Published: Nov 24, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Nov 24, 2012 04:31 PM
When a shell-shocked Mitt Romney faced the cameras to concede to President Obama, he implored his supporters to put aside “partisan bickering and political posturing,” and “reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.” He wished the president well, and prayed that he “be successful in guiding our nation.”
After a year in which too many candidates on both sides resorted to personal invective and character assassination, it was a magnanimous end to a rancorous campaign. His call for genuine rather than politically contrived debate and, when appropriate, collaboration instead of confrontation, is welcome advice.
One hopes his party, as well as its opposition, will heed it. Time will tell. One also hopes such sentiments will resonate on the local level, as well.
Chapel Hill has a recent example of constructive engagement – the development and adoption of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan. The process was an open forum, led by two open-minded individuals – George Cianciolo and Rosemary Waldorf – who actively sought broad community inclusiveness. Nine months of work by town staff and scores of volunteer leaders condensed disparate viewpoints of thousands of stakeholders into a hundred-page blueprint providing a vision for the community’s future.
2020 was a welcome respite from the acrimonious rancor and animosity that too often accompanies significant development policy decisions in Chapel Hill.
Now it gets harder. The next step
The next step is to apply the 2020 goals to the parts of town ripe for development or redevelopment that have community-wide significance. This is when the 2020 plan either becomes real, or the vision gets fuzzy. Can we change theory into practice without things getting ugly again?
The intersection of MLK Boulevard and Estes Drive is one of the first focus areas. It has some large undeveloped parcels with current interest from student housing specialists. The area is adjacent to the future Carolina North campus and is a major transit corridor. It is surrounded by a few established neighborhoods.
The task: determine the best way to use the land, what kinds of buildings are appropriate and how much density should be allowed. 2020’s recommendation was for town staff to lead the analysis, with community input. Town Council chose a different course. It charged a 17-member citizen committee with the job. The committee is composed of “representatives” from key stakeholders. Just under half are nearby residents. The remaining are folks from various town advisory boards, some businesses, UNC, and the school system, among others.
This path creates some challenges. First, rather than rely on planning professionals it subcontracts zoning to a citizen steering committee, each member of which has a personal or professional stake in the outcome. Second, the committee is constituted of group representatives who will be inclined to put the interests of their group ahead of the community as a whole. Finally, restricting authority to these select 17 raises the stakes, which in turn risks turning advocates into adversaries.
In short, instead of building on 2020’s successful model, the council has reverted to a more parochial practice. Unfortunately, the results so far have not been encouraging.
An owner of undeveloped land was denied a seat at the table because he had a financial stake in the outcome, while homeowners were included in part because any impact on the value of their properties gave them a financial stake. Some, but not all, residents decried developer’s self-centered greed. Some, but not all business interests responded with accusations of self-centered NIMBYism.
The process begins with distrust and personal criticism. If this continues, we end up with a power struggle rather than a constructive exchange of opposing opinion.
We are entering a season bookended by holidays celebrating thanksgiving and renewal. This ought to be a time in which we can operate with common goals. That is not to say we should put aside disagreement. Quite the contrary, debate is important to producing the best policy.
But criticism should be leveled at ideas, not the people delivering them. Opposing viewpoints should be encouraged, not suppressed. Proposals should stand or fall on their own merit, no matter who makes them.
Only with such a spirit of constructive collaboration will we garner the best of this engaged and informed community.Mark Zimmerman owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at email@example.com or @markrzim
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