by David Schwartz
A recent public opinion poll asked Chapel Hill residents what they think about the current pace of growth in town. Responses were evenly split between those who said the town is growing too fast and those who said it’s growing at the right pace or too slowly. Given such evenly divided opinion, we need elected officials who will take a balanced approach to development and seek compromise and consensus on matters of land use. We haven’t had that lately. Rather, in recent years, we’ve been saddled with a coterie of council members who have imposed their own vision on the community and run roughshod over anyone, including their own colleagues on the town council, who dares to disagree with them.
This past spring, for example, a narrow majority of council members voted to remove most citizen advisory boards from the development review process, effectively telling citizens that Town government no longer cares to hear what they have to say about proposed new housing and commercial projects, and how they might affect traffic, flooding, climate change, safety, environmental stewardship or various other features of life in Chapel Hill.
At the time, several council members expressed alarm about the majority’s cavalier attitude toward advisory board input. For instance, according to the News and Observer, Councilwoman Amy Ryan was “taken aback by the timing of the changes, which seemed rushed and ‘disrespectful to our board members, and all the service that they do.’”
Other council members, including Adam Searing, similarly expressed concern about the proposed changes, and Community Design Commission Chairman John Weis observed that “a number of Council members don’t seem to value the work advisory boards do.” Council meetings, he said, have become “very disquieting.”
Similarly, a few months later, the same narrow ideological majority of council members charged ahead with a controversial plan to eliminate single-family zoning town-wide to allow denser redevelopment in older neighborhoods, creating an incentive for the demolition of our shrinking stock of naturally occurring affordable housing. The mayor and two Council members tried to modify the proposed rule change to guard against potential adverse effects but the narrow majority again ignored those concerns and pushed through the land-use changes without any safeguards.
When an op-ed writer says that “Our council is finally working together,” they are actually celebrating that the Chapel Hill Town Council has a narrow voting majority willing to disregard the concerns of their colleagues and fellow citizens to push through policies opposed by at least half the community. And they want to protect their majority by falsely claiming they are sincerely collaborating with the full council.
Fortunately, several members of this narrow majority are not seeking re-election, which will give the new council a chance to restore balance and collegiality, provided we vote for candidates who embody those values.
There is no shortage of information out there about the different candidates’ positions on the various challenges facing the town, but here’s a simple rule of thumb you can use to assess character: When you go to the polls, note how the candidates and their supporters behave in the greeting line. If they aggressively get in your face, denigrate their rivals, and try to force on you tables and charts of questionable provenance and dubious validity, they are not likely to be collegial consensus-seekers if elected. I plan to give these aggressive candidates a wide berth and follow former UNC faculty chair Mimi Chapman’s advice to vote for the nice guys.
David Schwartz lives in Chapel Hill. He is a former editor of the The Local Reporter.