Mark Zimmerman: Hindsight is 20/20 on Central West plan

December 6, 2013 

Late last month the Chapel Hill Town Council adopted a small area development plan for the Estes Drive-MLK Boulevard intersection, one of the six focus areas identified in the town’s new 2020 Comprehensive Plan.

The small area plan was the result of an experiment by the council to change the way future development is envisioned. Rather than have town staff lead planning, a citizen working group, dubbed the Central West Steering Committee, was formed to devise the design.

It will be years before we will be able to judge whether the resulting plan works. But with the committee’s job complete, we can start evaluating how well this new process worked. From all accounts, despite a successful conclusion, there were many problems, and some would argue that the basic concept itself is fatally flawed. Here are some of the issues:

Who’s in charge? The effort involved the citizen committee as a whole, co-chairs within the committee, town staff and an outside planning consultant, which makes for challenging management. Sometimes there was a leadership vacuum, other times competition. Who sets agendas and orders work product needs to be clearly defined.

Bigger is not necessarily better. The committee had 17 members, which often turned out unwieldy. There were no subcommittees to divide the work; everyone tackled everything. Just finding time for each member to comment made it difficult to have substantive discussion. No facilitator was provided to streamline the deliberations.

What’s your role? – Committee membership was comprised of stakeholder groups such as neighbors, businesses, property owners, schools, the university, advisory boards, etc. Were members supposed to represent constituencies or simply bring perspective? It wasn’t clear.

Neighborhood expectations – Existing neighbors were hoping to drive the process, instead they were just additional voices in the discussion. Unlike neighborhood conservation districts, preservation of adjoining areas was not the goal. Neighbors turned out to be advisers, not deciders, which turned many into dissenters.

Who chooses? – Consensus may have been a goal, but decisions were made with majority vote, leaving some feeling marginalized. The neighbor members actually created a competing plan, eventually acknowledged by the council, but did so on their own outside the committee.

Cart before the horse? Development naturally brings traffic, storm water control and other environmental issues, along with jobs, tax revenue, housing, shopping and other community amenities. Plans were conceived without first agreeing on the current baseline in many of these areas, making it hard to compare the necessary tradeoffs.

Amateurs versus professionals – No committee members had expertise and most had little or no experience in urban planning, which is complex and often technical in nature. It is not a surprise that the consultant costs soared many times above budget.

Can’t we all just get along? This committee was created as an inclusive process to find common ground. The result was often the opposite. Parties became more frustrated, distrust ensued, and at times acrimony trumped civility. In the end, council crafted an elegant compromise that served as a salve for many. But, if things had worked as expected, they wouldn’t have had to.

Committee members certainly deserve praise for their hard work. Central West took almost a year, countless hours in numerous meetings, and was very expensive. In its current form, it is far from being a model for future small area plans. Hopefully, the council will debrief the members on the process before moving ahead with another.

There was one bright spot. The committee worked very well together early on and actually did achieve consensus when adopting a set of principles to guide development. Tensions rose only later when specific plans took center stage.

Perhaps the role of citizen committees should focus on principles, providing the planning staff with a vision. Then the trained planners could propose plans that bring the vision to life, and the entire community, including the neighboring areas, could weigh in so the council can make an informed decision, rather than empowering such a small group with such a big role in shaping our future

Mark Zimmerman lives in and owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at

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