Council dumbs down smart growth

One in the morning, and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt appeared stunned by a one-vote majority of his Town Council colleagues that sounded the death knell to Aydan Court.

All nine members of council showed up last night for what turned out to be six hours’ worth of information covering two development matters, the proposed moratorium on building in the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods, and the smart-growth plan for a 6-acre parcel owned by Carol Ann Zinn along N.C. 54.

Expert witnesses made presentations addressing the environmental concerns of Penny Rich, Ed Harrison, Jim Ward and Donna Bell; town staff and all advisory boards recommended approving the multifamily, smart-growth plan; affordable housing proponents argued for the multifamily option, which would put more than $1 million toward furthering affordable housing in Chapel Hill; commerce professionals and smart-growth advocates made a case for Zinn’s multifamily project. But in the end, Rich, Harrison, Ward and Bell, joined by Sally Greene, voted to reflect how they “feel.”

The vote was truly baffling. A lawyer reminded council that they are to consider only the testimony of expert witnesses, not lay people, when evaluating the project’s impact. Yet five council members blatantly admitted their decision was based on emotion. Rich (has she ever approved a proposal by a serious business woman? Think Zinn, Traci Davenport, Laurie Paolicelli and Anita Badrock) brushed aside the state-of-the-art stormwater management system, saying stormwater “still bugs me,” though she cited no specific concerns. Bell said she “feels” like council had to “fight too hard” to get the changes Zinn made. Ward said he “regrets” going against staff and advisory board recommendations, but couldn’t approve a project he felt might make Little Creek’s contraction worse. Greene admitted fatigue prevented her from articulating why she was against the project. Harrison was peeved that the applicant and supporters took more floor time than those opposing the project. Kleinschmidt reminded him that the applicant has the burden of convincing council to make an exception, so would need more floor time.

Ironically, some Meadowmont residents opposed Aydan Court, underscoring some council members’ “feeling” that now that they’ve bought homes in Chapel Hill while it was still affordable, they can vote down projects that would create a toehold for middle-income families to live in town.

So Zinn is free to build a single-family subdivision. And as Rich callously pointed out, what Zinn builds “is on her, not me.”
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Duncan O'Malley

     /  June 21, 2011

    A truly embarrassing moment for several council members last night. As you point out above, they ended up voting on their personal feelings and not on the future of Chapel Hill. Their excuses for voting against the project were so lame as to be laughable.

    They owe an explanation to the citizens of Chapel Hill and all the town employees and advisory boards who supported the project.

  2. I’ve been as critical of this and previous Council’s development decisions and the process as they arrive at some of them – like twisting RSSC into a pretzel – as probably most any other active participant in Town affairs has the last decade. “Smart growth” was last decades “green” – a vague promise with little objective backing or confirmation – applied to those projects wishing favored status. It is good that we’re maybe turning back to a fact-based approach which is why I strongly disagree with the theme of your post Nancy. What you saw as a reliance on the language of “feeling”, I saw as an attempt to articulate – at a late hour – the specific arguments the Council members you highlighted had with the project.

    Finally, I understand the occasional necessity to use strong language to get ones point across but your comment about Rich “has she ever approved a proposal by a serious business woman?” doesn’t add anything to your argument and drags both you and her through the mud.

  3. Duncan O'Malley

     /  June 21, 2011


    ““Smart growth” was last decades “green” – a vague promise with little objective backing or confirmation – applied to those projects wishing favored status. ”

    You’re way off base on this one. If ever I saw a presentation where facts were clearly presented to back an argument, it was last night’s presentation of the Aydan Court team.

  4. Duncan, I was making a more general comment on “smart growth” than on Aydan Court. I’ve seen the application of that rubric applied to so loosely as to squeeze whatever meaning it once held completely out. Unfortunately, there’s no nice phrase, like “greenwashing”, that sums up what I was trying to communicate.

    As far as Aydan Court, Ms. Zinn invested in a piece of property that came with some distinct disadvantages as far a development. The Town is not obligated, though it obviously tried quite hard, to help her maximize her profit from her investment. That property was inappropriate for the use she wanted to put it to – those are the facts that her consultants and lawyer had to work with. Look at all the stipulations, required mitigations and finessed engineering that went into trying to make it work – that is the case that the Council had before them.

    From the way Ms. Zinn comported herself during this process, it doesn’t seem to want to shed her carefully earned rep. Sure, she could choose to “salt the earth” and build a terrible R1 development but to what end?

  5. Don Evans

     /  June 21, 2011

    Town Council members Penny Rich, Ed Harrison, Sally Greene, Jim Ward and Donna Bell showed once again last night that they don’t care a whit about reason or the facts. I find it appalling that these people have been designated to make decisions for the town, because they obviously don’t do their homework nor do they analyze the information they are presented. They vote how they feel.

