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BIG CITY: What’s in a name?

By Kirk Ross
The jurisdictional issues are killing us.

Yeah, I know that’s over-the-top, but so is the way we cling to geographical identification around here.

Take for instance, the tweets that rolled out when 70-plus folks from around here visited my wonderful adopted hometown of Bloomington. Upon touring and hearing about its “arts and entertainment district” (when I lived there we called it downtown), several folks noted that Chapel Hill already has an entertainment district known as “Carrboro.” That’s funny because in a lot of ways it’s true. In fact, when Chapel Hill once applied to be an “All-American City,” it put down The ArtsCenter as one of its amenities. Even the All-American City people thought that was funny.

But that incident and the recent tweet about the arts district, although separated by 20 or so years in time, are an indication of how messed up our thinking is. We are stuck – “bound” may be a better word – with the lines we’ve drawn and the consequences of basing everything on them. It’s pretty easy to ignore the lines on a day-to-day basis, but when it comes to collecting taxes, drafting budgets and spending real money to do things like economic development or improve infrastructure, the lines are a big deal.

Technically, I live in Chapel Hill, but not in town. My back fence marks the line between county and town. I don’t get to pay all those extra taxes, but if I want to expand my house I have to get Chapel Hill’s permission. I don’t get to vote in Chapel Hill’s elections and have to contract for garbage pickup or take it to the dump myself. And even though there’s a town police substation a couple of hundred yards away, if somebody breaks into my house I have to call the sheriff.

Over the years, I’ve heard neighborhoods like mine called freeloaders, even by normally intelligent people and even some elected officials of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. We’re freeloaders because we get to enjoy the towns we live near and, most importantly, because of those great schools, which are funded by – drum roll – county and state government, not the towns.

If that doesn’t make any sense, well, you’re on to something.

In the mid-1980s, after the lessons of a protracted war of annexation with Durham, our lovely area was divided up between the various jurisdictions. Lines were drawn designating each town’s urban services boundaries, bright lines that sewer lines and services would not cross in order to prevent sprawl. It was a complicated agreement and a testament to the idea that the various jurisdictions could work together to achieve a common goal. It also gave everyone a sense of certainty that one day their neighborhood would be in Carrboro, Hillsborough or Chapel Hill or remain “out in the county.”

That kind of presumed towns would retain their right to expand through annexation. The General Assembly in recent years has made that less likely. They’ve made it nearly impossible for an area to be involuntarily annexed. Given the abuses over annexation in the state, it is unlikely it will ever be as easy as it was for a good long while, maybe forever. That changes the annexation game, but it doesn’t change the lines and boundaries we settled on here in the 1980s. And it doesn’t change the problem we have with working together.

We’ve had some successes, like the transit system and mutual agreements on fire protection, but those came about mainly because they were driven by the needs of the university. The jurisdictional roadblocks are why we can’t seem to do much together anymore. It’s why something as simple as running water and sewer to homes on Rogers Road, which straddles the line between the towns, has become enormously complicated. It’s why we can have a giant downtown music festival that doesn’t cross an imaginary line near Merritt Mill Road.

In a month or so, we’ll be over one big, hairy federal election cycle and into the local election cycle. Local elections are when the silo effect really takes hold, when those borders are so real that you’d think the towns were miles apart. We are, of course, just not in time and space.

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