Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reconnecting the Dots

A neighbor of mine lives along one of Durham’s most beautiful parklands but fails to see the irony whenever he complains that the city should focus less on greenways and more on funding hard services such as police.

He would be well advised to read a book, published earlier this year by a friend of mine, entitled Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture.

In part it details the type of development now underway in Durham by a young entrepreneur I met just I was retiring called Wetrock Farm.  Since we met he graduated from Duke and completed an MBA at the University of Miami before returning to the Bull City.

Durham is a single-city county by the same name, the fourth largest city in North Carolina and located in the 17th smallest county by land area.

Making this a tight fit is that the northern third of the county has been set aside in watershed.  Restricted this forms a sort of natural urban growth boundary but also guarantees that this part of Durham’s sense of place will remain rural and open.

Wetrock will exist in what Durham has set aside as “conservation subdivisions” (see article 6.2.4 in District Intensity Standards,) a best practice as I will describe later in this essay that belies a paradoxical failure to connect the dots overall.

These are areas designed to provide clustering of houses and structures in a way that preserves wetlands, streams, woodlands, wildlife habitat, historic and archeological sites as well as “authenticity” and sense of place.

Specifically, Wetrock Farm will develop 230 acres into 141 home sites with 2/3rds of the land preserved as forest.  It will also incorporate trails and a working farm with 140 acres permanently protected by a conservation easement.

All of this will be just 10 miles from amenities such as Duke University and the City Center District, 12 miles from North Carolina Central University and only 14 miles from Research Triangle Park just on the other side of Downtown.

Too bad this rationale wasn’t applied to every neighborhoods here as they began to take shape a hundred years ago.  In fact, even business districts such as downtowns.

The book Conservation Communities uses real estate research to quantify the dividends communities reap from developments such as Wetrock Farm:

    • Environmentally sensitive areas are protected along with water quality and urban forest canopy.
    • Property owners reap a dividend in the form of higher property values.
    • Local governments reaps a dividend in increased property taxes used to fund overall community services such as public safety.

Up through the 1970s and into the 1980s local government officials across the nation used to do a much better job of breaking dividends such as this down for residents and connecting the dots for folks like my neighbor.

Then it seems they suddenly stopped connecting the dots for themselves as well as witnessed somewhere in the first decade of my now-concluded career.

It is also how the insanity of “front end” subsidies, oh I mean incentives were born, another word for “legalized” panhandling.

In Durham for example they began very slowly hollowing out funds for basic community upkeep which in turn soon began to degrade curb appeal, which dampened property values, which slowed tax revenue, which resulted in more hollowing until a vicious cycle took root.

Of course, the intent was to restore upkeep before anyone noticed but gradually it became the new norm and then one day local governments began to whine that basic maintenance and upkeep of appearances was somehow an unfair burden.

Of course, this wasn’t a strategic decision.

If I hadn’t been a witness, it was easily gleaned from books such as The United States of Ambition that moves such as this take shape when politicians began to sense that “keeping people happy” by doling out these funds instead was far more rewarding and fun than upkeep.

But this has contributed to creation of a feedback loop where residents are frustrated and resistant to paying taxes (in reality only a tiny but vocal minority) so officials try to appease them by holding the line.

This, in turn, forced the year-to-year absorption of increases to the costs of living such as goods and services which means budgets for maintenance and upkeep get “rabbit-holed” into a downward spiral, which undermines resident confidence.

It is how communities that are otherwise seemingly vibrant and “cool” on the surface, begin to slowly and imperceptibly degrade at the margins before falling again into a cycle of decay.

Now instead of running local government like a business with 5% of budgets set aside for maintenance and upkeep along roadsides, streams and other commons, local officials are more likely to feel put-upon by this responsibility.

Soon they resort to panhandling businesses and volunteers to get by never realizing the resentment this creates because residents and businesses then silently fume because upkeep is something they feel they already shoulder in property taxers.

It has been this way in Durham for nearly three decades.  Even the increasingly depleted news media seems to have bought into this feedback loop rather than shining a light on its absurdity.

As a good friend who is a university executive mumbled under his breath, on a walk one day, when I noted a few years that had been the exception, “it won’t be enough to reverse that dysfunction has become the default.”

But this paradigm is not one in which Durham is unique.

To paraphrase the legendary “outlaw” of my time, Waylon Jennings, a fellow stoic who wrote in 1978 just before this all began, “We’ve always been crazy but its keep us from going insane.”

It seems so thoroughly embedded in the psyche of futility common among nearly all public administration professionals now that they probably never knew it was any other way.

Sadly, so many of those elected to shift the paradigm seem converted instead within a few weeks of being sworn in.

It may be left to Millennials and social entrepreneurs like the young developer of Wetrock to reconnect the dots and return us to true sanity.

In the meantime, I swear to do everything I can to never be an enabler.

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