Lots of work going into growth issues

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, February 17th:

Last Monday night's Town Council agenda pretty much summed up the amazing number of growth issues happening now in Chapel Hill. There are three developments on the table this month -- Lot 5 and Greenbridge downtown, the Residences at Chapel Hill North in the northwestern part of town, and East 54 on, well, East 54. There are also the issues caused by the large number of proposed developments -- re-evaluations of the comprehensive plan and tree protection ordinance, and a neighborhood conservation district in the Whitehead/Mason Farm area.

When all this stuff is going on, the Town Council and Planning Board (of which I am a member) get a lot of attention, as do the engaged citizens who speak out and make their feelings known.

Who don't get a lot of attention are the folks doing much of the work behind the scenes to make all of this happen. They're probably perfectly happy to keep it that way too, but the Planning Department, under the direction of J.B. Culpepper, deserves some recognition for all the extra work it's doing to keep Chapel Hill moving forward during this hectic period.

A perfect example of this is the work recently done in regards to strengthening the town's Tree Protection Ordinance. The Planning Board, concerned that the current ordinance is not doing enough to maintain the beauty our trees bring to Chapel Hill, decided to create a subcommittee to look at where improvements could be made.

This required staff members to spend a lot of time pulling together information about what other cities across the Southeast are doing. It also resulted in a bunch of extra night meetings for a crew of folks who already spend far too many evenings in Town Hall and away from their families.

There was never the hint of a complaint about this from Culpepper, development coordinator Gene Poveromo, urban forester Curtis Brooks or Emily Cameron of the Public Works Department, though. This process created a lot of extra work for the four of them, but all they cared about was being responsive to citizen concerns about trees in Chapel Hill.

It appears the council will move forward on some major changes, which will help to preserve one of the things folks most value about our community. The Planning Department should be lauded for the work it did to get us to this point.

Culpepper has aptly filled the big shoes left by her predecessor, Roger Waldon. Fortunately, Waldon continues to make a strong contribution to the town as a consultant for neighborhood conservation district processes.

The five NCDs that have commenced in the past year and a half have also been a big time commitment for the Planning Department. While Waldon and his employer, Clarion Associates, have done a lot of the work, it's also put an extra burden on several town staffers, namely Housing and Neighborhood Services Coordinator Loryn Clark and planner Rae Buckley.

NCDs provide a lot of comfort to folks who are worried about the direction their neighborhoods are headed. Their addition to the universe of Chapel Hill planning over the four years has been a very good thing for the town and is doing a lot to preserve the historical character of our community.

But they're also quite a time-consuming process, and while they go on, the normal flow of development applications does not stop. They, like revising the tree ordinance, create a lot more work for town staff. Chapel Hill residents should take a second to show some appreciation for the good things made possible by the hard work ethic of the folks in the Planning Department.

Renee Zimmermann, an administrative clerk in the department, probably best exemplifies how hard everyone in her office has been working lately. During the first 15 months I was on the Planning Board, she did not miss a single one of our twice-monthly evening meetings.

When she finally did, it was not because of a vacation but due to a death in the family. I wish for her sake she would get away for a while, but she really reflects the effort that's being put in to steer Chapel Hill through this period with a high level of proposed developments.

The high volume of newspaper articles, letters to the editor and blog posts about all the ongoing growth issues in Chapel Hill aren't going away anytime soon. When you read them and think about how much is at stake for our community, please give some thought to the underappreciated town employees who are giving their all to making sure this remains such a great place to live.


I hope that whether folks are happy with what's going on in Chapel Hill right now or not, that they can still appreciate all the work this is creating for our staff and that it's getting done with good cheer.

Wow! I find it interesting that nowhere on this blogsite can I find any discussion, much less outrage about the siting of the new solid waste transfer station. How disappointing.

Why don't you write a guest post John?

JMK, I'm very concerned about that issue and was hoping to write something up about it tonight. Guest posts are welcome...

Bravery and broken promises mark landfill saga

Excellent report on the history of the machinations used to extend the current landfill.

I'd also like people to "give some thought" to the many, many citizen volunteers that serve on our Town advisory boards. They log in many, many hours often late into the night to make the Town a better place. The Town Council gets all of the attention but there are those that work just as hard as we do, and go unrecognized. We could not do our jobs effectively without the valuable work that our town advisory boards do. The Town does host an advisory board appreciation reception every year, but the turnout has not been high. I want to say how much I appreciate each and every meeting by the advisory boards, and I take much time looking at their opinions to help me formulate my own.

