Traveling on the Chamber of Commerce’s intercity visits is beginning to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day.”
In the movie, Bill Murray plays a character who relives one day repeatedly until he gets it right. In our case, each city visited showcases challenges we share but solutions we reject. We’re still working on getting it right.
Every two years, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce organizes a trip for about 100 community leaders to a college town like ours. Past trips have included Madison, Wisc.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Bloomington, Ind.; and Asheville. This year they examined Greenville, S.C., and Athens, Ga.
All these communities are college towns describing themselves as progressive. They care about the environment, social issues and open, inclusive government. While there certainly were differences, each place shared enough similarities with us to merit our attention.
Not surprisingly, like us, every place visited had concerns with how to encourage responsible development. They needed to revitalize downtowns, increase the tax base, provide jobs, housing and places to shop, all while keeping the commendable aspects of their community’s character intact.
Development, of course, is our worst issue. It usually provokes a battle, not just about how, but often whether to do it at all. Recently those arguments have been less than civil.
Not so in those other towns. Why? They took the politics out of approvals.
The intercity visit towns have taken a different approach to development. They front-loaded the fighting, defined a vision and re-zoned accordingly. Developers know what’s allowed, create plans to fit the rules, and then the town professional planning staff certifies the plans conformity.
Public hearings focused on the rules, not each project. The result is a simple, streamlined process serving all parties well. Importantly, the community avoids repeating a wrenching confrontation every time someone wants to build something.
Greenville and Athens were no exceptions. As one from Athens explained, “all the development is a fulfillment of a comprehensive plan created with massive community input.” In this case, the plan was to “limit sprawl and encourage dense development downtown.” How well does it work? A recent 600-bed student housing project was approved in just nine days, with construction permits issued four months later.
In contrast, we’ve created visionary plans –a contentious process – but left zoning alone. Each new project must survive a gauntlet of advisory boards, staff opinions, public hearings and town council micromanagement to get a special use permit. This can take years, adds enormous cost and uncertainty to the project, and tears the town apart again and again.
But there’s a sign the learning from these visits might finally be sinking in. Chapel Hill’s new experiment in the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment area moves in the direction of our sister cities. It’s called “form-based code.” Staff will be able to approve most projects that fit the new code, although at least one advisory board still weighs in.
One project is already testing the new system. If successful, the town should expand form-based code to all its designated commercial growth areas, starting downtown. We’ve seen the concept work in a half dozen like-minded cities. The more we use it, the more we can avoid another “Groundhog Day” experience – battling each other every time someone wants to invest in our community.
Mark Zimmerman lives in and owns a real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org