Initiation to Implementation: My first year in CH politics

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.

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17 Comments

Travis Crayton's picture

Fundamental questions

Great post, Evan. I think this is getting us closer to the fundamental questions concerning the future of Chapel Hill that, in my opinion, CH2020 didn't address. I find myself agreeing a lot with recent comments from Matt Czajkowski -- a lack of specificity from the town makes it difficult to know what Chapel Hill really wants for its future.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Interesting

Yours is quite a unique perspective, Evan. Thank you for sharing it. I'm not surprised that you and Travis are finding Matt's speeches appealing. He has a way of saying just what makes people feel good. In reality, I think you'd find that he's one of if not the most resistant to neighborhood change on the Council. It's not unusual to meet relatively recent residents of Chapel Hill who think the gates should be shut they day after they got here. Sometimes (but definitely not always) those like me who have seen dacades of change can accept that our town changes every day and yet still remains the Chapel Hill that we love.Similar to the Yates episode, I find myself really disappointed with both "sides" of the debate. But also as in the Yates case, it's the Town government that owes us respect and which should be expected to make an effort to do their best for everyone, not the new or "old" activists who think the government is run by corporate tools.

Travis Crayton's picture

Matt

I agree with your point about Matt's speeches. He's always very apt to point out the problems the town faces, but I've yet to see him propose the solutions that Chapel Hill needs and should expect from its elected officials. "I don't know" isn't an appropriate answer regarding how to chart a path forward.

Just for starters

First Council member to call for redoing the Comprehensive Plan (over four years ago)Only candidate in last election saying we should rezone once the comprehensive plan tells us what we want so we can eliminate the hopelessly broken SUP process (a Council member who described the process as broken during the recent Charterwood hearings was tweeting last October that I was "bashing the SUP process again")Proposing that we at least examine annexing into North Chatham  As far as I know I'm the only Council member who has suggested this.  The idea regularly gets dissed but it is the only way for Chapel Hill to have any affordable land for housing -- and we can control the sprawl around us instead of just looking down our noses and saying we don't sprawl. Meadowmont and SouthernVillage are in areas that were annexed so it is hardlly an idea without precedent.How about suggesting that we have a modest deductible and copay for employee healthcare -- for which I was assaulted -- and then guess what -- was implemented the next year without notice -- and voted on by some of those who were scathingly critical of it in the preceding campaign?Or maybe  arguing that we set a deadline and schedule for the Carolina North develpment agreement discussions (broadly objected to by some on this board) which the Town and University staff met?Most recently stating several times publicly that we need to hear from the University on how we are going to handle the torrent of student housiing proposals -- and consider using land on Carolina North.And --  since its almost July 4th -- suggesting that the town get corporate sponsors for the fireworks after they got dropped from the budget last year.  To my knowledge I was the only Council member who tried to keep them in last year before we needed a survey that told us it was citizens' favorite event.Please do let me know when I have ever said "I don't know" when discussing these challenging and controversial issues.  Political courage is being willing to advocate for positions that you know ahead of time you will be attacked for (sometimes ferociously and frequently personally).I doubt that the issue of food trucks will rise to that level but we should certainly readdress the regulations.  Durham has a hearing coming up on the topic this Monday.  They are farther along than Chapel Hill with food trucks.  Perhaps some of those actively involved in the discussion in Chapel Hill should attend.

Travis Crayton's picture

To be clear

I was speaking only in terms of comments  made regarding CH2020 and recent developments coming before Council, not broadly about all issues facing Chapel Hill, and specifically referencing your remarks about The Park, where you did use the phrase "I don't know" several times in speculating about exactly what Chapel Hill as a whole wants to see in its future regarding developments. I think what you said regarding development and CH2020 were much needed remarks, though I do think more concrete solutions need to be presented from Council and the community rather than the vague terms put forth in CH2020, as I believe you have criticized as well.That said, I apologize if my remarks were construed as to suggest you have not contributed ideas and solutions to a number of other issues confronting our town -- that was certainly not what I meant.

penny rich's picture

First Council member to call for redoing the Comprehensive Plan

Matt, when you and I ran for office in 2007 you didn't even know there was a comprehensive plan and you certainly never read it. You can pat yourself on the back all you want, but the truth is that the folks in Chapel Hill, both citizens and elected officials, work hard to keep our town an amazing place  and have way before you took your seat. We all do it together. Just because you didn't pay attention to our town until you decided to run for office (i.e. you never voted in a municipal election) doesn't mean elected officials neglected their duty to make this town better. Your snarky remarks at meetings are bound to catch up to you. You say "I don't know" all the time after you ask yourself a question. Travis is not making this up. Review the tapes.