Well, I certainly echo what Tom said. In my little corner of Chapel Hill world (trying to grow bigger each day...), I have had to tax staff resources repeatedly, and I can honestly say that never once did I hear a sign, sense any resentment, or not be treated with the utmost in graciousness. I appreciate all the help and knowledge that I have gotten from JB, Kay T and Kay P, Phil, Curtis, Trish, and Fire Chief Jones. AND, if I have left anybody out (one reason not to make lists...) it is only because of old age, not for lack of the utmost in courtesy.
And Laurin-as a member of a Town Board, I thank you, but in total sincerity, I see it as a privilege that an ordinary citizen can be an effective participant in Town affairs. So, speaking for myself, I feel like I would like to do the thanking for having this opportunity.

oops-make that hear a SIGH

The landfill has been there for a long time. I applaud those who have found a way to "maximize" it. That's good work. Interestingly, in 1992 during the height of the landfill search process, myself and others who formed the Landfill Council (comprised of members from every potential site) disputed the solid waste department's assertion that we would need a new landfill by 1996 or 97. We did some research and figured that the current landfill would last until at least 2002 or so. Of course, not being engineers or "out-of-town" experts, our conclusion was derided. At any rate, our Landfill Council transcended the divisive NIMBY syndrome and we united people from all over the county behind waste reduction as the key strategy for our future.

The incredible thing about the landfill search was that the Landfill Owners Group, supported by the County Commissioners, forbade anyone from talking about the relationship between the potential size of a new landfill and waste reduction strategies. Well, that's mainly what we did talk about - but they did not listen. So the process broke down and now we will ship our waste to some poor suckers community. We here in the shining city on the hill didn'tr have the integrity to deal with our own waste, so we are sending it away. This is the biggest policy failure in Orange County's hostory.

This is strange. Did anyone else know about this?

From the the Chapel Hill News OrangeChat

Sometime last fall, the son of Town Council member Bill Thorpe approached the developers of the Greenbridge condominium towers and offered to work as their public relations consultant.

What troubles me is the following:

Mayor Kevin Foy learned of the situation before a public hearing on the downtown condo project Jan. 17 and asked Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos for advice.

Foy said the council did not pursue the matter further because Thorpe Sr. was not personally involved. Foy said he believed that his colleague's hands were clean in the matter.

OK, I can understand Foy and the Council making their assessment and determining there's no issue. What I don't understand is it is only now becoming public. If it was important enough for Council to review it was important enough to tell our citizens.


The article did not say that the Council reviewed the matter. It says that Mayor Foy and Town Attorney Karpinos were aware of the matter and that it was not reviewed by the Council because Council member Thorpe was not personally involved. Whether the decision that the Council not review the matter was made by the Council itself, or by the Mayor and the Town Attorney, is not clear from this article.

In any case, since Council member Thorpe WAS NOT involved, and since his son was not hired as a consultant by the developer, I see nothing sinister or inappropriate here. IMHO, it must have been a slow news day at the N&O.

I'm not suggesting sinister - just that it should've been mentioned. It's great that the Mayor took this to the Town's Attorney to double-check the propriety. And I can see why the Mayor would want to spare his colleague embarrassment and pain but it still needed a brief airing. Having seen Kevin in action for many years I firmly believe he could've mentioned the involvement (or lack thereof) in a tactful fashion.

GeorgeC, today's N&O article says

Foy said the council did not pursue the matter further because Thorpe Sr. was not personally involved. Foy said he believed his colleague's hands were clean in the matter.

Further that

"[Thorpe Sr.] doesn't think it's a good idea, but adults are autonomous people," Foy said. "I think that Bill has probably had a long talk with his son. Bill was not happy about hearing these rumors."

Thorpe said he was not concerned how his son's actions might reflect on him.

Again, nothing sinister - but news like this doesn't have to be sinister to require a brief, tactful mention.

Instead this was relegated to the realm of "rumors"

"He was trying to get a contract with them, but I haven't done anything with them," Thorpe Sr. said this week. "It had nothing to do with me."

Thorpe said he only heard rumors that his son had asked for a $40,000 consulting fee.

What the N&O didn't mention is what Thorpe, Jr. does at "Crown Transportation, in Cary", was it PR? Not so good PR for his Dad on this...

Again, I expect this to be a very minor blip for Bill. From his response to the N&O, it's obvious he wasn't too happy about the deal.

That said, and even if the Mayor was the lone "decider" here, and especially considering all the exemptions this development project was granted, there needed to be a public disclosure.


I guess (hope) we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I think the way that Mayor Foy handled the siuation was entirely appropriate. Even if he disclosed it in a tactful manner, as you suggest, it still might have caused embarrassment to some people. It might have embarrassed Council member Thorpe; it might have embarrassed his son (we don't know why he didn't get the consulting job). So if the public's interest was never at risk, and if Council member Thorpe (as well as other public officials) was never involved, then how is the public's interest served by making a disclosure that might embarrass someone? To me the public's interest in this situation was well-served by our elected and appointed officials who understand that it is not their responsibility to publicly disclose private matters which do not involve the government or the health and wefare of its constituents.

