Joe Buonfiglio: Obey Creek: An erosion of trust

May 27, 2014 

The pendulum has unquestionably swung toward the pecuniary desires of developers in Chapel Hill and certain neighborhoods have targets on their backs. Case in point: Obey Creek.

At the Chapel Hill Town Council’s April work session discussing the immense development across from Southern Village, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt chided council member Matt Czajkowski. Czajkowski brought up that the council was ignoring the town’s own Obey Creek Compass Committee’s call for additional impact studies analyzing smaller-sized development plans. Visibly upset, Kleinschmidt expressed that such statements fueled the public’s mistrust of the town leaders.

On the contrary, Czajkowski gave hope to southern-area residents that someone is willing to fight for their concerns and against the process’ terrible flaws.

But the mayor is right; a significant segment of the public no longer trusts him or the Chapel Hill Town Council when it comes to Obey Creek. Why? Here’s some Obey Creek history:

• The town’s pact with the community to keep the Obey Creek property an environmental offset to high-density Southern Village is abandoned after Roger Perry proposes his mega-development.

• Town Manager Roger Stancil proposes the town give $30,000 toward marketing the development before an application was even made by developer Roger Perry.

• The co-chairs selected for Chapel Hill 2020: one openly pro-development and the other works for a developer.

• The CH2020 “Future Focus” public workshop starts from the premise that the environmental-offset Obey Creek property would be developed, not question if it should be developed.

• The “15-501 South Discussion Group” Town committee includes Ben Perry, the developer’s son and Obey Creek project manager. It still produces a compromise plan for developing the property yet keeping “in the spirit” of the former small area plan. Council member Czajkowski asserts it contains clear mandates governing the development. These mandates include heights less than Perry’s current plan, an overall size of about half and no big-box retail. But for some reason, these results were summarily dismissed as a mere “placeholder,” as council member Jim Ward labeled it. Why?

• A former council member perceived as sympathetic to southern-area residents’ Obey Creek concerns must recuse herself after the developer hires her husband’s law firm.

• The Town creates the “Obey Creek Compass Committee,” this time with more business people and significantly diminished public input.

• It’s announced in a radio promotion that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s black-tie “Business Hall of Fame Gala” was being sponsored by “Obey Creek.” Aaron Nelson, president & CEO of the Chamber, sat on the Obey Creek Compass Committee. While many in the “public seats” saw this as a clear conflict of interest and a violation of the “direct or indirect benefit” clause of the town’s “Ethics Guidelines for Advisory Boards and Commissions,” the committee facilitator and the town attorney saw no ethical problems and the committee did not disqualify Nelson from participating.

• This newspaper publishes that the Obey Creek developer and his out-of-state investors contributed a relatively substantial sum to the election campaign (when you consider his total campaign budget) of council Member George Cianciolo.

All this and more fosters the erosion of public trust in Mayor Kleinschmidt’s and the Chapel Hill Town Council’s willingness to respect the tenets of good governance when it comes to Obey Creek. Taken singularly, any one of these instances can be – and have been – dismissed as mere aberration misinterpreted by the public. But taken in total, it paints a disturbing picture that warrants the distrust of Chapel Hill’s town leaders by southern-area families and the public at large.

Joe Buonfiglio lives in Chapel Hill.

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