Exile on Jones Street: Suburbanites fight back, homebuilders hate taxes

by Kirk Ross

Angry Suburban Ethos

As I write these words I can see the line just beyond the back fence where gently – for now – laps that rising tide known as the municipal limits of the town of Chapel Hill.

My neighbors and I know that one day we’ll be engulfed by that tide, absorbed into the town, offered its services and taxed accordingly. Some of us will go willingly or without struggle – others will put up a fight.

Such is the fate now of thousands of North Carolina homeowners each year as the urban boundaries in this urbanizing state swell. And while the number of us living unincorporated-style shrinks, so grows the ranks of angry suburbanites.

When annexation comes in the next five to 10 years or so, it will have been a good run for my neighborhood – 60 years plus for most homes. Others haven’t had so long to watch the boundary creep or had the inevitability telegraphed for decades. And some cities and towns have not been particularly graceful in taking new territory unto their bosom.

So last week it was not surprising that among the flurry of bills filled was another installment in a series that ought to have the short-title Revenge of the ‘Burbs.

The bill, HB1061, would de-annex the Highlands neighborhood – one of several neighborhoods on the north side of Carrboro absorbed by the town in a contentious annexation in 2005. The neighborhood petitioned Rep. William Faison to make the request.

Fasion, a Democrat who represents most of Orange County, may also be remembered as having considered running for both governor and speaker of the house in the same year.

He joins a host of Republicans tapping into the angry annexed. GOP leaders have filed bills aimed at making it more difficult to annex. One would suspend all involuntary annexations and set up a blue-ribbon commission to study them and another would require towns to hold a referendum of the annexed area if more than 20 percent of the residents object.

Faison’s bill rests for now in the House Rules Committee along with the anti-annexation bills filed by House Republicans. This week House Speaker Joe Hackney, whose district touches the southern part of Carrboro, said while he understands Faison’s attempt to honor the requests of his constituents, he doesn’t believe the bill has much of a chance of passage.

Astroturf Angie

Anti-annexation fever isn’t the only effort to tap the energy of the angry homeowner. There’s also the new initiative launched by the NC Homebuilders Association to stop enabling legislation for a real estate transfer tax. The bill would allow counties to impose a 1 percent transfer tax on real estate transactions. It’s different from impact fees, which most counties use to help offset the cost of growth, in that it captures new and existing home sales. And unlike a flat fee, it’s a progressive tax – the bigger the home, the bigger the bill.

The Homebuilders Association has never liked fees, but truly hates taxes. At the organization’s anti-tax website,, the pitch is that a transfer tax is a raid on home equity and, thus, the American Dream itself.

The site also features a middle class suburban mom archetype named Angie, who is “hitting the road” to talk to folks about what a bad idea the tax is. Why she has no last name and how she can suddenly abandon her lovely home to hit the road for the homebuilders is not explained.

Speaker Hackney, who has long supported such a tax as a way of getting growth to pay for itself, said he’s been braced for such a campaign for a while.

The Homebuilders’ Association, he said, “has plenty of money and has shown they’re willing to use it.”

But the tax, Hackney said, has more support than ever as legislators are seeing an increasing number of requests from counties for the option. The reason, he said, is pretty simple: “It’s so that the people fueling explosive growth pay for the new school instead of the farmer who’s minding his own business or the homeowner who’s been in his house for decades.”

Wonder what Angie-with-no-last-name thinks about that?