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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Balancing growth

nancy oates.jpeg

The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about. Nancy Oates, a member of Chapel Hill Town Council up for re-election this year, takes an opportunity to remind residents of the importance of greenspaces.

New York’s Central Park saved me. Years ago, when my modest salary from my work at a nonprofit, or for the government, didn’t leave any money to take a real vacation from the noise and grime and stress of Manhattan, I could take an hours-long getaway to those 840 unbuilt-upon acres and return with my sanity.

Decades later, there are now numerous studies that document the mental and physical health benefits for people who live near greenspace. We need to keep that in mind as Chapel Hill becomes more densely built.

Our town is growing. People want to live here. And while that brings with it challenges of how to manage the increased traffic and rising housing prices that have outpaced the earnings of many people who work in town, overall we’d rather be a town that has more people wanting to come in than wanting to leave. Trees keep our town leafy and livable.

For our town and residents to be healthy and thriving, we must balance dense development with open greenspaces where people can decompress without having to pay an admission fee.

On paper, we’re doing a good job. The southeast quadrant of town has Battle Park; the west midtown area has Umstead Park; the Horace Williams tract is in the heart of town; the Green Tract is in the northwest; and the American Legion property is in the northeast.

But we can’t take those parcels for granted. The Horace Williams property already has a development plan approved. The state owns the Battle Park land, so we have no say in its future. Groups have long advocated for developing the American Legion land and the Greene Tract. Similarly, some people want to get rid of the Rural Buffer to build density in the swath of green that edges the north and south boundaries of town.

People sometimes pit affordable housing against greenspace, as if we can have only one and not the other. The most effective way to get affordable units is for the developer to accept reduced rent for some units in exchange for the millions of dollars in additional profit that a rezoning enables. But developers fight hard for that extra revenue. The path of least resistance is to take away greenspace from those too busy working and raising their families to notice until it’s too late.

Often, the loudest voices for converting undeveloped greenspace into affordable housing belong to people with the means to go away on vacations. Those who can’t afford to buy themselves some respite rely on public parks.

We need trees to fight climate change by soaking up carbon dioxide and stormwater runoff. We need space for offices and shops for a healthy economy. We need sufficient housing so the people who work here can live here. It’s not easy finding the right balance.

Lucky for us, we still have some greenspaces where we can go to clear our heads, open our minds and come up with some fresh perspective.

— Nancy Oates, member of Chapel Hill Town Council up for re-election

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