Adjacent municipalities can agree to pave paradise, put up a parking lot. But what are the spaces worth?

Municipal governance offers the closest most constituents will ever get to direct democracy.  Yet it amazingly falls short of achieving what I believe most people would agree is its full potential: to offer a precise reflection of the regulatory environment that constituents seek from the government, and the public services that this government delivers within a relatively small, spatially contained area, usually with population densities above the national average. Beginning an essay with such a generalizing statement is risky, because I’m not going to fulfill the statement’s promise by exploring all the ways municipal government fails to measure up to its goals.  (That’s an ambition worthy of this blog as a whole, across many articles…possibly an infinite number.)  Instead, I will as usual highlight one key example of where adjacent municipalities come short, with more than enough visual evidence to get the point across.

When it comes to two neighboring jurisdictions, it really is the silliest things.  And thankfully, these disputes rarely escalate to catastrophic internecine struggles.  But they routinely reveal a stubbornness and willful disregard to consequences between adjacent municipalities.  Like this humble, verdant public parking lot.

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

I forgot to count while I was there last September, but my estimates using aerial photography are that this lot hosts no more than thirty spaces.  It’s a municipal lot, intended to provide off-street spaces to customers at the various businesses on the commercial main streets nearby.

But there’s a subtle peculiarity to this municipal lot, which is only evident if one views the signage for each individual parking bay.  Here are a few spaces on the western edge of the lot, which includes an EV charging station.

My zoom-in in the second of these photos may not be accurate, but the three visible, small white signs say “CARRBORO BUSINESS CUSTOMERS ONLY”; Carrboro is the name of the municipality.  Pivot a bit less than 180°, and here are the parking spaces on the eastern side of the lot.

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

Each space (or bay, or “stall”) has a unique number, and the sign instructs users to remember that number, then to pay at the terminal.  These spaces require a payment.

How does that work?  It’s all the same lot, and the lot as a whole is probably no more than a half acre in size.  The northern perimeter is even more nonsensical.

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

The two leftmost signs (with green lettering) are free, and the three rightmost signs charge by the hour.  Why such a discrepancy?  Because the spaces on the right aren’t Carrboro; they are public parking within the City of Chapel Hill.  The screen shot of the Google Map shows the demarcation: 

The west side of the red dotted line is Carrboro; the east side is Chapel Hill: adjacent municipalities with a boundary that splits a municipal parking lot.  Yes, it’s the Chapel in North Carolina, the largest and most prominent city in the country with this fairly common name.  Chapel Hill is one of the three vertices in the North Carolina Research Triangle that consists of nearby Raleigh and Durham.  And while both Raleigh and Durham are significantly larger cities than Chapel Hill (population 62,000), the one featured in these photos (or at least the right-hand side of a few of them) still achieves national or even global prominence as the home of the flagship University of North Carolina (UNC), with over 30,000 students.  It’s a prominent engine for the “research” that has aided the large region’s “Research Triangle” branding over the last forty-odd years, with the others being North Carolina State University (in Raleigh) and Duke University (in Durham).  

Meanwhile, Carrboro is a comparatively small municipality, having just surpassed 20,000 in the 2020 Census.  It was the unincorporated “West End” of the commercial district that included Franklin Street in Chapel Hill (the city’s main street), but it emerged as a separate commercial node because North Carolina statutes required a minimum distance of one mile separating the rail depot from the UNC campus.  In the late 19th century—nearly a century after UNC’s founding—a separate settlement emerged around the depot, a textile mill, and a former grist mill which expanded westward, away from the campus.  Carrboro didn’t incorporate until 1911, and its eastern boundary almost completely abuts incorporated Chapel Hill.  Though still two adjacent municipalities, the two downtowns have largely bled into one another, so the unacquainted would hardly know where Chapel Hill ends and Carrboro begins if not for the distinctive Carrboro logo on all the signage.

And that municipal boundary splits a parcel—namely, the parking lot in question.  Chapel Hill government decided to assign a price tag to the spaces on its share of the lot; Carrboro implies two hours maximum but does not enforce it, so it is essentially free.  On the photo below, I am estimating that I am roughly standing on the line between these adjacent municipalities.

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

Truth be told, the Google Map red dots are probably inaccurate, since it makes it look like the lot is overwhelmingly within the City of Carrboro.  The demarcation of the spaces suggests a more even balance.  It ostensibly splices the parcel at an oblique angle, giving the northeast portion primarily to Chapel Hill and the southwest to Carrboro.

Among these adjacent municipalities, who benefits more from this parking?  A reasonable initial assumption would indicate Chapel Hill achieves more remuneration by the fact that it charges for its spaces.  But how well does that work out?

On the groggy Labor Day when I took these photos, nobody was charging anything due to the holiday.  But it’s clear what most logical people are going to choose.  Only two cars in the photo above, both on Carrboro-assigned spaces.  Free parking.  Other angles reinforce this principle.

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

As long as Carrboro’s free spaces are available, what incentive do visitors have to ever use the paid parking at the Chapel Hill bays?  It’s almost as ludicrous as the situation I covered over a decade ago in Indianapolis, where one side of a two-way downtown street had meters and the other side offered free parking.  I find it hard to believe Chapel Hill generates a lot of revenue from this paid parking, certainly not in any part of its downtown area that is close proximity to Carrboro, for which all public parking is free.  Any motorists remotely acquainted with the area will just park on the Carrboro side of this unseen boundary line, made vestigially visible through the different signage—and, of course, the fact that parking on one side of the boundary comes with a price tag.  I’ve made the line unmistakable with the chicken scratches below.

