growth. I know the owners of the few remaining downtown businesses would welcome an influx of residents. Additionally, if the growth resulted in the "county schools" reaching the levels of excellence currently enjoyed by the schools in Chapel Hill/Carrboro.

Once again, a question I asked in another forum. Why are there no high rises in Orange County? At the ocean, where hurricanes, floods, and sand are all problematic, we have lots of high-rises. But, nowhere in Orange County is there a "high-rise alley".

I believe that county residents should be represented, but does that not EVER happen under the current method of election?

I'm looking for an education here, not being facetious.

While Barry Jacobs does live in my precinct (Efland), I don't really think residents out where I live know anything about this. This is the first I've heard, and I like to think I'm pretty well-informed (but hey, who doesn't think that?).

I personally don't mind the current zoning in good ol' E-Town, but if a lot of the growth in the area was crammed into Efland, there could be a lot of problems. I want to be able to afford the taxes on the farm I grew up on when I inherit it. So making sure that there are a number of tracts available for (especially housing) development would be a good idea. Besides, a lot of the soil out our way doesn't perk very well which means no septic tank which means no house. That can limit the size of some of the lots until/if we get sewer hookups.

So yes to allowing Efland to grow however it wants. No to forcing Efland to grow.

Chris,

Downzoning means increasing the minimum lot size which equals lesser value on land when someone wants to sell.

Ultimately, this issue is a property rights issue. The property rights of Efland residents and land owners are being manipulated by a body of elected officials who are elected by Chapel Hill / Carrboro residents.

I know what downzoning means. It basically translates into subdivisions. But what I was pointing out is that there are some natural barriers to that in Efland unless a sewer line gets put in.

There are already a couple subdivisions near where I live, and that's ok. If I had a problem with it I'd just find a way to go out and buy the land instead.

Perhaps I misunderstood the line of discussion though. I was addressing the idea that the Efland corridor be encouraged as a kind of bedroom community or its own municipality. I just don't want to see artificial restraints or incentives interfering where I live if at all possible.

Mark said:
Our existing towns in Orange County are currently working internally to manage their own growth. While we may not all agree on which towns are doing well at it, it's not really the County Commission's role to interfere in that process.

Given how bad Chapel Hill, in particular, is doing on this (ie, doing everything in their power to PREVENT in-fill), why shouldn't we ask the County Commission to assist? Chapel Hill is putting pressure on development in the rural buffer because of its refusal to acknowledge growth, and therefore putting the agreements on the buffer in jeopardy (and also pushing development to other areas of the county(ies)). I would think it is good for the County to step up and tell its partners where they are wrong.

I'm curious to know if anyone went last night and what happened...

If we want to control growth in the county overall (per Benedict's proposal), shouldn't we be making it more attractive and affordable to live in town rather than in rural areas? Carnahan and McDonough's opposition of this proposal seems to support continued exurban growth.

Mark C's proposal to use exchange credits is the best solution I've heard to ensure that county landowners have the option to profit on their land while protecting the environment through encouraging urban density rather than exurban sprawl.

Thanks, Patrick, for the N&O link. Please elaborate on your comment quoted therein. On another thread, you argued for increased density in town to limit sprawl. Now you seem to be wanting increased rural density for the same reason. Are we chasing a moving target here?

It seems that decreased rural density coupled with transfer of development rights is along the lines advocated by your and Carhahan's organization (the Village Project). It will help move development where we (that is, the majority coalition of the silent, the talkative, and the noisy) want it: near transit, employment, and commercial centers.

The proposed county downzoning does not prevent development, it just makes it more likely that developers will request rezonings to get the density they want. That gives county government the opportunity to better channel development in socially and environmentally helpful directions.

I like Mark C.'s idea as well about exchange credits.

The story gives limited snippets of both the presentation and of my comments. Let me elaborate.

I am concerned that the most likely result of the OC planning staff proposal will be to accelerate exurban large-lot sprawl in rural Orange County. The elements that most concern me can be found on slides 32 and 44 of this presentation:
http://www.co.orange.nc.us/planning/PPPs/CPLUE_CivicGroups/CPLUE_CivicGr...