    Any time someone bases a decision on how he or she feels, it usually means he or she couldn’t be bothered to apply reason or logic to the process.

    A truly embarrassing episode in what has become a dysfunctional council. I guess Carol Ann Zinn’s biggest mistake was that she couldn’t attach Roger Perry’s name to the project — the council often seems to crawl all over each others backs to approve anything that Perry proposes, even going so far as to pay tax money to help him along in his proposals.

    Election time can’t come soon enough — maybe the voters can get a few rational people onto the council.

  6. Terri Buckner

     /  June 21, 2011

    I think it’s a huge mistake to assume any group of individuals must come to the same conclusion after listening to the facts. Or that every action that comes before the board lends itself to a cut and dried, facts-only decision. There are almost always two or more sides to every issue. as there clearly were on the Aydan Court application.

    I think it’s an equally huge mistake to assume that anyone can separate their feelings from logic. We don’t elect individuals to be technical experts. We elect them for their judgment, or their ability to apply their values and experience to the issues surrounding this town. If they have applied their judgment in ways you don’t agree with, don’t vote for them next time. But please remember that when you denigrate any individual council member, you offend that person(s) friends and families.

  7. John Kramer

     /  June 21, 2011

    LOL. chapel hill.

  8. Nancy, Don, I get it – Penny will not be catering your next soiree….

    As far as the applicants presentation last night, I agree that they had arrayed their facts in as strategic a fashion as possible to sell their vision. I would expect no less from Scott. But their narrative was not the only one that could be woven from the facts they did present.
    There were gaps in their testimony, which I’m fairly sure they saw as not pertinent, which the community sought to fill. And while Carol Ann and Scott were focused narrowly on the footprint of their project, the community did a good job of placing the project in a wider context – a context the Council rightfully considered (the impact of development of this scale does not end at the property line).

    As far as “smart growth”, Meadowmont was supposed to be the harbinger of it in Chapel Hill. One of the most interesting tidbits of testimony from the public (a proponent of the project, who, notably wasn’t chastised by the lawyer as an incompetent witness), focused on the failure of Meadowmont’s commercial district. He suggested that we only now understand that the residential component of Meadowmont had insufficient critical mass to support the commercial district.

    I believe there is a spectrum of reasons for Meadowmont’s (and Southern Village’s) inability to support a diverse, thriving commercial district (including the cannibalizing effect of East54), some of which were anticipated prior to that project’s approval. Folks who followed the Meadowmont debate are not surprised, one of the original criticisms of that “smart growth” MVU project was that its design lacked the kind of dynamics which would drive a thriving commercial district.

    Roger Perry had his facts. The detractors had their facts. And, unfortunately, the Town hasn’t done a very good job of ratifying either set of facts almost 2 decades into that “smart growth” experiment.

  9. Paula Miller

     /  June 22, 2011

    Good luck to those folks come election time. I will be working actively to unseat each and every pne of the people who voted no. Think of your decision everytime you see the MacMansions that will appear roadside on that land and what could have been a lovely entry in the 54 corridor… trees, huge houses and lots of run off….I disagree Ms. Rich…..what is built there now is on YOU – not Ms Zinn. It was your decision to take the anti-green route–

  10. Runner

     /  June 22, 2011


    One note of caution, the Chapel Hill Town Council elections are set up as a popularity contest. All 3 seats up for election are open seats. That means that the top 3 vote getters win the seats.

    In order to unseat any of the undesirable incumbant, the “restore common sense” voters will need to focus on only one or two new candidates to elect. Voters should not “round out” their ballot with a 2nd or 3rd choice from the incumbant list.

  11. -K

     /  June 22, 2011

    I’ll be working equally hard to re-elect the council members who voted to retain the property as undeveloped.

  12. Fred Black

     /  June 22, 2011

    Four seats are up plus the mayor. We don’t know yet if any are open.

  13. ActLocal

     /  June 23, 2011

    What is it about “Build-out” that Nancy, Paula, Don and others don’t understand? (Nancy, I normally agree with you). Everyone seems concerned about driving existing residents out with higher taxes, but how can new “moderate” housing units cover the cost of expanding the school and utility infrastructure? It costs four times more today to build an elementary school than when Scroggs was built. New utilities are exponentially higher. Every new home built in Chapel Hill that is on the tax roll for less than several million dollars, increases the tax burden on every other existing resident. Lobbying for new moderately priced homes is signing a blank check for higher taxes. Will you realize this before you have driven yourself away?

  14. George C

     /  June 23, 2011


    The types of condos proposed for Aydan Court would have appealed, for the most part, to young professionals and empty nesters. Furthermore, the project site is in Durham County and therefore there would have been no burden to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system. It is unlikely that anyone with children would have chosen to live there if they couldn’t access our schools but the folks who would have chosen to live there could have certainly contributed to our local economy.