Are we un-friendly to business?

A few months ago, I recorded some commentaries for WCHL. Since they were based on comments I had previously written here, I didn't bother re-posting them. But the accusation that Chapel Hill's development review process is overly burdensome to businesses has come up again on the thread on creating green-collar jobs, and this is one of my biggest peeves in local politics. Here's what I said about it on the radio:

I often hear leaders of the Chamber of Commerce complain that Chapel Hill is too hostile to economic development. That we are putting too many restrictions on development, raising taxes too much, or just generally being anti-business. I beg to differ. 

Businesses are clamoring to get into our community, even in spite of these supposedly-onerous restrictions people like to complain about. Businesses are already very attracted to Chapel Hill because of there are so many potential customers here.  It's no accident that people with resources – people who have lots of options – choose to be in Orange County.  It's largely because of the Town governments' work to make sure that development is done in a way that serves the long-term interests of the community (and not just the short-term interests of businesses), that so many people want to live, work, study and therefore spend money here.

Orange County has an economy and a downtown that is the envy of towns across North Carolina. Of course we have the University to thank for many of these benefits, but Chapel Hill is much more than an accessory to the campus. In fact, this thriving community is a large part of what attracts people to come to UNC-Chapel Hill in the first place.

Our local governments have worked hard to protect our quality of life by providing the essential infrastructure and amenities that make this such a wonderful place to live. Wonder why nearby communities are full of traffic jams and strip malls when Chapel Hill and Carrboro have trees and a functioning downtown?  It's called smart planning and we've been doing it since before it was cool.  It's what makes approving new developments take so long, and I think that time and money is well-spent.  I wouldn't want it any other way.



Ruby, thanks for stating so well what some (many) of us involved with the planning process in Chapel Hill believe. I have had more than one developer tell me that their project emerged from the approval process better than what went in. And isn't it wonderful that we are able to see so many trees in Chapel Hill? I wonder how that happened.

"I have had more than one developer tell me that their project emerged from the approval process better than what went in."

Would you say that developer testimony is a boon to the process when such testimony is positive and irrelevant when such testimony is negative? I find it specious that you use positive testimony as an example of why the process is good, yet make no mention of the fact that much of the developer testimony is negative. If a developer's belief that the process improved his or her design supports the process, why wouldn't a developer's belief that the process destroyed his or her design impugn the process?

"isn't it wonderful that we are able to see so many trees in Chapel Hill? I wonder how that happened."

The maintenance of green space is something Chapel Hill can certainly be proud of. However, do you recognize that countless towns across this country have as much or more green space than Chapel Hill does without the same regulatory environment? Your post seems to indicate that Chapel Hill's process is the only way to ensure that "we are able to see so many trees", a claim for which there would be little evidence.

"I have had more than one developer tell me that their project emerged from the approval process better than what went in."


I don't deny this is a one-sided view of the situation. I can only tell you what those developers told me. I don't doubt that there have been unhappy developers as well but they don't usually take the time to come up after and tell me how bad they think the process is. The only point I was trying to make is that not all developers have a negative view of the process - no more, no less.

I have also heard developers say their project was better after the process, Roger Perry among them.  But this is only one part of the issue.  It's not just the approval but what happens on the road to completion. When we say "developers," are there not differences between the locals and non-locals?

And it's more than development, it's the businesses that want to operate here. Study after study has shown that "nationals" serve as magnets for local businesses operating in the same malls or areas.  And some "nationals" have local franchise owners, but yet we don't view them as locals.

Nobody has ever said (that I know of) that they are happy with the heavy reliance on personal property taxes. We can't keep going in the current direction and not drive a lot of people out of our community. Yet business owner after owner talk about the hurdles that have to overcome just to make some money that they can pay taxes on. And yes, there is the hostility - note Ruby's comment in the HS about being quite happy if Katrina Ryan took Sugarland to Cary. Just what Franklin Street needs, right?

So I guess it comes down to who the "we" is that might be unfriendly to business.


Thanks for explaining your previous post. I appreciate your candor.



<i> I have had more than one developer tell me that their project emerged from the approval process better than what went in.</i><br><br>

I have had more than one developer tell me that they simply will not work in Chapel Hill and especially Carrboro because it is so difficult to get through all of the permits here.

