Participate?

Lifelong Democrat Garrison Keillor announced he was going to switch parties to become a Republican because he didn’t want to have to care anymore.

Taxpayers who participated in the grueling CH2020 process and small area plan meetings know the feeling. After eight months of public participation in CH2020 – more than a year for the volunteers who made up the initial task force – the first project to come before council post-CH2020 completely ignored the new comprehensive plan. When Matt Czajkowski urged developer Roger Perry to come back with a plan for Obey Creek that followed the CH2020 recommendations, Jim Ward interjected that CH2020 was only a “placeholder.”

At this week’s Thursday night council meeting – rescheduled due to Monday being the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah, and the first council agenda item being a public forum on the bus ad controversy that some observant Jews might want to weigh in on – staff will report on the progress of the Estes Small Area Plan. Over the past couple of months, between 30 and 50 community members, some developers and their entourages, and planning department staff have held four meetings to define the focus and impact area and decide on a structure going forward, including the composition of a steering committee.

Four nights of paying a babysitter and giving up time to rejuvenate after a long day at work to think through and negotiate development issues that will affect their quality of life and most likely their annual property tax bill. Only to be ignored by staff who swept aside community recommendations to make room for their own.

The two major points of difference come from the steering committee composition and the borders defining what constitutes the Estes Small Area. Community members wanted 16 members on the steering committee: one representative each from UNC, a nearby public school, and a member of the planning board and the transportation board, along with eight residents of the planning and impact areas and four owners of businesses or land in the planning or impact area.

The planning department staff recommended a 17-member committee with fewer neighbors. Planning staff reduced the number of residents to six, and dictated that one be a renter, added a Chamber of Commerce member, a public housing resident and a wild-card from outside the planning and impact areas.

Community members took pains to draw the planning area boundaries of neighborhoods ripe for redevelopment. Planning department staff erased the lines and redrew them only around parcels that line a major transportation artery.

And yet, a few days ago, town staff sent out another cheerful email announcing “Participate Chapel Hill!” and inviting residents to “share your ideas!” (Exclamation points courtesy of the town.)
– Nancy Oates

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18 Comments

  1. Terri Buckner

     /  October 8, 2012

    In all fairness, Jim Ward’s statement about placeholder was referencing the 15-501 South Discussion Group lead by Kevin Foy, not the entire CH2020 plan.

    Those of us who participated in the “placeholder” discussion feel the pain of the Estes/MLK group.

  2. DOM

     /  October 8, 2012

    “The planning department staff recommended a 17-member committee with fewer neighbors.”

    This is not true. The Planning Board, in order to encourage more a more inclusive process, made this decision.

  3. Nancy Oates

     /  October 8, 2012

    Regardless of where the 17-member idea originated, the planning department staff chose to recommend it over the consensus of the group at the meetings. However, I attended only one of the meetings, so I defer to those who attended all of them.

    Terri, I’ve talked to a couple of other people from the 15-501 South Discussion Group, and they were very surprised that someone on council would perceive the group’s efforts as a placeholder. What was your impression?

  4. DOM

     /  October 8, 2012

    The “group” at the meetings you refer to consisted mostly of a small but highly-organized neighborhood coalition whose interest was to take control of the decision-making process instead of putting it in the hands of the wider community.

  5. DOM

     /  October 8, 2012

    “Community members took pains to draw the planning area boundaries of neighborhoods ripe for redevelopment. Planning department staff erased the lines and redrew them only around parcels that line a major transportation artery.”

    In point of fact, the revised area the planning department staff is recommending is the only possible area in the MLK/Estes corridor that is “ripe for redevelopment”.

    When you look at the original planning area boundary advocated by the Estes neighborhood coalition, 90% of it is actually not available for any major redevelopment.

  6. PhSledge

     /  October 8, 2012

    Look over the history of CH Town for the past few decades and you’ll see opportunities for the common resident to weigh in, or in some cases, roll up their
    sleeves and do the hard work, to gain a concensus on a variety of issues. A town official, who will remain nameless, once told my wife it was a strategy to let people “feel like a part of the process”. When complaints would follow if and when changes took place, the process allowed Town officials to say: We are blameless–this is what the “people” want. An overly simplified example, but considering the source, the conversation stayed with her for many years afterward. Hate to be so cynical–but have we seen this kind of behavior before?

  7. DOM, you are completely wrong when you assert that a “small but highly-organized neighborhood coalition” took over the decision-making process.

    There is a coalition but it isn’t small – folks from between 14 and 18 of the neighborhoods defined by the Town and other interested parties. Irrespective of their work, throughout summer and the 4 meetings, turns out the Chamber was able to steamroll its “forget the residents” agenda through without participating in-kind (just the usual bashing we’ve come to expect from its Director).

    Why don’t you attend the next few meetings to get a sense of how diverse the folks participating are and how their common concerns have bound them together.

  8. DOM

     /  October 8, 2012

    CitizenWill –

    I don’t understand how the Chamber’s Director was able to “steamroll its ‘forget the residents’ agenda” like you say he did. It just doesn’t make sense, unless you’re saying that both the Planning Board and the town staff were in collusion with him.

  9. Throughout the several summer sessions and the recent 4 Central West meetings it was clear that the majority recommendation was for residents within the study area to have fair representation.

    There were several variations proposed but all shared the same general proportions. After the 3rd meeting, there was strong agreement amongst a good portion of participants for a 9:6 formula (or something close to it) for the steering committee.

    As we saw with CH2020, it is critical to get the right mix of folks to create agendas, accumulate materials, get data, etc. And, unlike CH2020, get a majority of folks who are committed to facilitating their community’s decision-making not over-riding it.

