March 2011

Looks like the rumors I’ve been hearing for the last few months are true, the much touted Greenbridge project is in deep financial trouble. The high-density development (which has saved Downtown according to the local Chamber of Commerce director Aaron Nelson) hasn’t been able to sell units and pay its construction bills according to today’s N&O.

Most of the “successful” sales have been the moderately priced affordable units. Those are the same units Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward wanted a report from staff on to verify that they were serving the broader community instead of housing well connected community members or graduate students. Most of the current sitting Council enthusiastically endorsed Greenbridge, creating a new Downtown zoning district and then granting variances on density and height above and beyond the new zones limits, because they bought into this new model of development.

With the Town’s similar joint project with RAM Development (West140) just underway, now would be a good time to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from Greenbridge’s difficulties.

Google has chosen Kansas City, Kansas as their partner in deploying 1 gigabyte/second network services to the community. Chapel Hill applied with some gusto several years ago for the “honor”. At the time I argued that while it would be nice to have the financial backing of Google, Google’s reticence in discussing privacy, security and local control made a possible deal problematic.

The Town continues to limp along with its joint fiber optic deployment project with NC-DOT. What is missing, still, is any real effort by the Council to form a community-based advisory group for leveraging that public investment in high speed networking to attract economic development or increase access throughout our Town’s neighborhoods.

Maybe with Google off-the-table we will finally put the attention into the fiber project I called for over 9 years ago when I started pushing for municipal broadband.

The Carrboro Citizen has another report on Carrboro’s BOA’s decision not to amend the inter-local agreement governing access to Lake Jordan water.

I was bothered by this passage:

Board member Joal Hall Broun said the issue was not the lake water, but freeing up OWASA in the event of emergencies and allowing the utility to find ways to keep the cost of water from rising. Many people in the community can’t afford increases in their water bills like those seen in recent years, she said.

Joal should recall that OWASA bills went up as this community met the conservation challenge. It was not the lack of water that increased fees but the unsustainable cost structure of OWASA and the way capital outlays are financed.

It boggles the mind that five years into our great conservation efforts local leadership still hasn’t pushed OWASA to rework its financial model to reward good behavior.

Our neighbors across the tracks are celebrating their 100th birthday today.

Carrboro, “the little community that could”, has still managed to keep itself, as local radio icon Ron Stutts likes to say, “one degree cooler than Chapel Hill”.

Celebrations start this evening around 7:30pm at the Century Center across from Weaver St. Market.

More information at

“…lift up your hearts, all will come right. Out of depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind…”

St. James’s Place, London, June 12, 1941

I’ve been thinking about my Libyan friend Ish’s family the last couple weeks. Finally, a promise of freedom from oppression but at a steep price. As the daily death toll mounts in the Libyan countryside I can only hope that they come through unscathed.

[UPDATE] WCHL’s newest reporter Freda Kahen-Kashi has the story – Mayor Mark Chilton Finds Faults With OWASA Plan.

[UPDATE 2] Further information on the meeting from the Daily Tar Heel.

They quote Gordon Merklein, OWASA Chair and UNC’s Director of Real Estate as saying “Jordan Lake is essential because the other water supplies cannot meet all of the expected needs of the community over the next 50 years.”

Continuing, the DTH says Merklein said the water might be needed sooner than expected. “Recent droughts have emphasized the need for a diverse water supply as we face increasingly uncertain future conditions of climate, land use and hydrology,” he said.

If this is an accurate quote then we should be concerned.

Chapel Hill’s Sustainability Visioning Task Force probed OWASA on this point repeatedly last year. They were told that the Long Range Water Plan, which relies on the local watershed, had sufficient resources allocated for non-emergency use without tapping Lake Jordan for the next 50 years.

Chapel Hill’s Town Council was told the same thing several times, last year when OWASA presented the Long Range Plan and as recently as last week.

Gordon is right highlighting the uncertainty in land use policy. Until Chapel Hill adopts policies which specifically tie resource constraints to growth, OWASA and other local agencies will have difficulty planning for the future.

Our community has invested heavily in acquiring and maintaining a watershed that was projected to suit our needs far longer than 50 years.