I think you're presenting a false dichotomy here. A town can be both desirable from a market standpoint and burdensome from a regulatory standpoint -- they are not mutually exclusive. Wise businesses will measure the negatives and positives of both the market and regulatory climate in determining where and how to operate.

It's certainly tempting for both sides of this argument to chalk up every tree to "smart planning" and every failed development to "oppressive government", but the fact of the matter is that the effects of regulation are highly complex and not always readily apparent. Unfortunately, far too much emotion is introduced into these discussions based not upon sound logic and reason, but rather the attachment so many have to their existing political or economic biases.

So the door is not wide open to businesses clamoring to get into our community.  Our perceived "business un-friendly" practices require them to bang on the door until some turn away, either feeling unwelcome or cutting their losses.  Chapel Hill and Carrboro do throw up costly roadblocks including courtesy reviews and public hearings where the applicants have to trot out the dog and pony show again and again while no real work gets done on either side.  I would argue for eliminating certain hurdles, the Grubb/Glenn Lennox fiascxo notwithstanding. 

If Carrboro wants to foster a green economy we should be more "unfriendly" to businesses by requiring them to use passive and active solar power and other green tech.

Hawaii, as an example, is requiring all new housing to be built with solar water heaters:

We could do the same for businesses, yes? 

 We need to make business pay for the true cost of doing business.

I'm assuming that you would enforce the same regulations upon all individuals as well, correct?

"We need to make business pay for the true cost of doing business."

What does that mean? What is the "true cost of doing business"?

If a company pollutes a stream and does not pay for the clean up and makes the government pay for it, that business is not paying the true cost of doing business. The government is subsidizing that business.

And yes, I would enforce that on anyone who buys any product. 

I'd completely agree! I'm confused by your targetting of businesses, however. In the Chapel Hill area, requiring that new businesses have solar water heating would not do much in terms of power consumption or pollution. Requiring this of consumers such as you and myself would.

I was targeting business becuase it was the topic of the thread.

 And not just solar water heat, but solar power as well. Every little bit...It is assumed that a household uses 9% of its power to heat water. I say 9% is a good bit. I am sure that some businesses could use a bit more. (Laundry, Restaurant)

So do you agree that the town should implement this idea? 

I absolutely do not agree that the town should implement this idea unless it's going to invoke consistent principles. If businesses using heated water from sources other than solar are "polluters", then consumers using heated water from sources other than solar are also "polluters". Criminalize one and you should criminalize the other.

Regardless, I fail to see any reason to implement this idea as economics teaches us that, over time, both businesses and individuals will seek out better efficiencies. If solar water heating is in fact exceptionally efficient (a point I would agree on), people will eventually seek this out on their own.

Instead of rigid regulations that attempt to legally bind entities to specific trendy technologies, I would instead get the town out of the business of subsidizing the consumption of once-trendy technologies for both businesses and individuals.

Jeez, I am not criminalizing anyone. What a weird thing to say. But yes, ALL new building should be required to have them. 

I have a degree in economics and I can tell you you are wrong on your point about the invisible hand. It does not exist becuase we do not have a free market.

 Solar water heating is efficient; it pays for itself it 4 to 8 years, since it has no moving part it is nearly maintenance free. The efficiency of solar water heating is hidden behind the subsidies we give to energy companies and neglects the inefficient fact that fossil fuel produced electricity causes pollution.

You need to look closely at all the rigid regulations that enable you to have such a healthy productive life and be a little more flexible.

"Jeez, I am not criminalizing anyone. What a weird thing to say. But yes, ALL new building should be required to have them."

You can't require something of a population, enforce that requirement, and then claim to not be criminalizing anyone. With the above regulation, you'd be criminalizing anyone building a new building without a solar water heater.

Your degree in economics certainly taught you the opposite of what you're saying -- no perfectly utopian free market needs to exist in order for various parties to weigh their options and choose accordingly, tending over time towards the choice that provides them the greatest value and or efficiency. Certainly regulation can tilt that choice in many different directions, and in the context of water heating and energy, your point on foolish subsidies is spot-on.

