Linda Haac: When did we become so polarized?

Raleigh News & ObserverMay 30, 2014 

In my nearly 40 years here, I’ve never seen Chapel Hill so polarized. How did this happen?

The town is rushing to develop an urban landscape. Recent actions have resulted in what Mayor Kleinschmidt has called a “public mistrust of town leaders.”

Town leaders say we must compete with neighboring Durham and Chatham County for retail dollars and tax revenue. The changes will bring much taller buildings, altered roads and, most likely, a different aesthetic sense. There’s also the possibility of some long-standing, smaller businesses being forced out.

For some, it’s a neo-urbanist dream. For others, it’s the end of the “Southern Part of Heaven.”

Split vote

The Chapel Hill Town Council recently split 6-to-3 in approving the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment project. The vote rezoned most parcels in the district despite opposition among even some council members to giving developers significant more leeway.

Equally troubling was the council’s 8-to-1 vote to apply a “form-based code’’ that gives Town Manager Roger Stancil, along with a Community Design Commission, power to approve future projects with minimal public review. Questions raised by dozens of citizens about flooding, traffic congestion, lack of affordable housing and aesthetic design went unanswered.

Given such a big decision, you have to ask why the council didn’t take more time to weigh, at the very least, concerns about stormwater flooding downstream neighborhoods. According to critics, no future-conditions flood map has been developed for Chapel Hill, despite increasingly erratic weather patterns many attribute to climate change.

Moreover, some of these critics say, the Ephesus-Fordham small area plan has not been followed, leaving those who participated feeling ignored.

For sale signs

Meanwhile, the town has renewed its effort to sell possibly five public buildings, including the old public library and museum building on East Franklin Street and the old Town Hall on West Rosemary Street that now houses the men’s homeless shelter.

What gives, I keep asking myself.

Is the town’s push aimed at heading off a financial crisis caused by overspending, just as Orange County’s interim manager warns is occurring at the county level. If it is, it’s unlikely we can develop our way out of future tax increases.

Is there political ambition or payback in play? Anyone who has watched recent council meetings has seen the sniping between the mayor and council member Matt Czajkowski, the lone holdout against form-based code.

Whatever the answers, the stakes are too high not to find out. At issue is both our sense of place and our sense of belonging, of feeling all the community’s voices matter in the decisions that make, and remake, the community.


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