Slide 32 previews the key ideas of the Land Use Element Update, which include:
-- Lower number of residential lots, permitted per tract, in rural areas (often called “density reduction” or “down zoning”).
-- Larger minimum lot size.

My comments: As standalone items, the first two strategies above will exacerbate the affordable housing crunch in the county by restricting the housing supply in general, and by raising the minimum amount of land one needs to buy to build a home. If these items were accompanied by a simultaneous upzoning/density transfer/TDR application elsewhere, then they would be less problematic, but no such simultaneous upzoning is in the current proposal.

The TDR/upzoning issue aside, these policies are still likely to work against any walkable development from occurring in the rural areas of the county in the future. The Land Use Element mentions several “rural nodes” which may be ideal places to receive growth. But consider this- with 1-acre minimum lot sizes, assuming square parcels, you can put about 12 single-family homes within ½ mile of a rural node. If there is a farm stand or local store at the rural node, 12 families have a reasonable chance of choosing to walk there rather than drive. With 2-acre minimum lot sizes in the same buildout pattern, only 6 homes can be located within the ½-mile walk, and those beyond the ½ mile radius are much more likely to drive.

Slide 44 touts alleged benefits of downzoning, including:
-Reduces Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and associated AIR POLLUTION.

My comments: This statement is in conflict with the last 20 years of data from every American metro area that is not losing population. Even metro areas with mild population losses (rust belt, etc) have seen VMT per capita increases. The Triangle had a 4% density reduction between 1982 and 2003. VMT grew 302%. Controlling for population growth, VMT per capita still grew 87%.

See: http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/congestion_data/tables/complete_data.xls

The Triangle VMT trends will continue outside of Orange County. Those who will be downzoned out of rural Orange will simply move to rural Alamance and drive 15 miles further each way, each day, to work in the Triangle. Orange County may be able to reduce VMT GROWTH, but not VMT overall, especially not by reducing density.

My comments at Monday's meeting were primarily about unrealistic expectations in addressing VMT through downzoning. I made the point that Sunbelt rail metropolises such as Denver, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. all had slower VMT growth than the Triangle and other fast-growth areas. I also advocated focusing rural growth on the rural nodes, (call them hamlets or villages if you like) which should be made walkable and linked to the pre-existing urbanized towns via bus transit.

Nota bene: I fully support urban infill, and would be interested to see a proposal for TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) from rural areas into existing municipalities in Orange County. However, as the Orange County BOCC cannot currently use its planning process directly to do this, I only chose to discuss growth strategies that the BOCC could act on directly, such as rural village/node development.

Thanks Patrick. As always you make much sense and are very well informed. I would add one additional issue to your comments. For downzoning and transfers to be successful, the towns can't be designating all the once-suburban neighborhoods as conservation districts since their large lots would have to support infill.

What your explanation points out to me is that instead of working forward toward a vague goal such as high density, we need to plan backward from the specific goals we want to achieve. And we need to do that from a multi-county perspective rather than as individual municipalities/counties.

Patrick, that's essentially my point, but add this - rural growth nodes will never be all that walkable if they rely on septic systems. Septic systems demand a minimum lot size that is over one acre (I am not sure, but I think the rule in Orange Co is about 1.5 acres except for certain grandfathered situations). White Cross is one of these growth nodes, but no sewer is available (nor should it be), so it can only be suburban.

My point about the Efland/Mebane area is that sewer exists in Mebane and might be feasible in Efland. But regardless, both Hillsborough and Mebane need to define their own urban services boundaries. Then we will be ready for drastic rural downzoning.

This is a great discussion. I am learning a lot from it.

Question: Did the agreement which defined the rural buffer, etc., contemplate strategies for dealing with these issues?

It seems to me that something will have to give here. Either the municipalities need to embrace infill strategies, extend service boundaries, or create these rural nodes which have sewer.

If neither the BOCC or individual municipality is willing to "drive" this to resolution (ie - they only stick to their direct authority and do not work together), then we are going to end up with the least desirable solution with the consequences pointed out above (lack of affordable housing, increased pollution, etc.)

Who should be driving this?

