On tonight’s Chapel Hill Town Council agenda is an exciting opportunity for the town to spend $66,000 in taxpayer money to figure out how different types of land use impact the town’s finances.

I wish I had known this before the Blog Blog  completed such analyses for the low cost of free.

We found that dense apartments along transit corridors, to borrow the language of econometricians, generate a crap-ton of tax revenue for the town.

This is really not surprising to anyone who doesn’t spend their weekdays posting on NextDoor while day drinking. Dense infill development, relative to the suburban sprawl seen in most Chapel Hill neighborhoods, more efficiently uses existing infrastructure, generates fewer car trips (which require perpetual maintenance), and are inhabited predominantly by people who place few burdens on municipal services (see, for example, Mattson 2021; Chatman, et al., 2016)

So why is the town requesting the fiscal impact analysis study? 

Members of CHALT have requested this study. (We obtained emails through a public records request and they mention the request in their October/November 2021 newsletter.)

CHALT newsletter
This is from the October/November 2021 newsletter. It inaccurately describes the results of the Renkow study.

CHALT, an anti-growth group which has tried to block almost every development project in Chapel Hill since their formation in 2015, has repeatedly cited a 2012 cost of services study, which uses 2010 data, to claim that apartment buildings don’t pay for themselves. They are wrong.

What will the study do? 

According to the consultant’s proposal, they will attempt to answer several questions, including:

  • What is the relationship between development densities and infrastructure costs?
  • What is the optimum mix of land uses?
  • What is the relationship between the geographic location of new development and the cost?
  • How to invest limited funds to maximize return?

Are there other questions the consultant should be asking? 

Oh yes, there certainly are.

First, they should ask themselves: Am I prepared to have my professional reputation trashed if the findings do not indicate that all future development in Chapel Hill should cease immediately and for the foreseeable eternity? 

Second: If I do not find that apartments are fiscally terrible for the town, am I willing to participate in a 6-18 month follow-on task force that will be formed by the town to restudy the issue and that will be led by local amateurs who believe they know better than trained professionals how to measure fiscal impact?

OK but seriously

Wait, I’m dead serious about those questions. Less seriously, I should say, there are other questions we’d like any fiscal analysis to consider:

  1. For developments that largely attract UNC students, how are fiscal impacts for the town affected by students’ likelihood to obtain services on campus rather than from the town?
  2. What are the fiscal impacts for apartments versus single family homes given that renters in Chapel Hill are less likely than homeowners to have children? (According to Census data, there are for example several hundred school-aged children living in Southern Village; there are 5 in the block group that includes Shortbread Lofts and Carolina Square)
  3. What are the fiscal impacts of development located in more walkable areas versus areas reliant on cars for nearly all trips?
  4. What are the fiscal impacts of renters versus,say, a half-dozen CHALT members, on staff time and town resources? We’d like the study to quantify, for example:
    1. Staff time spent reading and responding to a half-dozen CHALT members emails to the town vs. reading and responding to emails from renters
    2. Staff time spent contemplating how to handle the barrage of requests they receive from 4-5 CHALT members on a weekly basis.
    3. Staff time spent in therapy after realizing how many requests are sent to various departments on a weekly basis, which is very hard to see unless you file a public records request
    4. Consultants and studies paid for by the town at the request of CHALT members vs. studies requested by renters
    5. Staff time spent hiring and training new staff because the old staff left because they were so sick of dealing with all of this
    6. Staff time spent supporting task forces and working groups formed in response to requests from CHALT members vs. requests from renters

Anything else? 

Actually, yeah, I wouldn’t mind being hired on as a sub to the consultant for the low fee of $36,000.

Before you answer, remember that I’m a Chapel Hill homeowner – you can’t really say no, can you?

Melody Kramer co-wrote this post.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...