You certainly don't have to defend solar water heating to me, nor will you find disagreement regarding the poor planning of previous governments that recklessly favored certain technologies over others. Perhaps there is a lesson there.

The we are all criminals. Because living in democratic republic has the effect of requiring something of a population and then enforcing it.

As for the rest you are not making sense because you agree with me that even though it would be more efficient to go to solar now we are not.

 You just have some weird notion that it would be better to wait until later.


Your logic is severely flawed. Living in a Democratic Republic does not, in and of itself, require anything of a population. And while for all practical purposes any Democratic Republic will have a system of laws, those laws do not guarantee universal criminality.

I am certainly agreeing with you that solar water heating is more cost effective, energy efficient, and generally better than alternatives that exist. Furthermore, I also agree with your statements regarding the past and present subsidization of dangerous and/or excessive consumption of those alternatives. That recognition, however, does not necessarily mean I believe I have any right or even reason to force others in my community to utilize whatever technologies I happen to feel at any given moment are "good". That "weird notion" you mention is justice and, intrinsic to it, an understanding of people's basic rights to hold values counter to mine and make judgments with their own mind, instead of being forced to live by my own.

I also want to thank Ruby for making the case for responsible planning. 

What is wrong with trying to approve the best of development in order to enhance, not detract from, quality of life in Chapel Hill?  Although most responsible developers won't submit sub-standard plans, it because of the Town's guidance that we can hope to achieve higher than average quality development.  I don't intend this as a slight to any developer, but a developer who is responsible to his/her bottom line needs incentive to go the extra mile.  As an example, would we have gotten affordable housing units without stringent requirements?

Even with the Town's "rigidity," mistakes could be made.  In another place, I imagine, Glen Lennox might have been a done deal in its original presentation.  Northwest Chapel Hill might have ended up a congested, overbuilt, and neighborhood unfriendly mess.  Green building might only be considered a frivolity.  Hopefully, we will avoid approvals that will negatively impact us now and in the future.

By requiring excellence, we increase the value we put on day to day life in Chapel Hill.  The surest way to stop any population increase is to ignore this fact.


Del Snow

 Why do we expect excellence from our children(s) but not from business?
Because the operative word in your post is "our".

I thought this was my community? Should I not care about other people's children in my community? Should I not care about how business create waste in my community?

If that is an option please exempt me from that part of my sales tax. 

"I thought this was my community?"

In part, it is.

"Should I not care about other people's children in my community?"

Absolutely, you should.

"Should I not care about how business create waste in my community?"

Absolutely, you should.

I guess I missed your point.

I am trying to pull together some information  so that we can have a conversation around some data points, not just how the business community feels, or how I feel, or how you feel about what is going on in our community.   Some of what I am trying to track down, which I think will help us have a substantive conversation around this issue, is as follows:

What % of our town/county budgets  come from non-residential taxes, how has that changed over time, and how does it compare to surrounding communities, and/or the "best practices" of sustainability in terms of diversifying our revenue streams?  What does our debt to income ratio look like for the future? What about our reserves? 

How do our qualitiative measures compare against similar communities?

 But in the absence of that data, I will add my own gut check to the dialogue.   I think the business climate has steadily improved in our community.  We have elected officials who have recognized that the business community is part of their constituency and have worked hard to understand and respond to the issues.     We have several projects in progress that will be great additions to our community.   We have some upcoming exciting options, like the redevelopment of U Mall and Ram's Plaza, which will be aesthetically and commercially appealing.  

However,  I think we have some catch up to do to be an economically healthy community in the long term.       We have outsourced our  employment growth to our surrounding communities for over 20 years and essentially forced many of our residents to commute down I-40 for jobs that pay enough to support the housing costs in this town.      We have had no significant job growth in any sector--public or private--during what has been a boom period in general for the American economy, and especially for RTP.    

We have allowed our sales tax revenues to flow east and west--Ruby's right, we have businesses clamoring to be near us due to our purchasing power--they are ringed around us like a doughnut in our neighboring communities.  We shop, they collect.    We have the highest retail leakage in the Triangle.   We even have a residential ring around our community now--people who claim Chapel Hill as their home, identify with this community, and have a Chapel Hill address, but who are technically not residents.  

