Will the County Comprehensive Plan successfully promote sustainability?


Monday, August 25, 2008 - 3:30pm


Battle Courtroom, Orange County Courthouse

This Monday the County Commissioners are holding what may be the final Public Hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan Update. The hearing begins at 7:30 pm and will be held in the downstairs courtroom at the County Courthouse in Hillsborough. At their regular meeting on October 7, the Commissioners are expected to vote whether or not to adopt the Plan.

Submitting written comments in advance of the August 25 Public Hearing and/or presenting your comments on the 25th might be your final chance to provide input on this important subject.

I encourage OP readers to review at least the first two chapters (links below) of the proposed Comprehensive Plan and judge for yourself if the chapters clearly articulate how sustainability can be achieved in Orange County over the next twenty years.

The first chapter states that “we need to act in a manner that will achieve a quality of life that is sustainable into the future”. In the second chapter one reads that “growth and development within the county should occur in a pattern, location, and density that is sustainable over the long-term”. Since this Plan is intended to be in force until 2030 it’s critical that it provides ample guidance on how “sustainability” and “sustainable growth and development” can be achieved.

In the section entitled “Toward a Sustainable Future”, the first chapter lists many “key ideas … that relate directly to the goal of achieving a sustainable future.” Ideas are presented for all seven of the Plan’s elements: Economic Development, Housing, Land Use, Natural & Cultural Systems, Services & Facilities, Parks & Recreation, and Transportation. As noted in the section’s conclusion, “these initiatives reinforce each other. Taken together, “they form a platform of sustainable practices upon which current and future generations of Orange County residents can build productive lives.”

The second chapter presents eight planning principles endorsed by the County Commissioners in 2004. As an affordable housing advocate, I am bothered that none of the principles directly concerns “social equity”, which is typically one of the three fundamental dimensions of sustainability (the other two being environmental protection and economic vitality). The second principle concerns sustainable growth and development. Principles One and Seven address public- and private-sector economic issues, respectively. The remaining five principles concern preservation and conservation.

Do these chapters clearly articulate how sustainability can be achieved? I encourage you to make your comments known to the County Commissioners as soon as possible because County staff is recommending that the Public Hearing be closed after Monday’s night meeting and the matter immediately be referred to the Planning Board (in order for their recommendations to be ready for the Commissioners’ anticipated October 7 vote). Written comments can be emailed to the County’s Comprehensive Planning supervisor at CompPlanUpdate@co.orange.nc.us. For more information consider reviewing the August 25 Public Hearing Agenda, as well as the Agenda Item Abstracts for both the May 19 and August 25 Public Hearings. (warning: abstracts are large .pdf files). The abstracts are particularly useful because they contain all the written comments presented by members of the public going back to January 2008. For the truly ambitious reader, links to all nine chapters of the Comprehensive Plan can be found by clicking here.


I have skimmed the plan, but I will try to at least get into these first two chapters before Monday's hearing.

The relevant section in Chapter 1 "Toward a Sustainable Future" is found on pages 6-9. Chapter 2 is merely 1 1/2 pages long.  

Allan Rosen

I haven't finished reading the full document yet but after 3 chapters, I have the following questions.

 1. As I read the plan, the emphasis is on planning for growth. I fully support that but shouldn't there be some acknowledgement of the need to maintain what we have? Everytime we build a new school or public building or park, operating costs increase. We're way behind where we should be on maintaining school facilities. Is there something I am missing in this plan that acknowledges the sustainability need for considering life cycle costs of facilities and services?

 2. In the housing section of the plan, all recognition of need is on low income housing. To me, this community needs to focus much more attention on moderate income housing if we want to be sustainable. A family of 4 with a total income close to the median income would have a hard time finding a home locally. Is there anything I am missing that advocates for supporting a diverse socioeconomic profile?

Terri you make two good observations. Regarding fiscal implications, the plan defers this concern to the implementation phase -- outlined in Chapter 1, section 4 (pp. 1.10-1.11) -- which “sets out the procedures and timeline by which future Comprehensive Plan policies and implementation strategies will be developed.” According to these procedures, fiscal impact and staff rescource estimates will be just one of several requirements of any and all implementation strategies presented to the Commissioners for their approval.

 As for the Housing Element’s exclusive focus on low-income housing, that is a result of the how the plan was developed. The plan has seven elements (land use, housing, transportation, etc). Existing county advisory boards were tasked with drafting the plans for their respective elements. In the case of housing, this fell to the Affordable Housing Advisory Board. Since the advisory board’s mandate is affordable housing, it focused on housing needs for households with incomes up to 80% of area median income, but not higher.


I pointed out this “attention gap” several times, both at the May Public Hearing and to the Affordable Housing Advisory Board this past spring. My comments at the May 2008 meeting included the following,


“I support the emphasis on compact mixed-use developments not only because it’s a good conservation strategy, but because this is the best strategy for significantly increasing the supply of housing affordable to working and middle class households.  To put it another way, if the plan’s implementation does not result in an increased supply of less expensive land – on a per lot basis -- for residential development than currently available, then the comprehensive plan update will have little or no impact on reducing the shortage of workforce housing in the county.  This points to the main flaw with the plan’s housing element. It almost exclusively focuses on issues related to affordable and special needs housing; albeit an area of concern which I fully support. However, the housing element should also address the systemic problems which cause the county’s housing market to skew towards upper-income housing and recommend actions for bringing the market into a more equitable balance.”


Allan Rosen

I saw that section on implementation, but if it still seems to me that there needs to be a policy that commits to ensuring the funding for maintaining any new county-owned property to a certain standard. Specifically, I am concerned about the schools. We continue to build new schools with capital budgets, without acknowledging the increased operating expenses and maintenance costs of those new facilities. SAPFO or something similar needs to address more than construction.

While I agree with your statement on mixed use development, I am concerned that land use policies relating to development all assume new growth rather than maintaining the quality of life, affordability, provision of service, and socioeconomic diversity of existing of the county. When I came to Chapel Hill in 1976, Carrboro and Orange County were heavily working class. Today, that population cannot afford to live here. They don't need new mixed use developments. They need for elected officials to acknowledge the impact of new development on the gentrification of working class neighborhoods. Efland comes to mind.

About ten citizens provided public comments at the meeting. Commissioners closed public hearing except for those comments expected from local municipalities. Planning Board recommendations expected to be presented to Commissioners on Oct. 7, but Barry Jacobs indicated Commissioners not likely to vote for/against adoption on that date due to complexity and magnitude of topic.

FYI, both county staff and commissioners emphasized over and over again that, post-adoption, the yet-to-be-defined Implentation Phases will be of greater consequence than passing the Comp Plan.

Four descriptive bullet points of implementation were provided in staff presentation:

 1. County Advisory Boards/Staff review Goals & Objectives, collaborate, and recommend annual work plans to BOCC,

2. BOCC/County Manager review & authorize annual work plans

3. Study and indentification of implementation actions

4. New or changes to requlations with subsequent public hearings & community input


Allan Rosen


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