Published: Mar 31, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Mar 31, 2012 07:30 PM
The highlight of last weeks Chapel Hill Town Council meeting was a comment by Robert Warren:
Lets get Carol Anne and Lynn and Roger (not our town manager, the other Roger) and Aaron and also Julie and that awful Neighbors for Responsible Growth and some tree huggers (and maybe some members of that nefarious Sierra Club) and march them down to the nearest elementary school playground, put them all on a teeter-totter, and see if we can truly say we have achieved our elusive goal of balancing economic development and conservation.
Mr. Warren might be onto something. Im not sure I agree with his solution (though Id love to see what happened if we tried), but I do agree that its time to make some changes in the way were attempting to plan for achieving this balance.
Ive been participating in the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan process since last August. Its becoming clear that the ambitious work weve undertaken needs some course-correcting before it can answer the question most critical to the town today: How much, and in what way, do we want to grow?
In Town Manager Roger Stancils presentation to the council last Monday, he confidently asserted that the 2020 group was proceeding on track, moving into the review and refinement stage, and could complete a quality comprehensive plan by June, a mere nine months after work began. I beg to differ, and so do the 42 other citizens who signed a letter to the council presented that evening, in which we shared our experiences as 2020 participants.
An exercise to draft a vision statement did gather a lot of input, but the statement wound up being so general that it provides no useful guidance for the plan goals. While staff and the town did offer many opportunities for us to become educated on town affairs, for which we are grateful, we usually lacked specific data that would let us evaluate the trade-offs inherent in the changes we were discussing. The loosely structured theme group sessions, sometimes only an hour long, didnt allow enough time for the large and diverse groups to reach meaningful conclusions.
The Future Focus mapping sessions had us look at possible changes to density and land use in five key areas in town; participants had only about an hour to work with the incomplete base maps (for example, there was no identification of environmentally sensitive areas), and many felt pressured by facilitators to call for increased density at certain sites. The consultant who collated the data and produced the maps currently in the draft plan was careful to say that they were preliminary scenarios only; if so, they certainly shouldnt be included as a part of our final comprehensive plan. The misuse of maps included in the Northern Area Task Force report has alerted us to be careful about which maps the town publishes.
Because of these concerns, a group of regular participants has recommended some moderate changes to the process to build on the work weve done and produce a plan that meets Chapel Hill standards. These include adding stakeholder representatives to the 2020 leadership group who have taken on the task of writing the final theme group goal statements, helping to finish these in time for the June deadline; removing the flawed Future Focus maps from the June document; and, with stakeholder input, devising a new and more thorough process for deciding the changes citizens see for the town as a whole and mapping how theyll affect specific areas of Chapel Hill.
These adjustments will delay completion of the full document somewhat, but most other communities take a year to 18 months to resolve such issues; we can learn from their example how long a truly successful process takes.
When the town began Chapel Hill 2020 last year, leaders were right in saying that we needed to come together and decide as a community how much we want to grow and in what way. A certain population or level of growth is not inevitable; its a consequence of our choices about things like land-use, zoning, development intensity and our informed acceptance of the consequences those choices represent. To have these conversations, we must be more flexible about the plan deadline and institute a process that lets the community see the results of different change scenarios and decide which trade-offs we can accept. Only then can we produce a responsible comprehensive plan that we can all be proud of.
Amy Ryan lives in Chapel Hill.