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Whiners and winners: Recession brings Chatham golden choices

By Wallace Kaufman
Posted Saturday, January 16, 2010

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Chatham County, NC - A recent article in The Independent about thousands of acres of failed, stagnant or bankrupt development obscures several golden opportunities by the writer's choice to whine about the past rather than think about the future.

The Independent writer quotes Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost, “who worked for more than 20 years as a government budget professional” as saying, "Chatham County is not in this subdivision business. Eventually, someone will buy them. I know there are many Chatham citizens that wish we would buy Westfall but our real dilemma is that of ensuring the county's infrastructure keeps up with its growth.”

If that is the way a government budget expert and commissioner thinks, it’s a good demonstration of why the county should not be in the land business.

If that is the way a government budget expert and commissioner thinks, it’s a good demonstration of why the county should not be in the land business. For the past 40 years it has been the extension of infrastructure by government that has provided the subsidy from taxpayers that made all the development possible. (Of course, we have only the Independent’s word, often unreliable, for what she said. Disclosure: I used to write for the Independent.)

Wade Barber, Sr. who practiced law in Chatham from the 1920s for almost 70 years warned that the county in the 1960s that it should not be leading development by extending water and sewer lines, especially when it could not pay for them. Mr. Barber was also the prime mover in greatly expanding the tax base by creating and populating an industrial district with relatively good wages in southeast Chatham.

For 40 years commissioners, liberal and conservative, ignored the warnings and enticed development by their water and sewer extensions and permissions. We might note that as the Independent writer continues flogging old demons, she tells us “all [the failed subdivisions] were unanimously approved during the Morgan era by the Chatham County Commissioners and the planning board.”

"Unanimously" means all the commissioners and board members, including those supported by the anti-Morgan forces. So either she's wrong, or she's being disingenuous blaming only the conservatives. I pointed out for decades that none of the county boards would pass a real planning ordinance that set realistic standards forcing development to pay its own way.

It is in fact true that houses over a certain value pay more into the tax base than they take out.

The writer goes on to whine about the losses to the county’s tax base, but all the boards fell short of developing the tax base. But as recently retired county planner Keith Megginson once pointed out, it is in fact true that houses over a certain value pay more into the tax base than they take out.

The writer also laments that, “Last year, the homebuilders lobby succeeded in persuading the state legislature to pass House Bill 1490, which prohibits counties, including Chatham, from imposing new, more stringent development standards on these old, bankrupt subdivisions for at least three years.”

Putting more regulations, making it more expensive to do something is not likely to add value to the tax base or solve any of the environmental problems.

I admit I don’t know the provisions of the bill, but I wonder if its defeat is so bad? The writer complains that the county is stuck with "fallow" developments. Putting more regulations, making it more expensive to do something is not likely to add value to the tax base or solve any of the environmental problems.

What should happen is that the people in Chatham who so much want to preserve land should get together and form a tax exempt land acquisition group and start buying up these properties. They could at least break even and finance themselves by then reselling the least sensitive portions for lots or farms or homesteads with conservation easements. (Chatham has many such examples, some started by former commissioner Phillips, and some 2,000 acres in places like Redbud, Saralyn, Harland’s Creek done by me.)

most people who want to save the environment want to do it with someone else's money.

Unfortunately most people who want to save the environment want to do it with someone else's money. Call ‘someone else’ Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. The golden opportunity that Chatham now has to reshape these large stalled rural subdivisions also offers what many Chatham activists have wanted for decades—more affordable housing. (Disclosure: at the behest of the commissioners I once chaired an affordable housing task force and put on their desks a menu of options to meet the goal.)

When a builder says, "We spent $600,000 on these homes' construction line. We might be able to sell the house for $250,000, leaving us liable to the bank for $350,000," that’s unfortunate for the builder, but a 60% reduction in the home price certainly means more affordable housing. (It’s not cheap housing, but as someone moves up, a less expensive house becomes available.)

Isn't this a good example of how the market re-prices houses to make them more affordable. (Chatham should encourage the Obama administration not to step in with subsidies to help people buy these places at higher prices or give the developers lower priced credit.)

We also read that “Briar Chapel has fallen short of expectations, its builders switching to townhomes in order to fill out Phase Four of the construction.” Isn't that also a good example of the market at work? Aren't the townhomes more affordable, and don't they use less land per resident?

Rather than seeing the opportunities, the Independent writer goes on to whine, “High infrastructure costs, coupled with the housing bust, have saddled Chatham County with thousands of fallow acres. Yet the county can't buy the bankrupt developments. "That's not something we've ever done," said Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost. Here we see the writer's ignorance of history, perhaps willful. Former chairman of the Commissioners, Gary Phillips, led his fellow commissioners into paying a million or more to buy a landlocked, distressed property behind Walmart by Siler City.

Isn't now the right time for the county to land-bank sites for future schools and parks and preserves? They have a golden opportunity and it seems the best they can do is say, "No, we can't." (Isn’t this the era of "Yes, we can?") Truth to tell, it's private action, for profit or nonprofit, that really says "Yes, we can." So where are the "Yes, we can" people in Chatham now that opportunity is begging them to do their thing?

Don’t look to government. Commission chair George Lucier, one of the highest IQ’s in the county, is quoted by the Independent as saying, "We do not have a written plan to remedy the situation." Perhaps it’s smart to leave the remedy to private citizens and the market.

So we must ask, where are the people who talk so passionately about “preserving rural Chatham for posterity”? They’ve written some version of that phrase into every planning document since 1968, then left the fate of the county to government. Chatham has unusual brain power, a surplus of academic degrees, and wealthy residents. Would they rather be whiners than winners?

 
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Whiners and winners: Recession brings Chatham golden choices
Commission chair George Lucier, one of the highest IQ’s in the county, is quoted by the Independent as saying, "We do not have a written plan to remedy the situation."
 
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