I love the quality of life that we have here, and I applaud our community's efforts to be thoughtful about preserving and enhancing that.   But this quality of life is only going to be an option in the future for people with a lot of personal $$ to pay the cost of admission, both on the cost of housing and on the ongoing property tax bills.     

I just want us to be sure that whatever we do, we get what we want in the most efficient manner possible.     HIgh standards are fine, but  a  clear, predictable, efficient, and smooth process is essential.  

 Go read the state of the local economy reports for the past few years, and while you're at it, read the RTRP reports for our region for the same time period.   Look at the budget.   Look at our capital improvement fund and think about how far 1.8 million dollars goes when we just spent about 500K for a block of sidewalk in downtown.   Look at the upcoming debt obligations.   And then do the math and figure out how much your share of that is going to be on your property tax bill.   That's why I want to see some more development.  

Do we do a good job? Of course.  Could we do better? I think so.  What is most frustrating for me is that we often seem unable to move beyond a defensive posture to a real dialogue.   Until we ALL let go of the need to be right, we can't see what's possible.    You just might have an idea that would change my mind.  And I might change yours---but it won't happen unless we LISTEN. So I am going to shut up and practice what I'm preaching.

It is all this measuring that stops progress. Meeting meeting and more meetings.

Either the town promotes sustainability or it does not. There is no halfway anymore. 

We can shape the town however we want. We can ban certain stores, we can foster others, we can tear down mcmansions and put up multistory dwellings. We can say no more plastic bags and make "affordable" housing affordable. We can make up a solar power substation. We can set an impossible ideal and constantly reach for it knowing all the time that we will never get there be we continue to try.

 We can do all those things.

All we need is courage and sacrifice.

Remember those? 


You're also talking about eminent domain and trampling private property rights. Remember those?

Sounds like you're interested in keeping out all but the most wealthy people and businesses.

Christian - Please take a breath and listen to yourself. There are certainly places and governments where this might happen, but ...OY!   It's hard to tell through this medium whether or not this is tongue in cheek.

Why the "OY" response? I am assuming you thing something is bad about what I proposed. Can you explain?

Can you explain to me and your children why sacrifice and courage is bad? Do you children to do only those things that do not involve sacrifice and courage?


Anita - have you been able to make any headway on those numbers?
I've been away,  now that I'm back I'll get to work on this. 
How many people here have run a business in Chapel Hill or Carrboro?  All this talk about requiring this demanding that, costs a lot of money.  Where does the money to start a (small) business come from?  As someone who has owned commercial property in Chapel Hill & has been a principal in the ownership of a small business that occupied that property I can tell you that most of the money it takes to get going comes from the owners!  In our case we used our home & savings as collaterial for the bank loans that it took to buy the property, renovate and upfit the building and to provide a rolling line of credit.  Wow, you stake all of your assests on the success of your business.   Every new regulation, etcetera costs money & that adds to your overhead.  You have to pay your overhead, before you can even consider making a profit.  Charnge too much for your services and you're gone.  I hear a lot about how the towns of CH&C want small  locally owned businesses, but the more upfront burden that is placed on starting or enlarging a local business, the deeper your pockets must be.  Case in point: we wanted to expand the building on our property, but after looking at the time, effort and money needed to get just to the point of beginning construction and its attendant costs, we bagged the idea & sold the property to a "big" developer and moved the business to a leased location.  After all we weren't developers ouselves, but small business owners trying to make a go of things by bringing a service to the community.   So before demanding of someone else to install solar power, rain water capture and whatever other ideas are in vogue ask yourself if you would be willing to risk all of your current & future assets on their success.    

Must be a republican. Calling environmentalism "vogue", owns businesses, and writes anonymously. Oh, and you anecdotal story is, well, anecdotal.

 I "ask(ed) (MY)self if (I) would be willing to risk all of your current & future assets on their success."

I answered "yes". Why? Because if it does not work there will be no assets anyway.

I thought Obama said "Yes We Can" as well.  That is all I am saying. If you do not think that we are smart and creative enough to do it I suggest you reread your history.

ChristianB, start your own business, then get back to us. You have no idea what you're talking about. You generally have to risk ALL of your personal assets to start even the tiniest business. Please don't use the "we" when you clearly don't own your own business.


