A little over a year ago I attended a public meeting in the basement of the Chapel Hill Library. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t been to many public meetings and I hadn’t the slightest idea what the Comprehensive plan was or what in the world these folks were initiating. It ended up being the start of a very interesting year.
After all, I was attending that meeting solely to report back information to then recent UNC graduate Lee Storrow.
During that spring, Lee had been appointed to the initiating committee and also decided to run for Chapel Hill Town Council. While the former was public, the latter was still mostly under wraps – most people in town had no idea who Lee Storrow was. Due to an unfortunate scheduling coincidence, Lee was unable to attend every meeting.
So there I was, 22 years old, in a small meeting room filled with CH notables such as Rob Maitland and Anita Badrock as well as an assortment of town staff and the two consultants hired to guide the initiation. I attended the initiating committee meetings and, with few exceptions, I was the only “regular” Chapel Hillian in attendance. Because of that, I was met with some skepticism – no one could quite figure out what in the world a 22 year old was doing at this meeting taking diligent notes. On several occasions I was “accused” of being a journalist, no I assured them, I was simply an interested citizen.
Note: The rest contains my thoughts/impressions from what I saw in the initiating committee and throughout the past year as our community came together to create Chapel Hill 20/20. I do not claim to be an expert on CH politics and I’m sure more informed citizens could dissect this post ad infinitum.
The dynamic was fascinating – a group of fairly important members of the community, many with different opinions and ideas about what Chapel Hill should look like in 20 years and how we could get there. Early on members of the committee seemed eager to tackle the big issues of development, etc but the consultants kept the group thinking more broadly about over all concepts that working groups would tackle in more depth over the course of a year. On many occasions concerns and frustrations were raised that these problems would be left unsolved and the Comprehensive plan wouldn’t tackle the critical and often divisive issues Chapel Hill faces.
Hearing the criticism from folks in town concerned about 2020 causing a rapid increase in development, I’ve often wondered if those initiating committee members who were concerned many months ago were onto something. But I think the truth is more complex.
“The Southern Village Effect”
I am a newcomer to Chapel Hill politics. I was only tangentially aware of the 2009 Mayoral race and only through my friends who were active in UNC Young Democrats at the time. I pretty much knew two things; Matt wanted more development (or maybe to pave every tree in town from what I heard) and Mark was liberal, gay and charismatic. Oversimplified? Yes, but insulated on campus that's all I heard.
So when Lee approached me about running his campaign, I knew I need to figure out one basic question, “What does Chapel Hill want?”
The history of Chapel Hill politics would tell you it is one of anti-development and neighborhood “protection.” In Chapel Hill we love our streams, our greenways, our bike lanes and a whole lot of red tape for developers. At least that was the common logic. But electoral wins by Matt and Gene, as well as the razor tight margin for the 2009 mayoral election made me wonder if something different was afoot. Our campaign was encouraged to focus on “old” CH, precincts like Estes Hills, but I was focused on a different area, one that demographically seemed an ideal match for a young candidate like Lee – Dogwood Acres.
Southern Village is, of course, among the newest of communities in CH. I’ve canvassed Southern Village in Democratic primaries, in general elections and in municipal elections. Walk sheets are full of D’s and lots of couples in their 40s, but most critically these are folks who want development. They want to be able to go to a Target down the street, or shop downtown on a Saturday afternoon without leaving the CH.
Our message was simple. Lee wanted to streamline the development process and work with all of Chapel Hill to get the best outcomes for our community, while being sensitive to neighborhoods. Coming from Lee, it seemed to really resonate with liberal Democrats who support development.
We canvassed Southern Village on the first day after filing, again near the end of the campaign and Lee there all day on Election Day. I remember speaking to someone active in CH politics about where we canvassed that first weekend, they were perplexed that we went to Southern Village – Lee Storrow finished 2nd in Southern Village, behind only Matt C.
The Chapel Hill I experienced during the 2011 campaign is a very different one than even 10 or 20 years ago. Developments like Southern Village have brought a whole new group of residents to Chapel Hill, residents with very different ideas about what CH should be. The rhetoric in forums and what you heard on people’s doorsteps was very different from the old narrative. Folks were ready for more stores, even a big box store (*GASP*). I still remember the woman in Southern Village who just didn’t understand why she couldn’t buy her kids’ shoes in Chapel Hill.
It seems to me that the “old guard,” the folks who went down to Town Hall on Monday in an effort to slow down the Comprehensive Plan have had the ground shift beneath them. The terms of the debate have changed radically, to the point that CH may even have a form based code soon. Because of this, I understand their frustrations. They’re not sure if this is still the same Chapel Hill of 20 years ago, and clearly it’s not.