CHAPEL HILL - The chairwoman of the Chapel Hill Planning Board says she will ask to be recused from voting on Charterwood when it comes to the board for a recommendation May 1.
In an interview Del Snow said she will ask board members to remove her from a vote so the discussion can focus on the project, not whether she violated ethics guidelines by speaking against it as a neighbor while serving as chairwoman.
“I don’t want my sitting there to be the distraction", she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the validity of the whole Charterwood application and whether it should really go forward.”
Charterwood is a residential and retail development proposed for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, south of Weaver Dairy Road, The Town Council narrowly rejected it in January after it failed to get a supermajority of votes.
Snow, along with dozens of residents near the site, had filed a protest petition, requiring a council supermajority (seven of nine votes) for approval. The project is scheduled to come back to the Planning Board and the council next month after developer Bill Christian reorganized the lots through a recombination. The town has approved the recombination, which allows Christian to refile an application without needing a supermajority vote.
Snow said she doesn’t understand why Charterwood is coming back and why Town Manager Roger Stancil accepted the recombination request, since the town’s development rules say a year must pass before a failed project can be reviewed again.
Other than a change in the layout of Charterwood’s lots, the project is the same, Christian said.Lone opposition
Snow has typically been the lone vote of opposition to Charterwood on the Planning Board, a group of residents appointed to advise the Town Council. The Planning Board makes recommendations on a project; it does not approve or reject them.
Planning Board members may advocate against projects that are before them, as long as its clear who they represent when they do so, said Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos.
Members of town boards and commissions sign a pledge to follow ethics guidelines when they take office. Those board members are not violating ethics guidelines when they have strong opinions about a project and publicly oppose it as a private citizen with other residents, Karpinos said.
An issue with a particular project would become a conflict of interest only when it specifically involves the board member alone, he said.
“It would have to be something sort of specific to me that might affect one or two other people but not a large number,” Karpinos said.
Developers have criticized Snow for actively opposing some projects under review by the town and rallying neighbors to defeat them. Developers would not comment publicly about Snow and Charterwood specifically, but last year developer Carol Ann Zinn criticized Snow for her role in defeating Zinn’s Aydan Court project, which would have put condominiums off N.C. 54.
“Ms. Snow’s opposition to new development is crystallized in her role as Planning Board chair, where her votes against new development are routinely overridden by the remainder of the Planning Board members,” Zinn wrote in a letter to the editor in December.Ethical board member
But Snow’s colleagues on the Planning Board say she has been ethical as both a board member and neighborhood activist.
“I don’t think there is any question amongst the board and the public in what her interests and what her stake in the project are,” said Jason Baker, a Planning Board member and former Town Council candidate. “She’s made every good effort to be very clear about that. I don’t see any problem.”
As chairwoman, Snow has often presented the official Charterwood report from the Planning Board during council meetings, then during the same meetings, also presented lengthy reports opposing the project as a neighbor.
“If a Planning Board member was in a neighborhood and there was a vote to rezone the entire neighborhood, I would think that would not be problem.” Karpinos said. “But if it was a property immediately next door to one piece of property and [one] could personally file a protest petition that could trigger a super-majority vote, that could be a different matter.”
The Town Council understands recommendations by advisory committees like the Planning Board are not made in a vacuum, said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. When board members are transparent about their personal interests, it helps inform the weight of the advice that’s given to the council, he said.
“You don’t abdicate your role to advocate. You’re still a whole member of the community,” he said. “You just have this other thing we’re asking you to do.”
Residents who serve on boards and commissions should attempt to be as impartial as possible when reviewing development proposals for the community, but there’s almost no way to separate your personal perspective when you’re close to a particular development, said Mike Collins, a member of the Planning Board and former chairman.
“I personally didn’t agree with the stand Del took on Charterwood, but I think she has every right to take that stand,” he said. “I may not like an opinion that’s different from mine, but that does not mean the person who has the different opinion is unethical.”