"must be a republican" is a cheap brushoff & displays both arrogance & hubris on your part & really doesn't address the central point that I was trying to make which was small business owners have limited resources at their disposal.  Upfront costs are considerable and while amortization is taken into account it is the month to month account payables and receivables that are the make it or break it for the small business.  I also don't see that I labeled environmentalism as vogue.  Pointing out certain additional building requirements add considerably to upfront costs is all to true.  "Yes we can"is a very fine phrase but is unlikely to impress your banker. And while you are dismissive the story is quite real; oh and by the way the business employs about 10 fulltime local people to whom it provides healthcare and dental insurance.  


Green jobs and green construction would be great, and I would wholly support any planning efforts to encourage them, but not at the expense of socioeconomic diversity. If we continue in the direction we are going, we will end up with very few people like Ruby who have had the luxury to grow from childhood to adulthood in this community. Demographic data already show us that our African-American youth are leaving and not coming back. 

If businesses are clamoring to locate here, then what's the obstacle to supporting those that are consistent with our community values (although I'm not sure we know what those are). Why are we continuing to expect property owners to carry the full economic burden of supporting the luxuries deemed so important here? We're smart--we should be able to create a dynamic economy without having to sacrifice our lower-income neighbors.

Durham County has residents living in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. Last year, those who lived in homes assessed at $200,000 in Chapel Hill paid $3,533 in property and school taxes; those in Durham paid $2,894; and those in Raleigh paid $2,582. I think those figures speak for themselves. The cost of living here, in the absence of a vibrant economc development plan, is becoming prohibitive to all but the wealthiest.

1) I believe that if we did a thorough analysis of the review process, we would find unnecessary hurdles that we could dispense with and/or ways to streamline the process and still meet our goals.

2) I am unaware of any attempt at a thorough analysis of the review porcess based upon an actual proposal and the process it went through.

Does anyone know why - given that this issue has been bandied about for decades - there has not been a thorough analysis? Or maybe there has been one that we don't know about?

2-3 years ago when the council was getting presentations on the architectural possibilities for Lot 5/Wallace Deck redevelopment, a recommendation was made to move to form-based codes. Carrboro has also tossed that idea around. But I've never seen any public meetings on the topic or heard any further discussion from either council.
Just a quick note to point out that the Chapel Hill Town Staff traditionally recommend that a new project, approved under a Special Use Permit, begin construction within 2 years of its final approval. Over the last year or so developers have been requesting that this time be extended to 3-4 years after final approval. I'm not saying that developers haven't been, or aren't still, frustrated by the process but at least at this point in time the review and approval process is not slowing things down - it's the economy.

Three comments- 

"I love the quality of life that we have here, and I applaud our community's efforts to be thoughtful about preserving and enhancing that.   But this quality of life is only going to be an option in the future for people with a lot of personal $$ to pay the cost of admission, both on the cost of housing and on the ongoing property tax bills."

Quality of life and sustainable responsible planning are not mutually exclusive.  I am pretty sure that we all recognize the important and necessary part played by commercial development in broadening our tax base.  But previous Councils have okayed developments that are now cited as sprawl and inefficient use of land.  The key is to try to establish a vision that will minimize  inappropriate approvals. 

Vilcom has presented an interesting twist to this discussion.  For all the talk of lack of Class A office space, Dawson Hall, accepting rentals since construction started, has no tenants eventhough construction is now complete.  A proposal has been made to substitute a hotel for the next building that is already approved for the site...

As far as process goes, I think that a new visionary zoning map needs to be developed that will give guidance to developers and residents alike about where density should be sited AND where it should not.  At this point in time, it seems as though density has become  a buzzword that is being proposed for EVERY available site without regard to an overview of the entire Chapel Hill map and the ensuing consequences of density everywhere.  Density certainly is appropriate downtown.  Some lesser increase in density may be appropriate in other locations.  There needs to be a clear high standard directives for developers so that they know what is expected at the beginning of the process rather than presenting plans that have to be haggled over.

If we don't want to become the town of the landed gentry, we need not only a larger commercial tax base, but a policy that includes affordable residential and a plan that keeps Chapel Hill a desirable place to live.  We don't want a Atlanta-esque redevelopment scenario.

