Chapel Hill: Opinion

Scott Madry: What was the rush to reject the Legion post purchase?

The American Legion has decided to sell its property, which is one of the last, large parcels of undeveloped land in the town. They have every right to do so.

The town of Chapel Hill signed an agreement in 2005 that the town would have the right of first refusal to purchase the land, but we now know the town manager and Town Council held a secret, closed meeting where they decided not to purchase the property, and that they have signed legal documents with the potential developers to that effect. This was signed Nov. 20, only 12 days (and only five working days) before the new mayor and town council members were sworn in.

This raises many, serious questions that the town manager, town attorney, and members of the Town Council who participated in this need to publicly answer. Why was this decision made in secret by the outgoing administration immediately before the new mayor and council were to be sworn in, only days before the previous mayor was to leave office?

Why was this meeting held with no public hearing or opportunity for public comment? I think many people in our town would have liked to have the chance to comment on this major decision. What was the hurry, if not to ensure that another massive residential development could be built, even though the citizens of the town has just voted their desire to slow the pace of this rush?

The North Carolina statutes on public meetings are clear; closed sessions can only be held for specific purposes, which do include real estate transactions. But this meeting evidently was much broader, and included discussions of concessions to the town by the proposed developers such as roads and trails, which are normally issues dealt with in the course of public hearings and the open development approval process. This meeting may have violated the state open meeting laws. Why was the discussion and meeting only with the proposed developers who do not legally own the property? There were apparently no meetings with the American Legion, but the prior agreement for rights to purchase the land was between the Legion property owners and the town.

All this may (or may not) have been legal, but it was clearly wrong, and was done by the town manager and outgoing council to ensure another massive residential development, AFTER the town’s citizens had clearly indicated their desire for a change in direction. What other back room, secret decisions and agreements were made in the last minutes of the outgoing mayor and Town Council?

We already have over 5,000 new apartments approved and in the pipeline, and Chapel Hill has now lost the chance to own the last large, wooded, natural tract of land in town. This tract could have had a large park, recreation facilities, low-income housing, fire station and other needed public facilities, or even a large commercial center that could actually be a financial net positive to the town, which 600 new apartments will never be. What will be the impact on traffic of another thousand cars coming into and out of Ephesus Church Road and the bypass every day?

This is a very, very serious matter and the public deserves a full and open explanation of these events, including the public release of the minutes of this and any other secret meetings and decisions made just before they left office.

This type of secretive and “behind the public’s back” dealings are not in the best interest of the town or the citizens and taxpayers whom the town manager, town attorney, town staff, and elected leaders are supposed to represent.

Scott Madry lives in Chapel Hill.