They show up at Town Council meetings to protest University expansion that actually falls under the category of the "smart growth" they say they want. At the same time, the developments that were planned to combat urban sprawl are not being used in a way that is anti-sprawl.
It seems as though the University automatically starts at a disadvantage when officials propose development plans to town residents.
Part of UNC's Master Plan -- a project that would add more living, classroom and research space to the University -- is to convert the Horace Williams tract off Airport Road to a research, corporate and residential area.
Residents, as they indicated at Monday's Town Council meeting, are concerned about the impact such large-scale development will have on the town's infrastructure, especially schools.
Yes, developing the Horace Williams tract would have a huge impact on Chapel Hill, but critics are overlooking the benefits.
I'm not talking about just the benefits to the state or to research. (As council member Jim Ward said, we should think beyond simply elevating the quality of life for people in North Carolina but also seek "to elevate the quality of life for people in Chapel Hill and Orange County.") I can talk about the benefits in grandiose all I want, but that won't change the minds of people whose property neighbors the Horace Williams tract.
The benefits to Chapel Hill's philosophy of growth are huge as well. "This is consistent with principles of smart growth," said Douglas Crawford-Brown, a professor in UNC's School of Public Health and the environmental science and engineering department.
"The ideal situation is one in which people conduct most of their daily activities in areas that allow walking between activities and that any longer travel be between clusters of activities so rapid transit can be effective."
People living and working in the same place is part of that ideal situation.
"I like the initial idea of mini-towns for (satellite areas of campus) so long as green space and woods remain also," Crawford-Brown said.
And Chapel Hill residents are lucky. For the most part, the town can afford to grow. They'll need more school space, but relative to other areas of the state that also desperately need more classroom space (not to mention more teachers and more test books), Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools should not have too much trouble building more classroom space.
University officials promised several years ago to devote some of the development to private companies so that Chapel Hill's tax base would increase along with its population. And at Monday's meeting, University attorney Susan Ehringhaus said they have every intention of keeping that promise. The University isn't trying to simply dump all these people on Chapel Hill.
Crawford-Brown said in general Chapel Hill plans growth for sustainability better than other small towns he's familiar with. But he said it's easier to plan growth in a University town, which will have its population rooted in one area.
Mixed-use developments such as Southern Village and Meadowmont represent good planning, but people don't seem to be using them the way they were intended, Crawford-Brown said.
"At least in Southern Village, I still see a lot of traffic in and out of there," he said. "So it may turn out to be a good idea that went awry because people did not make proper use of the opportunities."
Smart growth only works if people use the development correctly. In general, Chapel Hill officials do a good job of planning growth, but residents don't hold up their end of the bargain.
Instead of seeing themselves as an adversary to the University, Chapel Hill residents should see it as a partner in smart growth.
Erin Mendell can be reached at email@example.com.
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