Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: Chapel Hill needs more tools, fewer hammers

Roger Waldon’s recent rebuttal to my last column reminded me of an Abraham Maslow quote: “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

As the town’s former planning director, Mr. Waldon apparently views any concerns about growth as issues solely related to land-use planning. “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,” he wrote, “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.”

But if Mr. Waldon had been listening to the “robust community dialogue” of the past several years, he would have heard call after call for utilization of a broader tool set, including economic analysis and modeling, to inform the implementation of the “recent Comprehensive Plan.”

In fact, town staff has conducted public information sessions on how such tools might be used to supplement land-use management decisions. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any of those tools in use during Central West, Ephesus-Fordham, Glen Lennox, or Obey Creek planning, and those areas constitute four out of the five focus areas defined by town staff during the original Chapel Hill 2020 planning process.

The question I asked in that last column was “How much new development can we pursue at one time before we risk becoming interchangeable with that “new” town down the road in Wake County?” I wasn’t questioning whether or not new development should occur, but challenging how much development can occur simultaneously without affecting the character of the town.

Standard project-management protocols require that potential risks and responses to those risks be addressed during planning as a means of minimizing the impact of unintended consequences. The plans for developing Chapel Hill might stand individually as fine examples of land-use planning. They might eventually increase our commercial tax base to help reduce the cost of housing and enhance our already-shining transit system to service new and existing neighborhoods. They may also bring benefits that are not currently anticipated. But they also introduce risks and unanticipated consequences that need to be acknowledged and planned for.

One of the risks repeatedly raised by citizens during Ephesus-Fordham was the potentially negative impact on existing businesses. We have a strong “buy local” ethic in this community which creates great support for our locally owned businesses. In fact, one of the goals of Chapel Hill 2020 is to “Foster success of local businesses.” So why doesn’t the planning process include strategies for protecting or even expanding the number of locally owned businesses in the Ephesus-Fordham area to complement new land-use plans?

Another example is affordable housing. All four of the major land-use planning areas addressed this past year include reasonably priced neighborhoods, homes affordable for those who earn at or slightly more than the area’s median income. However, all the discussion by the council has been on affordable housing that needs to be subsidized. An obvious unintended consequence of redevelopment is the loss of middle-income housing. Shouldn’t plans include strategies for protecting against that loss?

While I appreciate and agree with Mr. Waldon’s pride in the past performance of the town, new times call for new tools and new ways of planning. We cannot continue to treat zoning and other land-use mechanisms as the only tools available for balancing the needs for new development and community character. Let’s publicly explore the potential risks the large amount of development currently on the books creates and expand our active tool set to help minimize those risks when or if they occur.