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

This mismatch—where a very small municipal parking lot offers differently priced spaces depending on location—reflects nothing more complicated than a lack of dialogue between two adjacent municipalities.  It reminds me once again of an article I covered many years ago, where two suburbs in Cleveland bounded one another along a certain collector road, with the precise demarcation at the road’s centerline.  One suburb (Cleveland Heights) christened the South Taylor Road with a 35 mph speed limit; the other (University Heights) implemented a 25 hour speed limit on its side of the centerline.  As a result, northbound cars must travel more slowly than southbound, no doubt a source of confusion for drivers in the area.  But it is entirely the right of these adjacent municipalities to stipulate speed limits on local roads; that level of traffic management is unequivocally a municipal function, much the same as monetizing public on-street or off-street parking.

Simple as this situation may appear, it does yield bigger potential consequences for the adjacent municipalities in Orange County, North Carolina.  The circulation within this gravel lot yields subtle inefficiencies.  As the above map indicated, the lot hugs the corner where Sunset Drive terminates at West Rosemary Street.  Here’s the view of the lot along West Rosemary:

parking lot straddles adjacent municipalities of Carrboro and Chapel Hill NC

Aside from a brief sidewalk pedestrian entry point, the entire perimeter along West Rosemary (the south side of the parcel) is nicely landscaped, but there is no vehicular entry.  The only ingress is on the Sunset Drive (the west side of the parcel), a less prominent local road, whose curb cut and entry lane are entirely within the City of Carrboro.  The entry lane is partially visible in the photo below, directly beyond the parked black sedan in the shade of the tree.

If these adjacent municipalities are splitting hairs—and the evidence suggests that Chapel Hill sure is—then Carrboro gets short-changed a space or two, since it controls the point of access to the lot, losing those bays to vehicular circulation.  Meanwhile, Chapel Hill receives the circulation without sacrificing anything for it.  Yet Carrboro claims ownership of the lot, at least based on the signage from my initial photo. It would make more of a difference if Carrboro were splitting similar hairs, but since it provides its parking gratis, it doesn’t seem to matter that the design of the lot makes Chapel Hill a free rider.  Chapel Hill seems to care about revenue more, even if most people will favor Carrboro’s unregulated spaces.

Among these adjacent municipalities, Chapel Hill takes its scrutiny of these spaces to a higher order as evidence by the eastern perimeter.

The Range Rover and commercial vehicles parked in the photo above actually belong to another small lot—one that is privately owned, as indicated through Orange County mapping and tax assessment records.

The private owner, Kadoura Properties LLC, ostensibly owns the fleet of vehicles indicated in the skinny parcel highlighted above, which has one point of access, on West Rosemary Street.  Here’s a clearer view of this adjacent private lot.

Mediterranean Deli is a small business with a storefront eatery down the street and a catering business, which probably explains the fleet vehicles.  It’s reasonable to assume this is the Kadoura Properties that owns these spaces.  But within this tiny, privately owned lot is another peculiarity.

These parking spaces are immediately opposite the circulation lane with the Mediterranean Deli fleet, in the Kadoura parcel.  Yet they have the City of Chapel Hill emblem.  All I can conclude is that Kadoura Properties owns the lot and all of its spaces but has more than it needs, and thus leases a few stalls to Chapel Hill, which once again are hourly paid parking.  Here’s a full view of this corridor-oriented mini-lot, with private spaces on the left and city-managed spaces on the right.

Truth be told, the situation isn’t a total deadweight loss for Chapel Hill.  As a sunny summer day in 2019 indicates, Chapel Hill can still fill its share of metered, hourly parking when the Carrboro side is full—or even when it isn’t.  These numbered Chapel Hill spaces may be reserved for City workers at certain times of the week.  Regardless, it indicates a situation where two adjacent municipalities are engaged in bean-counting and turf wars over seemingly trivial things, not necessarily out of animus but simply a resolute desire to maximize the interests of their municipality.  Fundamentally, Carrboro undercuts Chapel Hill by making spaces free on a lot that it calls its own. But Carrboro does indeed control the entrance, and the smaller city squanders a space or two in the process. One of the two abutting cities could simply cede ground and give the bisected lot to the other in an act of annexation, but that would require significant legislative activity.  It’s one think to annex unincorporated Orange County; it’s entirely another for two adjacent municipalities to tweak a shared boundary.  And if they can’t agree on whether a tiny gravel parking lot should get metered, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that ever happening.

Special thanks to Jay McClurg for inspiring the idea for this article.

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2 thoughts on “Adjacent municipalities can agree to pave paradise, put up a parking lot. But what are the spaces worth?

  1. Chris B

    Your home state actually resolved the border-road issue by state law or constitution: any county or municipality “owns” the entirety of streets on its southern and eastern borders, regardless of whether some of that road ROW is in the adjacent county or municipality. And municipal boundaries typically follow roads, so there aren’t too many split parcels.

    So, for instance, there are roundabouts along 96th Street (the border between Indianapolis and Carmel), put there by Carmel. And Indianapolis owns County Line Road along its south edge, which is an important artery connecting I-69 and I-65 across the south suburbs…and has totally ignored the need to make it a 4-lane suburban arterial over its entire length between the interstates.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing. I think you might have explained this in the past, but I had definitely forgotten. It definitely prevents the situation I described in Ohio regarding different speed limits depending on NB or SB traffic.

      As for County Line Road, I suppose it is a suburban arterial east of Meridian (SR 135), and it never occurred to me that there was a great need to expand it on the west side. Maybe with the I-69 traffic, that area will face bottlenecks.

      Oh, and I checked the stretch of South Taylor Road separating Cleveland Heights and University Heights to see if it still has the issue I articulated on this blog over a decade ago. Based on Google Maps from 2022–yes, it still does!

      Reply

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