I tell people that IP3 is our office annex, but it's true. It's the best place for a quick conversation. Last week, Dwight Bassett ordered a cheese slice and talked with me about growth, taxes and driving in from Graham.
Yes, the Chapel Hill economic development officer lives in Alamance County. He couldn't afford what he wanted in Chapel Hill, which meant a lot with room for his woodshop. That's his wooden arm holding up a basketball outside Spanky's. (And yes, he's just as surprised it's still there -- after NCAA tourneys and Halloweens -- as you and I probably are.)
Bassett is concerned because the town and many citizens are now participating in the Chapel Hill 2020 planning process "and there are people in 2020 who think it's an option not to grow the tax base." He means the commercial tax base, mostly: the kind that gives back to town and county coffers more than it takes in government services.
Last week I reported how developer Carol Ann Zinn had sold her Aydan Court site to UNC for $410,000 after buying it for just over $1 million four years ago. Zinn was seething in a guest column Sunday that has generated several responses (see more on that later this week). But her point is shared by many: the town's arduous development review process drives the cost of doing business here up and turns opportunities. Two weeks ago we reported how Walmart may come to Chatham County and kill plans for commercial activity in the southern part of town. When I suggested to Bassett it was another New Hope Commons in the making, his eyes widened. "Exactly," he said.
But why do we need to grow? Doesn't the devlopment review process guarantee everyone has a voice and protect our trees and fragile ecosystems? Yes, but without more businesses paying taxes, the cost falls on homeowners. And Bassett repeats what Town Manager Roger Stancil has been saying: Chapel Hill has reached the point where it can't ask homeowners to pay more. That's why you see the debate over swimming pool hours being cut and fears the town is building a state of the art library it may not be able to afford.
"We've got to cut services just to not have a tax increase next year," Bassett said.
Bassett's job is to bring business here. And he's not asking for an open door. He does think the town can do a better job telling developers what it wants early on so that they can have a surer chance of succeeding later. "There are many, many cities that have the same values as Chapel Hill but place the expectations on the front end," he says.
Which brings us to Rams Plaza. Katelyn Ferral reports in tomorrow's Chapel Hill News that the new owners will be seeking town approval for renovations. But even if the 30-year old shopping center is redeveloped as part of a new Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard hotspot, Bassett says it will only increase the town's commercial tax base from 16 to 18 percent. Without more business, the burden will still fall disproportionately on homeowners.
Bassett hopes Chapel Hill 2020 will lead to new and better rules, and on this he agrees with Zinn: the development review process does not always give the town what it needs.
"If 100 people show up at a meeting, they can sway things," he says. "But that's 100 people out of how many voters? I truly believe in the democratic process; we should be represeting the common good. ... (But) If we really do believe in a sustainable community, it's not just about saving a tree, it's not (just) about stormwater. "
"When you say maybe to something (as the town said to Zinn and has said other developers) you extend the life of something. It would be less painful to turn it down."
There are reasons beside lot size that Bassett, other town employees and newspaper reporters live outside town limits. In Alamance, commercial property accounts for 40 percent of the tax base. (And don't forget sales tax generated by Tanger Outlets, which pretty much killed Orange County developers' plans for Buckhorn Road.)
"It's an hour of my life," Bassett says, "27 miles a day (each way) I would rather give up" if he could find he could afford in Chapel Hill. It's a tradeoff many making, and more may contemplate in what town and others government leaders call "the new normal."