Seeing the Forest AND the Trees
Breaking down silos is essential for the long-term health of our community
I love trees and forests. I love running on trails, walking the dogs, biking with the kids. Nature is healing, soothing, calming – something we all need more of these days. There has been a lot of focus on trees lately and a sense that Chapel Hill is losing ours. Sadly, this is often coupled with finger-pointing and side-taking (as if anyone is anti-tree?). What seems to get lost is the bigger, more complex picture. It’s easy to frame this debate as caring residents vs. evil, greedy developers. But the real story is far more complex. It’s a story about equity, diversity, affordability, and environmental protection - issues “pro-tree” people care deeply about, too.
In the late ‘80s, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County created a rural buffer. This established a circle around the edge of town beyond which we have agreed not to develop. The intent was to preserve forests, farms, and the general rural nature of Orange County beyond the buffer while also preventing the harmful urban sprawl that has afflicted so many other towns and cities. This was and is critical, especially in the increasingly urgent context of the climate emergency. And it preserves the trees and green space on the outer edges of our community for the hiking, biking, strolling, jogging, and pondering that we all love to do there.
But the rural buffer also limited the developable land within Chapel Hill. Limiting the land that we can use for new development means that we need to use the land inside the buffer strategically. This is the tradeoff inherent in the creation of the rural buffer, one which is now becoming more apparent as developable land becomes truly scarce and expensive. This is where the tree question gets more complicated.
If we try to prevent new (re-)development in town to preserve trees, we are undermining the implicit premise of the rural buffer, namely that we would develop more densely in town, to preserve nature outside of it. Meanwhile, people want to move here because we’ve made it a great place to live. Chapel Hill continues to grow, albeit significantly slower than other Triangle area communities and, in fact, at a slower rate than we’ve ever grown before. Still, we have a demand for approximately 400 new dwelling units per year to accommodate this growth. Suppressing supply leads to housing scarcity and increases housing prices. What happens when we don’t keep up with demand? Who pays the price?
Chapel Hill is already prohibitively expensive, and we are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Why? Because Chapel Hill is a college town. Because it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family. And because our supply has not kept up with demand. But limiting developable land even more increases housing prices even more by increasing the price of land and making it nearly impossible to build significant amounts of affordable and workforce housing. It also increases property taxes for everyone, making it increasingly difficult for our lower income residents to stay and for our small businesses to prosper. In short, constraining developable land makes Chapel Hill more expensive for everyone.
Meanwhile, we focus on preserving all trees while forgetting that on any given night there are no fewer than 40 unsheltered people living among those trees. Those 40 represent only 20% of our county’s homeless population, the other 80% of whom have temporary housing due to our incredible local shelter and emergency housing providers. It’s also important to note that since the start of the pandemic, homelessness in the county has increased by 35%.
Recently, a limited numbers of trees have been cut down to make room for affordable housing, senior housing, rental housing, and better access to health care. These are the tradeoffs we need to be willing to make. The Town’s policies – which are under threat from the General Assembly - require significant tree canopy preservation in new development. We owe it to the trees we do remove to make the most of the spaces where they used to be. Density allows us to limit the development footprint, preserve more trees, combat climate change, and take care of our people, too.
We have allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of a false dichotomy. This should not be trees vs. people. It should be trees and people. With thoughtful planning and open conversations with our community, we can preserve most of our trees, create new, appealing green spaces in town, and have the housing we need for all who wish to live here while avoiding pricing out those who have been historically marginalized in this highly educated, university-dominated community. Those on fixed incomes. Those who are working multiple jobs to keep their kids in the CHCCS schools. Communities such as Northside, Pine Knolls, and Rogers Road - historically black neighborhoods whose members have been systematically priced out of homes that have been in their families for generations. Manufactured housing neighborhoods. When there are competing public interests, the choices are hard, but I believe that we can find a balance that preserves and even enhances the environment while also addressing the critical needs of our residents.
Key election dates:
*Absentee voting by mail begins: October 3
*Voter registration deadline: October 8
*Early voting: October 14-October 30
*Election day and last day to return absentee ballots: November 2
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