By Virginia Gray
The Local Reporter
The June 21 Chapel Hill Town Council work session was devoted entirely to a presentation by the Keesmaat Group about its Building Complete Communities Project. Their charge is to help the Council develop a strategy for meeting future housing needs.
While I believe there is value in discussing ways to meet our community’s diverse housing needs (needs identified in the recent Rod Stevens report, as well as in many earlier Town planning processes), I do have some questions and concerns about the way the consultants will facilitate such conversations.
They propose selecting 40 “community leaders” whose opinions about housing will be solicited via interviews and then later in focus group discussions. They seem to be looking for people “who want change,” and they expected to identify those individuals within a week, i.e., by June 28. While we don’t yet know who the consultants selected, the underlying message was that they would handpick people who agree with them.
This raises the possibility that citizens who prefer a slower or less dense form of new development or a different mix of housing options might be left out of this discussion. Consultant Jennifer Hurley stated that “they want to get beyond the usual suspects,” and she listed employers, developers, and UNC personnel as examples of the community leaders her team will seek to recruit. Since when were the members of these three groups anything other than “usual suspects” who typically enjoy prominent seats at the table when local land-use decisions are made?
The only way to discern what type of new housing citizens of Chapel Hill want is to survey a random sample of the Town population about a range of housing options — affordable rental housing, affordable for-sale houses, condos, townhouses, “tiny” homes, accessory dwelling units, etc. Importantly, the survey must ask about tradeoffs with other town priorities. Do citizens value new housing more than they value a large park or more than the climate resilience goals in the town’s Climate Change Action Plan? When the consultants were asked about including environmentalists in their selected group of 40 community leaders, they responded that “sometimes environmentalists oppose affordable housing so that is not good.”
Are the views of their handpicked 40 interviewees the only views they will listen to? What about the desires of the public? What about the great variety of experts in this town who might have knowledge to contribute? How will they engage in this discussion?
The final section of the consultants’ report listed three “Hard Truths” which David Adams has so cogently critiqued. Hard Truth #2 states that, at present, “there is an over-representation of voices that resist and reject change.” How can a consultant who has just arrived in town make such a statement without providing evidence?
The housing survey I mentioned above could determine what proportion of citizens want more dense development like Blue Hill and what proportion desire a different pattern of land use. Based on such data, one could then say whether those who raise concerns about proposed new development are representative of the citizenry or whether those who support such development are in the majority.
Absent a scientific survey, what could be other indicators that those who “resist change” are over-represented in the town’s decision-making? We might examine whether development has been thwarted by resisters of change. For example, did the resisters prevent the adoption of a form-based code for Blue Hill or subsequent development in that area? The answer is “no.”
Nearly 3,000 rental units have either already been built in Blue Hill, are currently under construction along Ephesus Church Rd., or are already approved for Fordham Blvd., with more units expected by 2029. These units have been built in just one area since 2014. Clearly, the resisters failed to stop development in Blue Hill.
But what about projects outside the borders of Blue Hill? The most recently approved large project was Aura on Estes Drive. Whose vision prevailed in this instance? Not the one favored by the “resisters,” though they tried mightily. Instead, the Council approved this project. More generally, the evidence shows that pro-development forces have triumphed far more often in recent years than have resisters. This raises the question: Why do the consultants say that resisters’ views are overrepresented in development decisions? I don’t know, but I can’t think of what evidence they might be relying upon. I hope that the consulting group will answer the questions posed here and that their engagement with Chapel Hill citizens will be broader and more inclusive than what they have outlined thus far.
Virginia Gray is Distinguished Professor Emerita in UNC’s Department of Political Science. She has lived in Chapel Hill for more than 20 years.