With the recent flurry of statements coming from OWASA’s Board to the contrary, do we need to re-evaluate that previous assertion? Like I said last night, what has changed so dramatically?

Or, rather than bungled projections, is this a case of wanting to accommodate a much higher growth rate than local resources will ever sustain?


Following up on yesterday’s post (Water, Water, Everywhere…), I just heard that Carrboro’s Board of Alderman have decided not to approve OWASA’s proposed amendments.

I don’t have anymore detail at the moment so I’m not quite sure if they agreed with all the points I outlined or had a few additional ones I didn’t pursue. In any case, maybe Council will now take time to review the provisions and reconsider last night’s vote.

Look for updates tomorrow.

After a very long day and a very long evening. I finally got a chance to ask Council to take a more measured approach to approving OWASA’s proposed modifications to the agreement controlling access Lake Jordan’s water.

The proposal might have appeared technical in nature but, at the heart of it, had policy ramifications impacting our community’s environmental commitments, fiscal health and pledges of sustainability.

Unfortunately Council, by a 7 to 2 vote, passed the resolution tonight without reviewing those wider issues and doing due diligence.

What might the future hold then?

1) Non-emergency use of the 5 million gallons per day (5MGd) to meet unsustainable growth patterns.

Current utilization is 6 to 7 MGd per day. No justification was made for doubling our water usage profile by tapping Lake Jordan for new non-emergency uses. Sadly, Council decided not to limit water allocations to clear emergency conditions.

UNC has already stated several times that it is keenly interested in securing this supply. If the new supply is only to function as an “insurance policy”, why that sharp interest?

2) As OWASA Chair Merklein put it so well this evening – there is only room for one more straw into Lake Jordan.

Any of the 5MG/d we draw down from Lake Jordan will have to come through either Cary’s or Durham’s infrastructure. OWASA clearly suggested that Chapel Hill will eventually rely on Durham’s “straw”.

Given that, I don’t think there’s any scenario involving long term draw downs through Durham which don’t incorporate significant additional costs to the OWASA customer base.

Why? As Durham has already signaled, as recently as 2008, it wants its Lake Jordan intake partners to participate in the financing and build-out of that new “straw”. If OWASA doesn’t directly underwrite its part of the project, it is hard to imagine that Durham and its other partners won’t charge a higher fee for water in order to recover their expenses. Either case, the fiscal impact was totally ignored this evening.

3) When OWASA’s 2010 Long Range Water Plan was presented to the Sustainability Task Force last year, we were told that supplies were sufficient for the next 50 years. The only “tight spot” were the years just prior to 2035 when the Rock Quarry reservoir comes online.

That point was reiterated this evening by Gene Pease, who spoke of a meeting he had just last week where he was told the same thing. The maximum anticipated shortfall is well less than 15%, very much less than the 5MG/d Council just approved, so why the hurry to move ahead?

OWASA stated approval was needed this year to secure the allocation, and I accept that, but that doesn’t excuse Council from putting some constraints on non-emergency allocations.

4) Water is required for growth. That point was well-understood when our joint community’s financed OWASA’s acquisition of a watershed that was supposed to meet our very long term needs. This community has fought hard – continues to fight hard – to maintain the best environmental standards within that watershed.

Council repudiated that tough fight this evening when they essentially agreed that OWASA could “borrow” as much as 5MG/d from Lake Jordan (an impaired water source).

Worse, we don’t know what constrains OWASA from tapping Lake Jordan for “non-emergency” reasons. If Council or Carrboro approves one too many East54 type developments – is that considered grounds for purchasing resources to fuel inappropriate growth?

5) Finally, as Council member Jim Ward pointed out this evening, just knowing we can tap another 5MG/d makes it tough to sell even more stringent water conservation policies. An important negative feedback loop has been removed.

Tonight’s misstep, of course, is part of a wider problem which our community and, especially, its current leadership has yet to successfully grapple with – are there constraints to growth?

Are we willing to purchase resources on the open-market to fuel an unsustainable level of growth? What, exactly, are we willing to trade away in building our future?

Unfortunately, the answers this evening were loss of local control of our water, loss of community reliance on local resources, loss of a commitment to live within our own footprint.