Mark Peters, I agree: This is interesting. And this discussion also gets to the really big picture on growth and development in this county. Frankly, some local governments have been more interested in this than others and so some have an urban services boundary while others do not. I know that it was hoped that other local governments would follow suit when the Urban Services Boundary was established, and perhaps they are thinking about such things. But we all know that the political climate in other parts of the county is very different.

As for where the leadership should come from on these issues: I think you will see above that some folks feel (understandably) that it is not right for Chapel Hill and Carrboro people to dictate what the future should hold for Efland or Hillsborough or Mebane. So some of the leadership (or at least buy-in) needs to come from people who live in those areas. Notice that above I said 'Hillsborough and Mebane need to define their own urban services boundaries.'

It does not sound like that type of buy-in exists at this point based on the comments above - and the lack of district representation essentially is a part of the issue. This raises a very interesting question: Are we going to try to solve complex environmental problems over the objection of the people who are most affected? Or are we going to approach the problem more slowly and with greater buy-in? Contrast the establishment of the Cane Creek Reservoir (approved over much local objection) with the Southern Small Area Plan (approved after much discussion with area stakeholders).

I don't think that question is easy to answer. If we go slow, the problem will get worse. If we go fast, we will further divide this county politically (and perhaps socially and economically). So how about it? Village Project people have argued that the County planning jurisdiction is not being built up so quickly that we need to make 'emergency' changes to lot size and density requirements. The County Planning staff asserts that the problem is getting out of control right now. I don't have the information that would be needed to form an intelligent opinion.

Mark C. - that was exactly the history & assessment I sought. Thanks.

Patrick, I disagree with your static view of zoning. You seem to think the current zoning is fluid but any downzoning would then be fixed (12 parcels today = 12 homes tomorrow). To take a thorny example, the duBose property in Chapel Hill was previously zoned for some hundreds of single family residences. Now Meadowmont is there. The process of upzoning allowed the town to engage in negotiations with the developer on a number of issues. There are certainly disagreements as to the outcome in that case but it's hard to fault a development process that allows for public participation where otherwise there might be none.

Dan, I do not consider zoning to be static. I do believe in the power of inertia, though. That's why I believe it is important to upzone some areas while downzoning others, lest we never get around to the former.

Meadowmont is an example of a zoning change, indeed. Southern Village was probably another at some point. The question to ask with both is- when were those zoned single-family only, what other properties were zoned that way at the same time, and what percentage of the total number of acres zoned single family at that time are built out or zoned as single family only areas? I don't know the answer to that question, but I'm willing to bet meadowmont is the exception, not the rule.

The bottom line is that we need to be having realistic conversations about where growth WILL go. The sidebar conversation that should occur at the same time is: what type of development would enhance what people already like about areas that will grow?

For others who may not be familiar with the Southern Small Area Plan Mark C refers to, there's a good case study available:
http://newurbanismwatershed.unc.edu/PDF/Southern_village.pdf

The emphasis of the plan was on watershed protection through land use planning and density standards as well as stormwater engineering. How would those who participated in this planning process change the plan if they were going to apply it to Mebane/Efland (let's assume the residents there were supportive)?

Patrick--(I think) this case study addresses some of the questions you posed. Toward the end of the case (p. 13) the authors acknowledge that their review does not consider factors such as market conditions and consumer demand.

Patrick, all of Chapel Hill (and its planning area) south of Morgan Creek was significantly down-zoned at the exact same time as the up-zoning that eventually allowed Southern Village. There was no net increase or decrease in the theoretical build-out density for the entirety of southern Chapel Hill.

Incidentally, the plan was modified a little bit from what was recommended by the Southern Small Area Planning Committee in order to allow some further development in the White Rock neighborhood on Old Lystra Road. After that change, the Town Council held a public hearing on the rezonings to implement the plan. I recall that not one person at the public hearing spoke against the rezonings. Later there were about three people who spoke out against the Southern Village Master Plan.

Southern Village is far from perfect (as are we all). I especially regret that we did not insist on an affordable housing component. But that was back when we were told that we did not have the power to insist on that sort of thing. As a total aside, Meadowmont was the beginning of mandated affordable housing in new developments in Chapel Hill.

 

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