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Is More Growth Bad For The 'Good Growth' State?

May 12, 2008
As Barack Obama would be the first to say, you can't underestimate the importance of North Carolina anymore. At 9.1 million people and counting, it's now the 10th most populous state in the nation, and it has added a million people just since the 2000 Census. Another few boom years and North Carolina along with Georgia will pass Michigan in population.

All this growth is clearly increasing North Carolina's political significance. But is it bad for a place that has always called itself "the good growth state"? Only three days after the North Carolina primary, the state's policy wonks gathered in Greensboro at the behest of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University. The stated purpose was to talk about how to deal with the fact that growth is straining the state's infrastructure. But in the process, the wonks are gingerly beginning to address the question of whether growth should be managed. (I attended as an observer and as an out-of-state expert.)

As a Californian, I was struck by how similar the situation in North Carolina today is to what we in California experienced during the postwar boom and how intractable the problems sometimes seem. North Carolina, for example, has hundreds of small water agencies, many of them on the economic margin; yet the small agencies have no political incentive to consolidate, and the big agencies have no economic incentive to absorb them. The state's school finance system is muddled, with both county and state government playing a role in paying for new schools; yet there are no standards for school design or construction and, of course, there is not enough money.

There is never enough money for roads and highways, but there also isn't much recognition that the actual pattern of growth may play a role in demand for transportation. The event itself was held at The Proximity, a brand-new hotel in Greensboro selected for the event partly because its building operations make it one of the nation's "greenest" hotels. But the Proximity isn't really proximate to anything. It straddles a parking lot in an industrial park alongside a limited-access highway two miles from downtown. It is nearly impossible to walk from the Proximity to the nearby office buildings.

Which raises a systemic problem in North Carolina: an unrelenting pattern of sprawl that is driven partly by the state's own rural past. Half of the state's residents use septic tanks and a third use water wells. Most residents aspire to the very large lot in the woodsy, rural-style landscape. There is virtually no urban tradition.

There are exceptions throughout the state. In Durham, the old tobacco warehouses have been converted to lofts and restaurants, and downtown has taken off partly because of the new Durham Bulls stadium. And in Charlotte, Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor this year, has created a buzz around light rail. But Durham and Charlotte are far from the norm. McCrory faces an uphill battle, and not just because the state usually elects Democrats as governor. It's nearly impossible for the mayor of Charlotte to win votes in the rest of the state because he is usually viewed as too urban in orientation.

Indeed, the growing divide between urban and rural may be North Carolina's biggest problem in facing growth. Textile mills have closed in the small towns, and the rural areas are losing population. Meanwhile, the three big metro areas along the I-85/I-40 corridor Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point), and the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) are growing faster than anyone could have imagined and sprawling so much they will soon blend together.

Here in California, we're lucky in certain ways. We must address growth issues because our metro areas are bounded. The four South Atlantic states Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia are combined almost exactly the same geographical size as California. California currently has 38 million residents; these four states currently have 31 million residents. But more than half of the land in California is publicly owned and off-limits to development, whereas most undeveloped land in the South is in private hands.

And, of course, California has a peculiar history. We skipped the agrarian era of development and, because of the Gold Rush, went straight to an urban, mercantile economy. This created different expectations from the beginning about what life would be like close to the ground but close to each other, as Cal Poly's architecture dean Tom Jones likes to say and so we have never had to struggle with emerging from a rural past. Like the rest of the South, North Carolina must struggle every day with the dream of being rural and the reality of being urban. That's what makes it increasingly difficult to keep growth good.

Bill Fulton
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