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The future of the rural Triangle

November 11, 2010

Chatham County, North Carolina, sits in the southern tier of the triangle, the region defined by the three great research institutions in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh.  While Orange, Durham, and Wake Counties have experienced massive growth in recent decades, dealing with it in different and occasionally poorly considered ways, Chatham has largely resisted the siren call of the development that has enveloped the rest of the triangle (locals don’t call the area Sprawleigh-Durham for nothing), preferring a slow-growth approach that at least attempted to avoid the infrastructure demand issues that have dogged communities to the north and east.  For that reason Chatham County retained a lot of its pastoral charm.  There’s still a lot of farmland, and the area that surrounds the vast Jordan reservoir is protected state forestland, fabulous for birding as so many triangle area bird enthusiasts well know.

That is, until 2004 when enough folks got impatient and development friendly interests who coffers were filled by local home development organizations were elected to the county board of commissioners.  You can imagine what came next.  A spate of development over the net 6 years that, in the true spirit of the late 200os housing bubble, led to the approval of thousands of units of luxury  subdivisions, close to 50 in all, that the new board hoped would lead to millions of dollars of revenue for the county by attracting the professional class that had been coming to the area in droves.  Construction began almost immediately and most of the new developments were slated to be completed by the end of 2010.

Slow growth proponents continued to argue that increasing the population of the county so quickly would put a strain on public utilities and school systems before the increased tax revenue kicked in to allow for expansion.  Fortunately or unfortunately, that crisis was averted due to another crisis, one of which we’re all too familiar.  In the aftermath of the collapse of the housing market in 2008, many of the developers in Chatham County went out of business.  As of January of this year 1,921 homes on nearly 3,000 acres are foreclosed on, stalled, or bankrupt; and those are the homes that were built.  Half finished ghost subdivisions remain scattered across the countryside, for which Chatham County is now responsible placing the county in financial difficulty.  The whole sordid tale is well-told here in the Independent, the region’s independent weekly newspaper.

I tell this part of the story to put the present in context.  The land razed for these developments is a disaster for the county more than just financially.  Thousands of acres of North Carolina oak-pine forest was clear-cut.  Because development was always considered eminent, erosion mitigation was not used so that two years later what soil was present is gone and hard red clay remains.  The run-off has clogged streams leading into Jordan Lake, which has seen its water quality plummet in recent years to the extent that it has been included on the EPA’s Impaired Waters List since 2002 due to excess nutrients.  It goes without saying that this period in Chatham County’s history has left lasting negative impacts that will take some time to address.  When slow growth advocates retook the board in 2008, and with the dangers of placing too much emphasis on unrestrained development fresh in the minds of Chatham County residents, it looked as though the long-term vision of sustainable growth would win out.

Until this past election, when every one of the slow-growth incumbent commissioners, an incredibly effective group of individuals that had made Chatham County4th in the state in public school funding per child (not that that cas anything to do with conservation issues, but it’s still pretty impressive) were defeated by challengers running with pockets full of money from the National Association of Home Builders and the same pro-development platform that left Chatham Couty ravaged not two years ago.

Now, I understand and share the frustration many Americans feel about our elected officials in Washington.  Over the past 10 years we’ve watched as monied interests are allowed to trample on the rights of regular citizens, to disregard and destroy the rules that were set in place to protect the open places that are, more than anything, our national birthright.  For those of us for whom biodiversity and land management issues are high priorities the last ten years have been a nearly unabated buffet of shit sandwiches we’ve been forced to choke down.  It may be worse that the last two years have remained essentially unchanged despite the fact that a Democratic president should ostensibly be on the side of science based management policies a little more often, but money talks and money gets what it wants.  Too often that’s at the expense of wildlife and wild places. That may be the status quo in Washington, and to a certain extent you have to write that off, but most of the battles of the conservation movement are fought on the ground, locally.

That’s why it’s so frustrating to see my neighbors in Chatham County refuse out of principle or ignorance, to make the distinction between casting a vote in protest of Washington and casting a vote that sends the county immediately back to the same bankrupt ideology they rejected not 2 years ago that left them with ecological wastelands for which it now has to find a way to be financially responsible.  Don’t think the new board will act the same way as the old disreputable one?  Think again:

“What we’ve said is that we want to streamline the process,” [commissioner-elect Brian]Bock said. “If someone’s following all the rules, we don’t want to … make someone spend an excessive amount of money or time getting the right to do something they have a legal right to do.”

Which sounds all well and good, except that those rules that were put in place exist to specifically ward against the kind of irresponsible development that has put the county in the situation they’re in, with the millions of dollars of lost revenue and run-off choking their water supply and the lost forests and farmland that not only made the area so good for species that were hard to find in the triangle at large, but provided the county with twice as much return on investment as any of the vast featureless subdivisions full of half built million dollar homes.   So we who use Chatham County to recreate get to stand by and watch as the last rural county in the triangle slowly joins the rest of the sprawling region.

And we’re all the worse for it.

  1. November 11, 2010 8:54 am

    Er, you’re not about the switch Beer Bottles for Tea Bags, are you?

    The urban sprawl in the US is downright frightening, especially for someone from Europe. Judging by GoogleEarth, one struggles to find a squaremile without a house in much of the eastern USA, e.g. Massachusetts and – yes, as you mention – central North Carolina. Imagine how much wild and unspoilt places there would be even in the East if the housing policies of the US were comparable to Europe’s.

  2. Nate permalink*
    November 11, 2010 9:27 am

    @Jochen- No sir. I’m a coffee drinker.

    But you’re right. Chatham County is pretty good, but the last 10 years have been absolutely brutal there, and we look to be going back to the bad old days. The Democratic board that was defeated (narrowly I might add) was an extremely effective political body that did a lot to clean up the messes of their predecessors. It’s incredibly frustrating to see what is essentially anger directed primarily at national politicians trickle down and affect a productive local institution. It’s clear that the actual policies were not considered so much as the letter next to their name.

  3. November 11, 2010 10:59 am

    “Coffee Drinker” – is that the new grassroots movement of the Dems?


  4. November 11, 2010 2:25 pm

    Excellent report on a sad and frustrating situation. I am so sick of people opting for destruction of their natural surroundings for short term gain in lieu of development that uses natural resources in a sustainable manner. I would like to ask such folks if they really think they are being patriotic by destroying the priceless natural heritage of America or what message they would like to leave to explain their actions to future Americans who have to deal with environmental problems caused by predecessors who had the knowledge to make better decisions for the long term.

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