    The general agreement resulted in a very reasonable allocation of 4 folks from the impact area, 4 folks from the study area, 1 at-large member, 1 UNC Carolina North rep, 1 Planning Board rep, 1 Transportation rep, 1 local developer without a current fiscal interest in developing within the Central West area, 1 local business person and 1 other drawn from affordable housing, school district or other interested stake-holders.

    It was recognized that of the 9 Town residents, there was a very good opportunity to solicit dual representatives who were involved with the schools, other advisory boards or civic organizations.

    The Chamber reps, who didn’t show up during the summer and didn’t participate in 2 of the 4 meetings decided to spend their energy lashing out at the residents, business folks and other interested parties who found the time to show up and practice direct democracy.

    Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from recent trends, the Chamber was able to get what it wanted – a watered down process that doesn’t have fair representation from those most directly affected – by end-running the agreed upon process.

    What process?

    June 24th, the Council made it clear that these small area plans were supposed to be “the people’s”. Well, the people showed up – did their part – spent hundreds of hours doing it – only to be thwarted by staff undercutting their work on behalf a special interest.

  10. DOM

     /  October 9, 2012

    CitizenWill

    “Throughout the several summer sessions… it was clear that the majority recommendation was for residents within the study area to have fair representation.”

    What are all these “summer sessions” you refer to? And the “hundreds of hours” of meetings? I wasn’t aware of any community meetings scheduled then.

  11. Name Witheld By Request

     /  October 10, 2012

    Backroom Politics

    We have recently learned that Mayor Kleinschmidt met privately with members of a small but politically powerful special-interest group about the Estes/MLK focus study.

    This group is intent on changing the outcome of recent recommendations made by both the Planning Board and town staff, and they have asked the mayor to intervene on their behalf and recommend to members of town council that more “community” meetings are necessary – even though several community-wide discussions were held, some even led by the mediating consultant the town itself hired.

    If the mayor’s request is agreed to by other members of the council, it severely compromises the legitimacy of a process the council itself has already put in place.

    The special-interest group making these demands has a longstanding history of speaking out against commercial growth and residential density in our community. Their latest attempt to gain control of the decision-making process is proof positive how important it is for the town to be truly inclusive, by selecting a wide range of individuals for the committee with a wide variety of different interests – instead of one special interest.

  12. Nancy Oates

     /  October 10, 2012

    The presentation to council has been delayed until Oct. 24 to have time for staff to have a chance to explain their recommendations at a roundtable on Oct. 22. Public is invited to hear comments, and there will be time for questions from the public, though it sounds like the forum is not set up to include the 3-minute speech common at public hearings.

    As for meeting with the mayor, I don’t think you need to see his meeting with members of a special interest group as a sign that he can be co-opted. I appreciate that he is so accessible. I also get the sense that he is not easy to manipulate. He seems to strike a good balance between being open to new ideas and compromises without caving completely to special interest groups. And I say this as someone who would love to see him cave to the special interests on my agenda.

  13. DOM

     /  October 10, 2012

    C’mon, Nancy. You have to admit this smacks of political favoritism. We all know who the leaders of this special-interest group are – and that they continue to wield political clout.

    That they went behind the backs of the Planning Board and town staff is proof enough they are using their clout for their own gains.

    As “Name Withheld” states above, the fact that they are attempting to gain a louder voice in the decision- making process is all the more reason to select a committee that is truly inclusive.

  14. Julie McClintock

     /  October 10, 2012

    I am familiar with the MLK-Estes focus group history and have participated from the beginning. My neighborhood joined with about a half-dozen MLK-Estes neighborhoods who responded to a proposal to put a hotel and dorms at one of the busiest intersections in Town. We asked the Town to begin a comprehensive small area plan of the area which is about to begin. As Will said, citizens spent many hours participating in four facilitated meetings for the purpose of designing a fair process. Certainly people that will be most affected by potential changes should have a voice in their future. It’s common sense that if the Town holds community meetings for a specific area that those how live and work in the area will be most interested. I don’t understand why anyone attributes nefarious motives to neighbors who are interested in seeing that their kids walk to school safely or who have an interest in the long-range future of our area of Town. Estes Drive has a library and two schools and basically a residential character. If change comes to the Town, then everyone should have a voice, including those who live here, in those changes.

    The bottom line is that if the Town is moving toward a collaborative community-driven process, as they did with the Obey Creek area, then the Council needs to give strong priority to what comes out after all the hours are spent. Otherwise people will feel they have wasted their time and the Town will have wasted their resources.

    I do not respond to anonyamous comments but am happy to engage in a conversation with a real person.

  15. Nancy Oates

     /  October 10, 2012

    DOM — Backroom politics only work if the mayor has the council in his pocket. But no one can bully that herd of cats. For him to make time to meet with people who feel their time and efforts have been dismissed is building good community relations. We learned from the mistake of brushing aside the concerns of neighbors during the homeless shelter relocation. That left a lot of bad feeling among neighbors that may resurface once the new shelter is built. And that’s not good for anyone. If residents felt dissed, the mayor made the right move by postponing the presentation and calling everyone together to hear them out.

  16. DOM

     /  October 10, 2012

    Nancy – We’ll see. If the outcomes of the decisions on scheduling and makeup of the committee that had previously been decided by both the Planning Board and town staff are altered, then politics will have won out.

    And please don’t tell me that the process is “brushing aside neighborhood concerns”. Let’ keep in mind that the steering committee has not even been selected yet and that the six month process of receiving input from the community has not even begun!

  17. Nancy Oates

     /  October 10, 2012

    If the makeup of the committee had been decided already by the Planning Board and staff, why invite public participation?

  18. DOM

     /  October 11, 2012

    That’s the big question.

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