Contemplating Carrboro's Campaign Issues

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday June 04, 2005

Recently I was asked what I thought the issues would be in this year's Carrboro elections. I didn't have a ready answer. As I considered the question, it seemed that no one has been putting new ideas on the table for Carrboro lately.

Recent elections have functioned as referenda on the policies of the existing board, policies that have evolved over the past decade or so. This year, things have been pretty quiet.

Alderman Alex Zaffron hit a nail on the head recently when he suggested that the best thing the board had done lately might have been hiring Steve Stewart as town manager. Stewart has brought in his proposed 2005-06 budget without a tax increase.

It has long seemed that if there was an issue that could unite the diverse groups who are unhappy with the status quo, it was Carrboro's tax rate. Property taxes in Carrboro have tracked at some 20 percent above those of Chapel Hill despite the smaller town turning to its larger neighbor for a number of amenities.

This year, under Stewart's proposed budget and thanks to a modest increase in Chapel Hill, the gap will close a bit.

Still, with pressure from shrinking state and federal contributions, it seems inevitable that taxes will at some point become an issue. This year already sees a putative Chapel Hill candidate fussing over that town's contributions to community groups like the Women's Center.

It probably won't be this year but sometime soon, a Carrboro campaign will raise the question of some form of merger with Chapel Hill. This would likely take the form of a call for exploring the cost-savings and efficiencies that might arise from increased cooperation, merger of functional units or outright unification.

There is already a great deal of cooperation between the two towns in areas like police and fire protection, library services, public transit and recreation. But there is much more that could be shared or streamlined. Trash collection comes to mind as well as the need to maintain two separate public works operations centers. Recently, The Chapel Hill Herald editorialized that it's "time to merge town fire departments."

Beyond the strictly budgetary concerns, there are political questions surrounding the assignment of municipal identity to various segments of the area's growing population.

It has not escaped the notice of political observers that Carrboro is annexing a significant population who've screamed loudly that they'd rather be part of Chapel Hill.

Annexation area resident Brian Voyce said "if you really want to look out for the broad interests of our community, then it's time to merge the towns."

No doubt there are others who would agree. After all, the phrase "Paris of the Piedmont" is unlikely to evoke images of Wexford or Lake Hogan Farms. Those are neighborhoods whose postal addresses already read "Chapel Hill, NC 27516."

Many among Carrboro's cadre of disaffected suburbanites are uncomfortable with an image of the town as a cultural mecca that begins where their neighborhoods end. Yet it is indisputable that much of what is special about Carrboro is a culture that has grown up in the neighborhoods surrounding the old mill houses of the town's historic center. The more Carrboro expands its suburbs, the more it dilutes the basis for its own uniqueness.

Carrboro hopes to increase the density of its downtown, bringing in new businesses and the residential population to support them, not only maintaining but strengthening its vital center. If successful, this will preserve the present political culture of Carrboro but the question remains whether the pace of downtown development will exceed the rate of suburban construction and annexation. Elections currently won by only a few hundred votes hang very much in the balance.

In the future, Carrboro may find itself on the horns of a dilemma: On the one hand, a marvelous case study that small really can be beautiful; on the other, a small town facing the challenge of trying to affordably meet the expectations of an increasingly affluent population.

Some future candidate might posit a merger with Chapel Hill as a way to resolve this tension.

While promising tax savings and government efficiencies, such a candidate might call for establishing "old Carrboro" as a special planning district guided primarily by the residents and business-owners of the in-town neighborhoods.

It could happen but would be unlikely to go far. Despite the various tensions of recent years, the 2020 Vision and its successor planning processes remain broadly popular in their expression of a unique and enduring Carrboro.

As I was finishing up this column, the fellow who asked about Carrboro issues said he'd like to see quicker progress on the town's sidewalks program. Now there's an issue that could have candidates pounding the pavement this fall.



Good morning Dan. You've written a thoughtful piece. I take exception to one point.

I don't think maintaining Carrboro's progressive political culture requires that there be some kind of race between keeping downtown population growth ahead of population growth to the north. Homestead Rd. is not the great Dobsonian divide. Your stereotypes about what kind of people live in the north are about as wrong as my old stereotypes about what kind of people live downtown.

I'll be honest and admit that somewhere along the way I did develop the idea that Carrboro was full of smugly superior elitists masquerading as saints and champions of the poor, and that these elitist condemned all who didn't conform to their narrow vision of goodness. Well, I've been spending more and more time in Carrboro, and I really haven't met anyone who conforms to my stereotype, and I doubt that you'll meet too many of your worst nightmares north of downtown.

In short, I don't think growth will destroy Carrboro political culture unless we're foolish enough to put all of our energy into perpetuating false stereotypes.

I also find it interesting that you are having trouble identifying the big Carrboro election issues. I'm having the same trouble. I find things strangely quiet. Maybe Carrboro will be voting on personalities and their visions, not issues.

