“So Much Feedback, So Little Impact”
The Town Council launched the Central West planning process for the first “focus area” study of Chapel Hill, following approval of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan. The Central West Area is located at the intersection of Estes Dr. and MLK Jr. Blvd.
The Council appointed a steering committee to oversee the community discussions and make recommendations on the content of the Small Area Plan (SAP). The steering committee included representatives of town commissions, the business community, property owners and residents living within or near the Central West area.
The Committee elected Michael Parker and Amy Ryan as co-chairs.
Here are some highlights from the process, which took place in 2012 and 2013:
- The Consultant followed town staff directions to develop many expensive maps before the committee had made key decisions, thus wasting contract dollars. The consultants never walked the property before they drew up the plans — they drew roads where suspension bridges would have been more appropriate.
- Staff mismanagement of the Consultant’s contract resulted in significant budgetary overruns.
- The Consultant and town staff did not acknowledge in meeting records that most members of the public attending the steering committee meetings did not approve of the proposed plans; initially, they did not even include public comments with attributions to the speakers in the meeting records.
- The steering committee as a whole did not make a serious effort to incorporate input from the public.
- The Consultant and town staff were unwilling to consider “no zoning change” as an option.
- Most of the Consultant plans considered by the steering committee contained densities high enough to require implementation of 7 traffic lanes at the Estes–MLK intersection, a development numerous members of the public opposed.
- The co-chairs of the steering committee prepared a new plan based on the various Consultant plans and steering committee comments.
- A Citizens’ Plan was developed by a majority of town residents who attended the steering committee meetings because they wanted to put forward an alternative for discussion that incorporated elements felt to be important and lacking in the Consultant plans.
- Four members of the steering committee proposed that the Citizens’ Plan be adopted as a minority report and be considered and discussed by the committee. The c0-chairs could have endorsed and supported this proposal but did not do so; the steering committee majority refused to discuss the Citizens’ Plan.
- When the steering committee blocked presentation of the Citizens’ Plan at an open house for the general public, citizens set up their own table outside the public meeting. Hundreds of residents reviewed the Citizens’ Plan and supported a more sensible approach that infrastructure could support.
- Subsequently, the town launched an online survey after the public meeting to measure community opinion. They did not include the popular Citizens’ Plan as an option in the survey. Nonetheless, by a wide margin, the survey results showed that the public respondents did not like the plans put forward by the steering committee and town staff, and numerous respondents even wrote into the survey the Citizens’ Plan as their preferred option.
- When town staff interpreted the results, they reported that the public was mildly in favor of the steering committee plans; this claim was based on combining the “no opinion”, and “undecided” votes with those that favored the steering committee plan, which is a totally unacceptable and invalid method of interpreting survey results.
- In November 2013, the Town Council approved a “Small Area Plan” for Central West. Despite a request from the public, the Citizens’ Plan was not included in the final report. In response to public demands, a key part of the Council resolution was an agreement to pursue a town-wide traffic analysis of the impact of new developments throughout the town. This resolution is only available via the recording of the meeting as the resolution was not included in the minutes nor in the final version of the SAP. To date, the Council and town staff have not yet carried out a town-wide traffic analysis regarding the impact of all new development approved and in the pipeline.
The timing of the development of the land along Estes Drive will be affected by the operation of Horace Williams Airport, which UNC is still maintaining in operation. Currently, one of the property owners in the Central West area has requested an amendment of the Airport Hazard Overlay Zoning District in conjunction with an application to sell land for the construction of a senior living facility. The SAP will be used by the Town Council as a framework for assessing this and future development in the area.
Key lessons from Central West:
- It appeared that town staff and Town Council members believed that high densities were desirable before the steering committee process even started and this influenced the directions given to the Consultant (e.g., preparation of maps/plans favoring residential buildings up to 8 stories in height).
- It was only at the 19 September 2013 steering committee (after 24 steering committee meetings had already taken place!) that a third-party facilitator with mediation training was engaged to facilitate discussion among committee members. Lack of skilled facilitation meant that at least four steering committee members representing residents experienced the prior meetings as unpleasant and involving bullying behavior. The co-chairs did not have the skills to bridge differences.
- Basic questions pertaining to issues such as Horace Williams Airport traffic and UNC’s demand for student housing were never addressed.
- A majority of residents attending steering committee meetings and who signed petitions felt their input was ignored and that the hundreds of hours spent on the CW-SAP were financially and administratively mismanaged.
Below is a map of the Planning Area Boundaries that was approved in October of 2012.
You can learn more about the Small Area Plan here.
The story here is that despite hundreds of hours of staff and citizen time, the outcome was not acceptable to the surrounding community. The staff refused to record public comments until the end of the process. Citizens themselves kept a record and submitted them to the council here.
Most neighbors, many of whom participated in a town process for the first time, left frustrated and were unhappy with the outcome.
So much feedback, so little impact!
Central West Small Area Plan Adopted with Important Caveats
At the November 26th, 2013 public hearing, the Town Council voted to adopt the Steering Committee’s Small Area Plan. Although the Town Council did not accept the Alternate Plan supported by many community members, the Council agreed and voted to incorporate the Planning Board Conditions and Revisions into the adopted Central West Small Area Plan. These conditions strongly supported key elements raised by community members throughout the planning process. It’s unclear that the staff incorporated these into the plan.
The Council committed to do a town-wide modeling analysis of the cumulative traffic impacts from the proposed development in all of the Focus Areas, as well as conducting a watershed storm water impact analysis of the potential cumulative storm water volume impacts. This never happened. Citizens continue to call for more comprehensive transportation planning.
Another topic of great interest to the Council was the Town’s fiscal analysis of the Central West small area plan which turned out to show little positive net revenue for the Town when the cost of Town services and property tax revenues are compared. It was reassuring to hear retiring Council Member Gene Pease say: “if we are not making any money for the town, then why are we doing this?”. Good question.