Commentary

David Schwartz: Ephesus-Fordham plan reduces citizen participation

March 4, 2014 

One of the more admirable themes of our nation’s history is the way in which our political system has become progressively more inclusive.

One by one, the legal barriers to civic participation that excluded people based on religion, wealth, formal education, sex or race have been removed, making our nation more democratic, more representative, and more true to the ideals on which it was founded.

It is worrisome, therefore, when people in positions of power attempt to take us backwards by erecting new barriers. Witness the outrage many in North Carolina felt last year when the state legislature passed laws that will make it more difficult for certain groups of citizens to vote.

But it’s not only in Raleigh that new barriers are being erected. Here in Chapel Hill, our Town Council will soon decide whether to adopt new land-use regulations for the Ephesus-Fordham small area (EF), which encompasses about 200 acres of mostly commercial land bounded by Elliot Road, East Franklin Street, and Legion Road. The proposed new regulations would dramatically reduce – would, in fact, eliminate entirely – the right town residents currently enjoy to participate in the process of deciding what gets built in EF.

Under the town’s current ordinance, when a property owner or developer proposes to substantially change the character of a particular area, such as by building a housing subdivision on undeveloped woodland or a large high-rise apartment building next to a neighborhood of modest single-story houses, town residents have the opportunity to review the proposal and to comment on it at a public hearing. In addition, various council-appointed advisory boards (e.g., Planning, Stormwater) must review the proposal and make recommendations.

Finally, the elected council members consider the public comments and advisory board recommendations, as well as information provided by Town staff, and decide whether or not to approve the project. In most cases, the applicant is asked to make some revisions to the proposal to address community concerns and then the project is approved. In fact, although Chapel Hill is sometimes accused of being anti-development, only one application has ever actually been rejected.

Opening the door

Without these multiple layers of review, the permitting process would likely be quicker and less expensive, which is why many developers would like to get rid of it.

And the proposed new regulations that the council is scheduled to consider on March 24 seem designed to do exactly that. In place of the current public review process that entrusts ultimate decision-making authority to a group of elected representatives, the new zoning regulations would empower a single unelected individual, the town manager, with the authority to approve all future development applications in the EF area.

And because the new regulations adopted for EF will serve as a template for the rest of Chapel Hill, we face the prospect of giving one unelected person the power to decide what gets built anywhere in town. It takes little imagination to see how such an arrangement opens the door to all sorts of corrupt dealings and lack of accountability.

But there are two other important reasons we should safeguard public participation in the development review process. First, public participation honors the democratic principle that each of us is entitled to have a say in governmental matters that affect us. Second, the process of public review often results in changes to a proposal that make the project better than it otherwise would have been.

For these reasons, I and several hundred other Chapel Hill residents have signed an online petition ( http://bit.ly/1obETa3) asking the Town Council to ensure that the new zoning regulations for the Ephesus-Fordham area include strong provisions for public participation in the development review process. Please add your voice to ours.

David Schwartz lives in Chapel Hill.

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