Opinion: Daily Journal

Homeowners in the Path of Triangle Rail, Get Ready to Move!

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Michael Sanera, Research Director and Local Government Analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Is rail transit in the Triangle’s future? Yes, according to the Special Transit Advisory Commission’s (STAC) draft “Vision Plan.” This plan written by the regional planning agencies and city and county governments recommends 56 miles of rail transit and improved bus service for the Triangle. The estimated cost is $8.6 billion over 25 years. To raise this amount, the sales tax would increase one-half cent, the vehicle registration fee would increase from $5 to $15, and all current transit funding would continue.

Most people like to plan. We plan our vacations, our children’s education, and major purchases such as cars and homes. Most of us try to plan a purchase that satisfies our personal preferences within the limits of our incomes. Using this rationale, we expect government planners to write plans that satisfy our preferences. After all, we are the “public” that pays their salaries. They work for us.

If we like single-family housing, as the vast majority of people do, city planners should write plans to accommodate that desire. If we like the flexibility that our cars provide, city planners should write plans that reduce the congestion that threatens our mobility.

Unfortunately, the truth is exactly the opposite. Government planners use planning to impose their preferences on us. Their view is that their professional education gives them the moral and legal authority to know what is best for us, and that means that they are justified when they use government to force us out of our cars onto public transportation and into high-density housing.

Too harsh? Many victims of city planners would say not harsh enough. I recently attended a meeting in Houston where a seemingly mild-mannered African-American lady was screaming at a city council member. She was angry because the city council was not acting to stop Houston’s unelected and unaccountable transit agency, Metro.

It seems that Metro had changed the location of the next light rail line and put it down her narrow residential street. Why did the Metro do this? Because it wanted “transit-oriented development.” In other words, once the rail line was built her single-family residential neighborhood would be a prime target for high-density housing development.

If she and her neighbors did not want to sell to developers, then the city would use eminent domain to take their land and give it to developers. And if the developers did not have enough money, the city would use tax-increment financing to finance private developments. After all, high-rise luxury condos produce much more tax revenue than older single-family housing in a low-income neighborhood. To paraphrase the saying that came out of the Vietnam War: “Planners have to destroy the neighborhood to save it.”

This is not an isolated example: it is repeated in every city, including Charlotte, that is building light rail. It will happen in the Triangle if planners have their way.

According to STAC’s draft Vision Plan for the Triangle, Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill are already cooperating to use their zoning authority to force high-density “transit-oriented development” on land surrounding the proposed rail stations.

If you live in a single-family home near a proposed rail station, get ready to move. Your property will be rezoned for high-density housing. If you don’t sell voluntarily, the city will use eminent domain to take your property. And to add insult to injury, the city will give the developer tax-increment financing that could mean higher tax rates for you and other taxpayers. In other words, you will have the privilege of paying higher taxes for the honor of giving up your house so that the city can have more high-rise luxury condos and higher tax revenues.

I can already hear the denials from the planners and city officials. We don’t “plan” to use eminent domain. We don’t “plan” to use tax-increment financing. We don’t “plan” to use high-density rezoning to drive out single-family homeowners.

If that is the case, then the final “Vision Plan” should include provisions outlawing those actions. It should say: “This plan will not impose transit-oriented development by using eminent domain or tax-increment financing.”

I guess it is possible that planners could modify the “Vision Plan” to include these protections, but I will not hold my breath.