One of the many reasons I love Chapel Hill is our robust community dialogue: everyone here has opportunity to voice an opinion, and all opinions are respected and considered as community decisions are made. There is a strong participatory ethic here.
Another reason is our governance system. Our current Town Council, as has been the case with every previous Town Council that has been seated during my 40-plus years in Chapel Hill, makes decisions based on thoughtful consideration of facts, arguments, and opinions, always with the objective of enhancing Chapel Hill’s short-term and long-term well-being. Our professional staff members provide outstanding services to residents, and excellent support to the Town Council as it makes decisions. We residents of Chapel Hill have been well served by our elected representatives and professional staff.
A recent column in this newspaper questioned recent decisions of the Town Council, suggesting that the Council was “ignoring citizen pleas,” that the character of Chapel Hill was being threatened due to recent Town Council decisions that were moving us toward “becoming a city of concrete, tall buildings,” envisioning a future character for Chapel Hill that would be “interchangeable” with other communities, that we are “wiping out the old, leaving no footprints of the past.”
While respecting that expression of opinion, I find that I strongly disagree with all of those statements.
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I served as Chapel Hill’s planning director for 21 years, and have since been active in town initiatives such as the development of Chapel Hill’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan. I have been keenly aware during all those years of the Town Council’s ever-present emphasis on community well-being AND preservation of the town’s unique character. The recent Comprehensive Plan is evidence of that: It clearly identifies the parts of Chapel Hill that need to be preserved with as little change as possible, while also identifying areas where change can be accommodated to deal effectively with emerging conditions in our community and world. This plan strikes a balance between holding on to the old and looking ahead to the new, as Chapel Hill has always done.
Dissent and opposition to change will always be present in the Chapel Hill dialogue, sometimes coming from Chapel Hill residents and sometimes from those who live elsewhere, and we can celebrate that open expression of opinion. Sometimes the arguments voiced in opposition to change win the day, sometimes not. It is interesting to consider the following components of present everyday life in Chapel Hill that were approved by a Town Council in the face of, and with consideration given to, strident opposition: Southern Village, Top-of-the-Hill, Meadowmont, The Siena Hotel, The Oaks subdivision, The Franklin Hotel, East Chapel Hill High School, 140 West Franklin, the widening of 15-501 Bypass to four lanes. All of those are now part of the Chapel Hill fabric.
It is also important to note the areas where the Town Council priorities have been to avoid change: UNC central campus and surrounding areas. Scale and character of buildings along Franklin Street. Historic Districts. Established neighborhoods. Rural Buffer.
Looking back at 40 years of Town Council decisions regarding land use and growth management in Chapel Hill, with special focus on the last few years, I can say without reservation that I am proud of our participatory decision-making processes, proud of our professional staff and elected officials, and think that good decisions have been made.
Chapel Hill maintains its resiliency because of this balance: preserving historic character while accommodating changing conditions. I am optimistic about our chances for keeping our balance and achieving a bright future.