Thomas and Priscilla Murphy: Central West planning process has marginalized citizen input

September 27, 2013 

If the behemoth Central-West juggernaut is not soon tamed, residents of Chapel Hill may have much to mourn about their town, beginning with loss of local democratic process. Ironic and dismaying with an election looming.

The contemplated Central West (CW) development approaches the scope of a second Franklin-Columbia downtown – high, wide, and dense, with traffic already exceeding capacity. Originally, developing this area was to serve an evolving Carolina North campus. However, Carolina north is currently stalled at its outset, while the envisioned CentralWestopolis now has its own impatient life, far exceeding the density and pace of anything likely to be seen at Carolina North soon or even in the mid-future.

Chapel Hill 2020 and CW planning exercises were intended to end zoning and public review of development projects, thereby fast-tracking development by confining public discussion to the most preliminary, general stage, with devil-take-hindmost thereafter. Citizens and taxpayers benefit only if three things are true: (1) citizen involvement means true inclusion in planning, with specific local interests respected and heeded; (2) the result is truly a firm, rational economic base supporting the added infrastructure; and (3) what is eventually built truly abides by the intent of the plan rather than exploiting vagueness and utter absence of enforcement.

Much depends on good faith. Judging from what we’re hearing about the tone and results of CW Planning, the outlook is grim.

From the beginning, public bids for involvement were met with evasion and often open hostility. Costly consultants were chosen, hired, and instructed, with scant citizen input. Their charge has seemed to be minimizing and controlling citizen input throughout. Work products – many of which arrived in final form before actual deliberation – routinely excluded citizens’ suggestions and requests while reflecting decisions already made by consultants, planning office personnel, and development interests. “Public involvement” has meant providing tightly controlled PR-style events solely to inform a receiver-audience. Public contributions and objections may have been voiced but rarely made any difference.

The recent citizen review was reportedly a fiasco. The only plans presented were four virtually identical, dense plans scarcely different from developers’ original concepts, while two alternatives were excluded. The results of a clunky yes/no sticker exercise, which indicated clear public disapproval, was promptly contested and rejected, with yet another barrage of anti-citizen rancor.

One tired claim is that Chapel Hill is anti-growth and needs relief from property taxes, which ignores numerous recent project approvals and disregards town vacancy rates. Yet given those projects and vacancies, along with Carolina North delay and shrinkage, there is good reason to be cautious about overambitious plans that can create an infrastructure burden they cannot support. Empty offices, stores, and hotel rooms are costly to taxpayers, even if planners, developers, and builders may do well. Growth is inevitable, but it needs to make sense.

Then there’s the unfair “vocal minority” complaint. Compared to those whose job entails full-time attention to Town Hall navigation, residents have limited time and resources as they deal with careers, families, emergencies, life. Our own continuing participation was made impossible by serial family crises, yet we are no less dismayed than those who have braved what seems an ugly experience.

Equally dangerous is the idea that those most affected by sweeping change are those least entitled to be represented, because they can’t be objective. By that illogic, one would assume that investors, developers, and planners should have the least say of all. Yet the opposite priority has dominated the entire process. Now, nearing the end, it seems it was all already decided from the start – a foregone conclusion with an outcome almost beyond developers’ and Planning office best hopes.

And about that tired term, “Nimbyism”: The other side of anyone’s ‘Nimby”coin is “better in your backyard.” It’s no accident that the ones most often making that charge are the ones intending to build in someone else’s backyard.

Moreover, what happens in Central West is not a matter of a handful of households – it’s a big and literally “Central” deal.

We cannot afford much about the CW plan: not the density, haste, traffic, risks to schools and run-off control, and not speculative short-range economics based on a stalled Carolina North. Above all, we cannot afford the precedent of marginalizing citizen interest and input on their own town’s future, to the point of undemocratic extinction.

Thomas and Priscilla Murphy have lived in Chapel Hill for 20 years.

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