GeorgeC, I'll meet you half-way on this... If the full Council discussed this within an established process and moved on, OK.

If this was a decision by the Mayor alone, that's a problem.

Look, Bill was my campaign buddy.This situation sucks. I agree that embarrassing him doesn't serve the public good. But that's not what I'm exploring here...

What process, if any, was followed to disclose and discuss this "cautionary tale"? Was a record of the deliberations kept? If the Mayor was the lone arbiter, is that appropriate? Who decided that was appropriate? At what point in time does the fact deliberations were undertaken, if not the substance of those deliberations, become public?

Here, with what appears to be a complete miscue on Bill's son's part, was an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to a public process that will serve the public good.

Is this reflective of how the Mayor, if he acted alone, or the Council, if the collaborated, would handle a more serious breach?

I hope not. One thing I've learned over the last few years is how incestuous local politics, business and development can be...something that should prompt a better than average response from our elected officials (at the minimum, at least from those that beat their chests over transparency, etc.).


Are you suggesting there was an attempt to cover up this decision by the mayor (in conjunction with the town attorney) or are you simply concerned that there wasn't a formal announcement that the issue had been reviewed and determined to be a non-issue?

The latter. I've read over some of the Town's ethics position papers and guidelines - the general thrust seems to be as open as possible within the relevant statutes (in the case of personnel, observing the legislated privacy protections).

In keeping with the spirit and rules outlined in those guidelines, I believe some type of public notice PRIOR to the meeting was called for...

In this case, it should've been a home run. Bill's son approach Greenbridge with a $40K PR contract. Didn't get the job. Bill reports he didn't know squat about it beforehand but had heard rumors. Mayor, Town counsel and Council itself (though we appear to be a bit unclear on that) reviewed the issue and gave Bill, Greenbridge, Bill's son a clean bill of health.

"Yes, it happened. Here's the process we followed. It's a non-issue."

I've been a little distracted of late, but I believe I would've noticed if Council had made any comments prior to Jan. 17th about this issue.

Heck, within the last year or so Council has dealt with similar issues - Tim Dempsey's HR and Roger Waldon's NCD consultancies - if they were cognizant of Bill's son's efforts they should've recognized folks would want a measured, public process of review.

Maybe I'm more sensitized to this after so recently reviewing so many development plans, on top of Greenbridge, East 54, Hillsborough 425, the Lot #5 conversations and confidential negotiations - and thinking about how to better involve the public - but it seems to me that our citizens, no matter how cursory their attention on Council and their rulings, want and deserve clarity on these decisions that are so dramatically changing the face of Chapel Hill.

Finally, I understand that our Council is nothing like other jurisdictions. It hasn't been blighted with scandals, payoffs, kickbacks, etc. I hope Chapel Hill never has to deal with that kind of crap. Being scandal-free, though, should've made it easier to stick to a higher standard of conduct.

Again, the handling of this particular "no brainer" non-issue could've demonstrated a clear commitment to being better than average.

On the other hand Will, if Council is expected to bring every "non-issue" to the public eye, won't that simply interfere with their ability to do the constructive work we expect of them? Look at Council agendas--those meetings run for 4-5 hours. Introducing an expectation of publicly addressing "non-issues" could backfire by reducing the amount of time and attention allocated to real issues.

If you aren't expecting that all "non-issues" be brought to the public, then what you are challenging is the mayor's (and town attorney) judgment in handling this particular non-issue. Your judgment vs his. Since you say you trust him, why not just let it ride unless something truly egregious happens in the future?

Well, it's a bit of stretch to go from this one issue - which the press thought significant enough to report on - to all "non-issues".

This was playing out against a particular set of circumstances - a fairly radical reworking of Downtown, the zoning that controls development Downtown and the consolidation of three distinct type of approvals within one - a fairly expedited process that, as I've said here and elsewhere, demanded a bit more public outreach and ethical rigor than other planning decisions.

Greenbridge is one end of a continuum. Beyond Greenbridge, is Lot #5 and the other RAM Development projects coming before Council. Council's "relationship", good or bad, with RAM Development requires, at least from my perspective, more sensitivity. This citizen expects Council to go above and beyond in following a prudent, measured and public process on those approvals.

By the way, Terri, what does it mean "to bring every 'non-issue' to the public eye"? What is a "non-issue" - what the Mayor deems to be a "non-issue"?


You state "Well, it's a bit of stretch to go from this one issue - which the press thought significant enough to report on - to all “non-issues”."

So we should now let the press decide what constitutes an "issue" versus a "non-issue"? I reiterate my earlier statement that I think it was a slow news day.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Depends on who you think are really the guards.


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