I really don't think my column implies a belief in a uniformly geographically based politics. I agree that there is no such thing and that we should take care that an exploration of trends not lead us into stereotypes.

It's interesting that you disagree that the upcoming annexations could have an electoral impact. Many of your neighbors seem to think they will. Bill Faison's dead-on-arrival annexation bill was based on the premise that there could be a significant impact.

I'd like to see Carrboro go smoke-free in all restaurants and bars--and this issue would be an interesting addition to the campaign season. If New York City, Dublin, and London can go smoke-free, there's no reason Carrboro can't. It's better for the folks who work at restaurants, and, I think, would draw in people who'd prefer to have a drink at a bar without later smelling like a cigarette.

I've heard it might not be an option for NC municipalities, though, to enact such a law. Anyone know for sure?

And while increasing property values do now benefit my household, since we own our house, I am concerned that Carrboro is becoming too expensive for just the kind of folks who make Carrboro an interesting place. I know a lot of young, funky, progressive folks who are moving to Hillsborough (the Carrboro of the future perhaps?) because they just can't afford Carrboro. How can the town address this issue? I don't know, but I'd be interested to hear some proposals.

And I don't think merging with Chapel Hill is the answer. Services, perhaps, but I'd hate to be part of municipality that spent millions on one downtown area while neglecting issues important to Carrboro-area residents, and that just might happen.

I'd like to see the section of Weaver Street in front of Weaver St. Market be closed and merged with the Weaver St. Market lawn to create a pedestrian park area.

(I think Franklin St. between Columbia & Boundary should also be closed down as a road. At least it should be experimented with one weekend a month.)

And while I'm dreaming away here, Carrboro could become the solar & energy efficiency capital of the South by actively promoting the installation of solar water heaters & compact fluorescent bulbs. The town could facilitate huge bulk purchases and give their citizens a great price break. They could have classes to inform people. They could install a solar array at the Framer's Market for power & education.

I think the reason that this is doable for Carrboro is their relatively small population.

Dan, without a vote in this election cycle, the NTA can't have much of an impact.

Perhaps in the 2007 election, former NTA residents will mobilize for some change.

I'm optimistic though that this year Carrboro will elect a mayor and aldermen who can respectfully address NTA concerns.

The challenge is to have meaningful dialogue with all voters and to expand the Carrboro vision in ways that make Carrboro more inclusive. If Carrboro government does its job well, there should be little reason for new voters to seek divisive change in 2007.

Also, I agree with Joan; housing is always an issue.

Is it just my perception, or is there a lot of substandard single family rental housing in Carrboro?

Mr. OWASA, how about, while we're dreaming, putting public drinking fountains starting on Weaver St., down Main St. to Franklin St. continuing all the way to downtown Chapel Hill at reasonable intervals? Hey, maybe we could encourage the Chapel Hill Town Council to make externally accessible public (which includes everyone - panhandlers and all) restrooms part of the #2/#5 developments and maybe Carrboro could make them part of the Arts Center redevelopment project? Now, leaping into the realm of utter fantasy, maybe as part of these development projects we could get public openspaces inviting enough to drop and "sit a spell" or even take a snooze.

Mark and Will,

Some of your issues have already been addressed as part of the downtown transportation study. The Carrboro merchants, especially those at Carr Mill, are adamantly opposed to closing Weaver St. I suspect, based on the last round of drawings, that the case is closed.

That same plan has extensive landscaping and pedestrian friendly features such benches. There's also a downtown open space project going on.

I heartily endorse Mark's suggestion about the alternative energy demonstration site. There used to be a wonderful old house in Atlanta that had been completely converted to demonstrate the various alternative energy technologies. Something similar in Carrboro could stimulate new business as well. I'd also like to see Carrboro adopt the San Francisco Urban Environment Accords:

I mostly agree with what Dan has written. It introduces the notion of what will be an interesting discussion going forward, and that is: what sort of relationship will the towns' "suburbanites" (loosely applied) and "urbanites" (loosely applied) have? The relationship could become a large divide, or if mutual understanding is applied, the meshing could be very positive. Growth is inevitable and the suburban population will soon far outstrip town people. I fear that the rhetoric is leading us to unfairly labeling town people as Communists and suburban folk as Republicans!

Chapel Hill and Carrboro will not merge in my lifetime. An interesting idea, but too much of the "devil in the detail." For starters, what to name it - - - if we can't deal with Airport Road vs. MLK, what could we expect out of the town naming debate? Can you see the consulting bill for that?!

When Winston and Salem merged they found a way past the naming debate. Already people talk about "Chapel Hill-Carrboro" as if it is one place. You are right though, Bobby. The two towns will never merge in our lifetimes.

Of course, our debate would come down to "Chapel Hill - Carrboro" vs. "Carrboro - Chapel Hill!"

some in Durham think the airport should be DRU becouse it's closer to Durham


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