Not Ready to Cheer CH2020

As the June 25 deadline for completion and possible adoption of Chapel Hill’s new comprehensive plan draws near, kudos and congratulatory pats on the back abound. Unfortunately, I am not able to join in the current Chapel Hill 2020 lovefest. While there are many positive points that can be made, the final product is certainly not shaping up to be anything we should celebrate.

CH2020 co-chairs George Cianciolo and Rosemary Waldorf have touted this process of creating a new plan as “our people’s vision” with “a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing business.” Additionally, at the May 21 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, there were but a few exceptions to the parade of valentines for the 2020 leadership and town staff.

There is no doubt that a great deal of time and effort on the part of a lot of people went into this thing. I certainly applaud the months of arduous work and self-sacrifice by all of those involved. However, let me suggest an alternative, far less rosy perspective of the 2020 process and its resulting document.

First of all, there is the lingering and consistently circumvented complaint that the process was unnecessarily rushed, and it shows. In textbook adherence to the old “haste makes waste” adage, the resulting 2020 document is painted with too broad a brush and backed by little proven, defensible, hard data. While home to lovely thoughts and wishes, mostly useless generalities reside within its pages. So while developers will be thrilled by this new vision and the abandonment of the “old ways of doing business,” as the 2020 co-chairs happily announced, the fact is that a commitment to protecting the wants and needs of neighborhoods clearly stated in the soon-to-be retired comprehensive plan are blatantly lacking in the new one. If defending the character and concerns of neighborhoods is added to the final product, I’m quite confident it will be done so in a way that will water down a Chapel Hill neighborhood’s ability to point to this document in any attempt at self-preservation.

Besides the unreasonably accelerated tempo of the process, I (and many others) had the distinct feeling that we were being herded to an almost predetermined outcome. We can talk of preserving Chapel Hill’s small-town qualities – we can even put it down on paper – but make sure it is done in a way that won’t have any real impact on our new savior, high-density mixed-use commercial development. The new mantra: Bigger is the new better.

A good example of this is the much-hyped “15-501 South Discussion Group” process that basically outlines the vision (read: fate) for the Obey Creek tract across from Southern Village in the town’s southern area. This vicinity is currently zoned single-family-home residential and has long been considered an environmental offset to high-density Southern Village. However, to look at the new comprehensive plan after the “discussion group” was done with it, you’d assume “the people” wanted to change this and build the heck out of it.

This outcome, as with the rest of the whole 2020 process, is highly suspect at best.

In the May 21 meeting, Chapel Hill Town Council member Lee Storrow questioned assistant planning director Mary Jane Nirdlinger about the level of development contained within the map derived from the conclusions of the 15-501 South discussion group, stating, “because I know some folks had some concerns about making a jump from what had been really a longstanding policy discussion about what zoning was going to look like in the southern part of town – and I’m not saying this is bad; I’m not saying this is good – but I do think it looks really different than what that southern-area taskforce did, which was a really long community conversation to get to that point.”

Nirdlinger responded, “The discussion group produced those recommendations. They had a couple of collaborative evenings where folks who attended the meetings, but weren’t with the discussion group, worked with the discussion-group members. There was information the first night about vision. The second night, more specifically about the areas on the plan. And then consensus from the discussion group is what you see in the document today.”

I wish Mr. Storrow had pursued his astute concerns further, because Nirdlinger’s answer is misleading. It gives the impression that the many citizens in attendance – mostly from the neighborhoods actually surrounding the controversial Obey Creek property that is currently being targeted for a massive retail-and-residential complex – came to “consensus” with the “discussion group” committee to jointly make the pro-development recommendation now embraced by the new comprehensive plan. As a citizen-stakeholder who attended those meetings, I can tell you that this is a load of garbage bordering on outright propaganda.

The significant number of neighborhood residents working in several different, autonomous groups each independently reported wanting a much lower-density, substantially less-commercial-to-no-commercial development vision for the Obey Creek tract.

It was the handpicked, not-nominated-by-the-people “discussion-group” committee –including not just a developer, but the Obey Creek developer – who came to “consensus” for the amplified level of development.

I feel this is indicative of the Chapel Hill 2020 process overall. Let the people have a voice; but if that voice in any way works against the pro-development agenda, find a way to tweak it to a more developer-friendly outcome.

This is hardly “the people’s vision.” It is a weak document by design, so as not to impede on the desires of those who want to build our way to prosperity at the expense of neighborhoods. It has no concrete guidelines; this translates to no governor on development. When it comes to protecting our neighborhoods from unreasonable or unwanted development projects, the bottom line is that the current comprehensive plan is far superior to this meaningless mess coming down the pike courtesy of the CH2020 process.

As Chapel Hill Planning Board member Amy Ryan said to the town council at its May 21 meeting, “The result is the document you have before you: a general, placeless, often contradictory wish-list that could be cherry-picked to justify plans that have little to do with what the citizens want for our town.”

Link to op-ed column in The Carrboro Citizen: 




Thank you for posting this, Joe. I don't share your concern about some "pro-development agenda" among Chapel Hill's leadership, except maybe Rosemary Waldorf since that is her job after all. In fact, I think well-planned urbanism could be the salvation of Chapel Hill's future environment. However, I do entirely share your concerns about the rushed process and the political doublespeak surrounding it

I suspect the root of this problem is a staff that have good ideas about planning and are quite well-intentioned, but have been put in an impossible position by the Town Council's insistence on completing the plan in 9 months (supposedly to inform the 2012-2013 budget). This is a staff that knows a lot about land use planning but almost nothing about participatory democracy. And I can't blame them - no one in town government is paid to listen to the people, only to talk at us. 

Neither the Council nor the staff seem to be able to envision a plan that would truly engage the ideas and leadership of a wide range of Chapel Hillians in a meaningful way. This would surely have been more difficult to pull off, but that's kind of the idea. The reward of a longer, more thoughtful, and more challenging process would have been community ownership of a plan that must serve all of us. 

For 5 or 10 years, especially when I was chairing the Chapel Hill Planning Board, the growing gaps between people's visions of our future have become increasingly clear. As I said, you and I seem to have quite different concerns about what the danger facing 2020 is. The comprehensive plan revision should have been an opportunity for people like us to come together, hear each other's concerns, and seek common ground on which we can move forward. I think there is more commonality than people might think, but we'll never know is we are just plopped into a room with people we don't know and trust and asked to have hasty debates about important topics.  

"I think there is more commonality than people might think, but we'll never know is we are just plopped into a room with people we don't know and trust and asked to have hasty debates about important topics."Thank you for the response, Ruby.  I'm sure you're right about the possibility of more common ground than we realize.  Unfortunately, thanks to the pace of this process, we'll never have the opportunity to find out. 

Of course I meant to say: I think there is more commonality than people might think, but we'll never know IF we are just plopped into a room with people we don't know and trust and asked to have hasty debates about important topics.(But I think you got my point.) 


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