Del Snow

But previous Councils have okayed developments that are now cited as sprawl and inefficient use of land.  The key is to try to establish a vision that will minimize  inappropriate approvals. 

Del, I think this is a key point that needs greater consideration.  I suspect each and every council member who ever served believed in the rightness of their approval decisions at the time. When projects are later called inefficient and described as sprawl it's because our lenses changed.

Our visions, and the assumptions that go with them, are dynamic and sometimes we tend to forget that.  The vision that we agree on in 2008 will be looked at differently in 10 years.  I think our challenge is to establish a vision that is constantly reviewed and updated. 

Some people until the end of time will probably hate Meadowmont and Southern Village; others love them.  Who gets to declare who's vision is right?


You're right. It's only in hindsight that we learn whether our choices will be judged right or wrong. And if they happen to be judged right, our sense of righteousness may be fleeting at best.

I do agree with you-I don't believe that anybody ever voted for a development that they thought was totally wrong (though sometimes over-compromises are made...).  What worries me is when the focus of development protocol makes a sharp turn.  Lots of people jump on the bandwagon and the consequences are only realized in retrospect. 

I think that a regularly updated vision would be a great idea.  It certainly would help the process.

Del Snow

Fred, it is a key point - it makes me think about other dearly loved city plans that never seem to go out of style, and I'm sure everyone has their own favorites. Did these places evolve simply through individual landowner decisions or was there a governing process? The Atlantic Monthly did an interesting piece maybe 10 years ago pointing out the many of the things we like about London, Paris, etc are specifically prohibited by most current zoning law.

Would help to hear from a planning and urban design in history scholar on this, but my point is that good urban design happened in many places long before there were planning departments, zoning laws and major corporate developers.

Who do "we" think "we" are? I mean, trying to define the nature of our market here is a challenge. Whatever disarray there might be regarding goals in formal planning and review, it's mirrored in the multiple-personality layers of Chapel Hill/Carrboro as a market entity.

Based on the type of businesses and developments that have arrived most recently, you'd conclude that someone out there believes we are an upscale and ever-rising community. It's worth noting that the empty spaces on Franklin Street aren't there because of approval hurdles. They're there because of building owners' implicit assumptions, after a long boom period, about businesses that ought to be able to pay high rent in return for location.

Yet this is a college town whose economy, at least in theory, depends on students' wallets and tastes. And then there's the populist-green representation and, largely unrepresented, the worker-service group. Any mall that includes Southern Season and Goldworks together with Rose's and the (literally marginalized) K&W is a challenge to description. But most of us seem to like the slight chaos as emblematic of what it means to live here.

An accusation that "we" are unfriendly to business misses the point that businesses may presume a more defined (if simplistic) idea of who "we" are than we have ourselves. Relatedly, those businesses may also have some preferences about who "we" should be that don't match many of our current layers of identity. What it comes down to is that "letting the market decide" (a chimeric idea, but that's another discussion) requires at least some understanding of the market, which here includes a wide and slightly odd spectrum of interests, as well as more elaborate approval scrutiny than might be the case elsewhere, partly because of that very diversity.

It's worth noting that the empty spaces on Franklin Street aren't there because of approval hurdles. They're there because of building owners' implicit assumptions, after a long boom period, about businesses that ought to be able to pay high rent in return for location.


Franklin St. is an anomaly.  It's owned by a few slumlords that own the buildings free and clear and don't care if they have income or not.  Places like Carrboro, however, will quickly kill themselves because the approval process for buildings is so ridiculous, that there simply is not nearly enough commercial space (especially retail).   Hence, rents are starting to skyrocket, and traditional retailers will simply leave.  Notice the boom in the past year at Eastgate/Elliott Road/UMall?  That's because of a lack of development elsewhere.  All of the retail space in town is pretty much in that one spot.  

Carolina North planning is the perfect exercise in vision.  Lacking a functional cystal ball, we/they have no roadmap to Oz.  Will surrounding neighborhoods remain fixed in time while the new campus evolves?  Will air quality and water supply survive this enormous development?  Are today's green building strategies worth implementing, or primitive by futuristic standards (so why bother)?  The reason there's no comprehensive plan is that nobody knows



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