BrianR's picture

New Blood

I love reading the perspectives of new blood to politics in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. (Getting new people involved was one of Ruby's earliest motivations for creating OP.)

Change is a constant that life gives us. Thanks to Evan and Lee for reminding us that we can not stand still.

To quote some unknown Interwebs poet, "We live in the FUTURE. Where is my flying car!" Yes... Even in a City like Chapel Hill with so much history.

jondehart's picture

Evan, Great post

You and Lee did a great job of getting the message out .  My opinion on development is very similar, I just didn't deliver it as well as Lee did ... Let me know if you are available as a campaign manager in 2013 ...

Hitting the nail on the head

I completely agree with you Evan. There is a simmering, sometimes blatant, conflict between old guard residents (of which I am one) and newcomers over growth. Basically, the town I became an adult in has been fundamentally changed, and the issue now is what remnants of that culture/mindset will be maintained. The confusion comes from the fact that it was that culture/mindset that attracted all these new people to come here, but then they arrive and want to change it. It's not necessary to know much history to recognize this is a long-standing pattern that extends well beyond Chapel Hill/Carrboro, North Carolina, USA. It's one of those age-old questions that we never seem to come to grips with--why do we want to change that which we love? How many lovers have asked themselves that same question?On the other hand, I don't know any old guard residents that want the community to become stagnant. I think we all love the new restaurants, the expanded farmers markets, the bike lanes, the fare free bus, all the interesting new people who live here and, like yourself and Lee, bring a new perspective to local politics. So to me, there are some very positive aspects of growth. I do think we need to be much more proactive in addressing some of the challenges that come with growth though. For example, I thoroughly agree with Matt when he says the comprehensive plan should say, very directly, what we want so that developers know not to waste their time and money bringing forth plans that are sure to be shot down. I hope that is where the on-going 2020 process takes us.

Why People Come Here

The quote below is very interesting to me.

The confusion comes from the fact that it was that culture/mindset that
attracted all these new people to come here, but then they arrive and
want to change it.

I believe this is a projection of values from one group to another that does not share the same view. I didn't come here for a culture or mindset, nor would most any of my close friends say the same, including those who have lived here for 30 years and are younger than 40.  Many of them who are from somewhere else would say they came here for a job, or to attend UNC as an undergrad or as a graduate student. This is not to suggest that younger generations are not capable of caring about local culture; it is a broader recognition that the young are less likely to be people of financial means that can afford to make a relocation decision based on culture or mindset.So a key part of the answer to Terri's question of "why do we want to change that which we love" is that different groups of people love different things. 

The Plight of the Lifestyle Town (or City)

I agree with Patrick. People come to Chapel Hill for work and school, not just for the attractions of living here. At the same time, people do choose Chapel Hill over similar places (Austin, Madison, Iowa City, Ann Arbor) for a variety of reasons, and it's in Chapel Hill's interest to continue to be an attractive alternative to students and workers who might be drawn elsewhere. While some advantages of Chapel Hill--a top-rate school system, generally pleasant weather, a easy airport access, great local transportation system--don't seem to be under threat, another longstanding advantage, inexpensive housing, threatens to offset all these other benefits.Too often, it seems that people who already own property in attractive places to live are content with a low-growth, little change agenda, which turns once vibrant communities into what I think of as "lifestyle" communities. These communities can be small towns (think of any number of Colorado ski towns) or large cities (San Francisco comes to mind). They're great for the people who can afford to live there, but most can't, forcing working-class people to move elsewhere and commute in for work. They lose basic amenities (a regular grocery store, a barber shop, etc.) as business rents go up and have to rely on tourist income to survive. Over time, these places become snow globes, impervious to the world around them. Now, given the extreme wealth disparity in our society, these communities can survive as lifestyle communities, but they lose touch with the democratic values I think are essential to a healthy society. While I'm not terribly sad that skiing is no longer an activity available to all, I think it would be tragic if a college town like Chapel Hill became just a playground for the wealthy.So how do we change this? My suggestion is to make it easier for people to build small (six story) apartment buildings in the downtown area and improve airport and intracity transit so people can live here without cars. To my mind, a downtown filled with apartment buildings instead of parking lots would be an improvement, and would help take the pressure off of development elsewhere in the city, county, and region. While we often identify communities by their buildings, it's the people that matter most. Keeping Chapel Hill a democratic, open place accessible to people from all backgrounds and incomes should be our first priority.