Chapel Hill's/Orange County's Growth in Context

The underlying narrative of the election this year has been about growth in Chapel Hill.  Runway growth. Incredible growth.  Unprecidented growth.  Residents are nostalgic for that time 10, 20 or 30 years when the town's growth was so much slower.  

The only problem with that narrative is it isn't true. According to the UNC Carolina Population Center, if you compare the growth rates of the state's high tech counties, Orange (Chapel Hill), Durham, Wake, and Mecklenberg (Charlotte), growth rates are now historically low.  In fact, if you look at the growth rates during supposed golden age of Chapel Hill, in the 60's and 70's, the growth rate was twice what it is now. 

Even if you compare recent growth rates among the state's high tech counties, Orange has the lowest growth rate. Sure, Orange County has grown faster than counties in the middle of nowhere, but Orange is the home to a major economic driver for state, and is right next door to the other fastest growing counties as well.  

Perhaps you find it elitist to compare Chapel Hill to other high tech. counties and not the rest of the state.  Comparing the recent growth rate in Chapel Hill to other similar sized cities, it still is below average (2% vs. the average of 2.4%).  No matter how you slice it, the growth rate in Chapel Hill is not in any way the runaway growth characterized by CHALT.

The story being passed around in Chapel Hill is that the council has been corrupted by developer's money, that they've accepted cash and are now driving up the pace of building to please their corporate masters.  Ignoring the obvious problem that there is zero evidence of even a whiff of corruption from any sitting counsel member,  the issue remains that the pace of building is lower now than at almost anytime in the past, and the only reason it seems to have increased is that the economy has finally gotten back to normal after the crash in 2008.   

Another reason for the disconnect is density.  In the 60's through the 90's Chapel Hill was building in a style best described as low density sprawl that is expensive to provide services, has terrible traffic pattterns, is bad for the environment, and a poor use of natural resources.  The current council has embraced the recommendations of the Sierra Club and other experts and switched to smart growth, which has been proven to be better for the environment and in every way in the best long term interests of the citizens of NC. This is why most of the incumbents received endorsements from the Sierra Club and every other organization issuing endorsements other than CHALT.

Orange County already has and is expected to continue to have the lowest growth rate of any of the liberal, high tech. and cultural centers in NC.  How much slower growth is reasonable for Orange County to have?   

Notes: The growth rate of Chapel Hill closely tracks that of the county since its the largest population center.  The growth rates are based on hard values from the census and estimates for 2020 and 2030 from the experts at the UNC Carolina Population Center.  



Some of the variation in growth rate is due to annexation of existing neighborhoods into Chapel Hill City limits.

There were 16 annexations 1990-2010. I'm a bit unsure if to compare apples to apples for Chapel Hill. you have to exclude them. For Orange County as a whole they obviously count 

The values I calculcated were for the counties, for a couple of reasons:

First and foremost, we need to be thinking larger than what's within the city limits.  The quality of life and environmental protection issues don't stop at the boundaries of Chapel Hill.   

Secondly, even if I did calculate growth for the city itself, the way cities grow organically bigger is through annexation.  I don't see much difference to citizens in terms of quality of life or the environment if a neighborhood is annexed into Chapel Hill, or if land is zoned residential and new homes built.  In both cases the town made a conscious decision to grow.  

It would be worth doing another chart just for the largest cities in those counties, but its an almost certain bet the values would be very similar.


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