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Thursday, June 26, 2008
NIMBY: Not in my backyard

CHAPEL HILL -- As my wife said to me, after I told her that I just found out that John Paul was heading the Glen Lennox Neighborhood Conservation District petition drive, "This will be a test of your . . . what's the word?" My answer: "I don't know."  Then, fifteen minutes later, I said, "journalistic integrity." And she responded, "Yeah, that's it."

I had planned to do a column on the proposed re-development of Glen Lennox.  And John and Jill Paul are our friends.  In fact, in August we are going with them to Galax, Virginia to the Old Fiddler's Convention for a week of old bluegrass music.  Or at least I think we are.  Among the letters to the editor, perhaps, I will find out if we're still on.

* * *

As I have said many times about Chapel Hill, indicating both its government and its citizenry, Chapel Hill is for every good thing -- somewhere else.  They want a Habitat neighborhood -- somewhere else.  They want a light-rail system -- somewhere else.  They want a clubhouse for people with mental illness -- somewhere else.  They want a place for the homeless to go -- somewhere else.  And so on.

NIMBY.  Not In My BackYard.  Chapel Hill could well be the capital of the NIMBY universe.

But, don't get me wrong, NIMBYism is hardly confined to Chapel Hill, it is rampant across our fair country.  For example, over near where we live, which is not in Chapel Hill, but "out in the county," a residential development was in the planning but the neighbors of their future neighbors objected, preferring to look out the windows of their houses at woods rather than other people's houses.  Who wouldn't?

Using focused political action, they got several local governments to buy the land and make it into a greenway for them.  If the land had been somewhere else besides "in their backyard," it would have seemed like community-oriented conservation.  Instead it looked like NIMBY to me -- using your money and mine.

But NIMBY is really a misnomer.  I can stop just about anything in "my backyard" -- I own it.  That is, unless the government gets involved, in which case eminent domain can crush my property rights to a smudge.  What I can't stop, or at least shouldn't be able to stop, is what my neighbor does with his own yard -- especially when it is something good for the community as a whole.

We all like electric power but no one wants a power plant next to our house.  We all use paper but no one wants the trees next door cut down.  We all produce garbage but none of us wants a dump anywhere near them.  But, you know what, they need to be somewhere.

Despite our neighbors' opposition to it, I thought Meadowmont would be a good thing for our town -- and would have been even better if the developer had been allowed to make it more dense, as he proposed, and if it was even closer to the center of Chapel Hill -- say like where Glen Lennox is.

The Grubb Properties plan would replace the current 440-unit apartment complex and shopping center with 908 residential units, over 500,000 square feet of retail and office space, a multi-story hotel and 3,665 parking spaces.  This is clearly a high-density mixed-use development.

If density is to be in Chapel Hill, noting that the only alternative to density is sprawl, where should it be if not at the intersection of two major roads (Hwy. 54 and the 15-501 Bypass) and a walkable distance from the UNC campus, where the jobs are?

In case you haven't noticed, housing prices are high in Chapel Hill.  Why? Because demand exceeds supply.  Chapel Hill needs more housing. And all the world needs to live closer to places to work and shop.  Mass transportation only works with housing density.

The current configuration of Glen Lennox, with its relatively affordable apartments, may look like a solution but it is not.  The immutable law of supply and demand says more housing within Chapel Hill will in the long run reduce housing prices here.  There is a better and higher use for Glen Lennox -- and that is exactly what Grubb Properties proposes to do with the property they, not we, own.

While I could wish that the neighbors of Glen Lennox could have what they wish, the owners of the property have their rights and the community as whole, looking forward, not back, would be better served by more housing closer to the center of Chapel Hill rather than less.

But, ultimately, the issue is not what the neighbors want but what the owners should be able to do.  Neighbors’ objections are only relevant if they point to some greater social damage.  Here they do not.


Gary D. Gaddy is a member of the Orange County Commissioners' Affordable Housing Advisory Board. The views stated here do not necessarily represent those of that board, though he certainly would like it if they did.

A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thursday June 26, 2008.

Copyright  2008  Gary D. Gaddy


Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 9:00 AM EDT
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