by Jon Mitchell
With Election Day here on Tuesday, many residents are just beginning to research the candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council whose yard signs they’ve seen all over town. I’m the candidate whose experience and proven dedication will move us beyond values and vision statements to actually making Chapel Hill a better place to live. This article provides a summation of my campaign.
Who am I?
I’m a bank regulatory lawyer who used to write regulations for the U.S. Treasury Department and now does freelance work advising banks on how to comply with them. This has enabled me to also be a part-time stay-at-home dad to two kids in CHCCS (kindergarten, second grade) and to serve on the Planning Commission for the past two-and-a-half years (most of this time as chair). I’ve lived off North Estes Drive (in the construction zone!) for eight years. I ride my e-bike everywhere, sometimes with kids in tow.
What is My Platform?
Over the years, the Town has made a bunch of development mistakes. It’s unfortunate. Luckily, the Town Council just enacted the biggest change to its top-level development framework in a generation. You haven’t seen the results yet because it just happened, but it’s a big deal. During my term as chair of the Planning Commission, I advocated strongly for this change and was closely involved. Now I’m determined to see it through.
The new framework, called “Complete Community,” calls for new development to take the form of walkable neighborhoods, with a mix of housing options, connected by greenways (and of course transit, including fancy “bus rapid transit”). To be walkable, a neighborhood needs places to walk to, like cafes and outdoor public gathering spaces. In our climate, walkable neighborhoods also need tree canopy (often neglected by planners). Building in this way yields more attractive and coherent neighborhoods and creates less traffic.
In contrast, this is how land use expert Rod Stevens, in a report dated October 2022 (and to my knowledge never published on the Town’s website), described Chapel Hill’s prior development approach:
“For the last ten years the Town’s approach to development has been ‘focus areas’ that are away from existing neighborhoods. These are essentially throw-away districts on commute routes without comprehensive planning for parks or public amenities. They envision ‘urban’ development at higher densities without the features that make such development livable.”
Sound familiar? Yep, our growth ambitions outstripped our planning capacity. Residents are rightfully displeased with the results. It’s time to turn the page.
I’m running to implement the new, better framework swiftly, thoughtfully, and collaboratively. And I say this with full awareness of how hard this is to pull off. We have a lot of very technical and boring work to do. This work is nothing at all like campaigning, which I’m not especially good at. I am good at closely comparing things we say to things we do, and aligning the two.
Are Others Running on This Same Platform?
Since the day I filed my campaign paperwork, I’ve been explaining the Complete Community framework to Chapel Hill residents, and to other candidates. It took a while, but now pretty much every candidate is mentioning it by name in speeches, which is great.
Nevertheless, there’s a critical difference between my platform and most others, which is that I’m focused on execution. Without this, the Complete Community framework is just a piece of paper.
Consider the following admonition from the same October 2022 report I mentioned above:
“The Town cannot simply assume it can ‘zone it and they will come.’ The Town government will need to be an active partner in this development, providing master planning and financing mechanisms for infrastructure, public amenities, and the conservation of open space…. Executing any growth strategy will require time and money. The Town government will need a very deliberate strategy for where and how it grows and a prioritized plan for executing that strategy.”
Do we currently have the planning or financial capacity to do these things? Nope. That’s been my concern about the Complete Community framework from the beginning. It sounds great, but we’ve never demonstrated the capacity to implement it. I want to fix that.
Incidentally, I’m one of only three Council candidates who, at the time of filing, had been involved in general Town planning work for more than five months. That’s why my platform focuses on execution and sounds more specific and actionable. Abstract values, even good ones, don’t build walkable neighborhoods, and they don’t preserve a sense of place.
What does Implementation Take?
Most of the work needed to transition the Town from reactive, project-by-project planning to proactive, holistic planning is quiet, thankless, sometimes unpleasant work behind the scenes, punctuated by occasional speeches and voting in public meetings. The speeches and voting are not where the work happens. Again, it’s not like campaigning. The public may never know who on the Council is actually driving things forward.
But behind the scenes, somebody needs to figure out the financing mechanisms, the legal parameters of what we can and can’t demand in development negotiations, the specific stands of trees that should be protected, and so on. Figuring this stuff out is my specialty.
I don’t just show up in meetings and talk. I get stuff done. I invented the Complete Community Matrix that the Planning Commission now uses to evaluate rezoning applications. I led the Planning Commission’s recent effort to produce a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for residential parking, which is now under Council review. I have personally negotiated with developers for preservation of specific stands of trees – including by recommending changes to things like the location of underground stormwater retention facilities – and prevailed. This was not glorious work in the limelight. But we have intact trees to show for it.
Check out the wording of my endorsements, shown near the top of my campaign website – including from the past decade of Planning Commission chairs (representing a wide range of views on growth and development), the past two mayors, and multiple current and former Council members. Also check out my 10,000-plus words of long-form campaign blog posts. I know our current development policies, and the Complete Community framework, inside and out. Nobody else has, or will, put more energy into figuring out how to build walkable neighborhoods connected by greenways. Nobody.
I’m not the loudest candidate for Town Council, and I’ve chosen to run on substance rather than gimmicks and bromides. A local high school teacher reached out recently to say, “I stumbled onto your campaign blog the other day and was incredibly impressed by your thoughtfulness, candor, and embrace of nuance and complexity.” That to me is the highest compliment. Those characteristics can only prevail in this election – in any election – if informed citizens take a few minutes to spread the word, and then show up at the polls. Thanks in advance.