County Commissioner Chastises Town Planning Board Chair

Newly minted county commissioner (and former Chapel Hill Town Council member) Penny Rich just sent a letter (quoted in its entirety below) to Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. In it she takes strong exception to the behavior of Chapel Hill Planning Board chair Del Snow, who attended a county commissioners meeting last month to speak against the implementation of the Orange County transit plan. (See OP's live coverage of the meeting and discussion of the transit vote.)

While I wholeheartedly share Penny's concerns about Del misrepresenting the town, her call for the town to remove Del from the Planning Board will probably provoke a defensive response about municipal sovereignty, which will make it politically difficult for the town to actually do anything about it. Frankly I'm even more bothered that someone in a position of planning leadership such as Del is working to undermine the large-scale community transportation planning that is so critical to our future. Either way I'd like to see some new leaders on the Planning Board, preferably who appreciate both planning and process. But only the Chapel Hill Town Counil can make that happen.

December 29, 2012

Mayor Kleinschmidt,

At the Orange County Board of County Commissioner meeting on December 11, 2012, Items 6, 6a, and 6b on the agenda referred to the Transit Implementation Resolutions ( As you know, the citizens of Orange County voted in favor of the ½ cent transit sales tax that appeared on the November 2012 ballot.

Ten people signed up to speak at the public hearing portion of the agenda item.
Del Snow, was the third speaker and identified herself as the chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Board. Ms. Snow reported that the planning board is pro-transit but did not support the MPO’s long-term transit plan. She told the BOCC that the planning board unanimously voted against the plan, but did not share any details about the conversations regarding the vote. She talked about the data, growth numbers, small area plans and the 2020 Comprehensive plan.  Ms. Snow shared opinion after opinion from the planning board, all against the transit plan and the implementation of the ½ cent tax.  Ms. Snow repeated that she is the chair of the Planning Board a number of times and never stated that she was speaking as an Orange County citizen. 

In my opinion this was highly unusual for the Planning Board chair of one governing body to come and speak in front of another governing body unless asked to do so by council. It is my understanding that neither you nor council gave Ms. Snow instructions to represent the town on this matter.

In light of this over-reach of power and the pending law suit by Ms. Snow against the Town of Chapel Hill, I think it is appropriate that council ask her to resign her position on the Planning Board. Ms. Snow’s interests are in conflict with the town and the citizens of Chapel Hill and I don’t see how she can vote on issues to move the 2020 Comprehensive plan forward given her stated positions.

Thank you for your consideration on this matter.

Commissioner Penny Rich
Orange County Board of Commissioners



While Penny's letter was perhaps a bit too strong for my tastes, I watched live the streaming video of the public hearing on the transit tax and was struck with how much of it was a NIMBY liefest. I can see where she was coming from.

NIMBYism is not wanting something because it impacts your personal space. The times I have heard them arguing against the MPO plan they have been complaining because the current plan doesn't hit enough of the backyards in Orange County (benefitting Durham but not Orange while using Orange tax dollars).

As far as I know, Del accurately represented the discussion of the Planning Baord. Their notes can be found here: While I disagree with Del and the Planning Board, I think it's more than a little hypocritical for an elected official to write to another board complaining that a citizen is representing the view of the entire Planning Board. Is Penny representing the view of the entire Board of County Commisioners? If she was representing herself only, she should not have signed it with an emphasis on her new position. 

While I don't know quite how I feel about the letter, I don't think that she emphasized her new role on the commissioners. She did say "In my opinion" after all.

The meat of the Penny Rich letter is the second sentence of its third paragraph. If the Planning Commission presented its views on the transit plan to the council, and the council endorsed the plan anyway, the Planning Commission restating its views to the BOCC amounts to going over the head of the council. That is in fact rarely if ever done by a town advisory board. Edit: Can someone please cut and paste the Planning Commission notes referenced by Terri above into a posting here? The link goes to an ibiblio site that's password-protected.

 How do you see Del's comments as "going over the head of the council"?  The Planning board is authorized to act  independently from the council (thank goodness, I was starting to wonder if we should all start saluting). Second, the council had enough concerns with the MPO plan to form a workgroup to correct it - all mentioned  in Del's comments.   it would be nice if the BoCC found a way to work with the council to cooperate more closely to align transit plans to land use plans.   Please read Del's statement to the BoCC and her letter to the council.  The facts may help to form your views on this As a citizen, I'd like to see more open communication, transparency and collaboration between our governments - not less. Maybe the advisory boards can help make that happen.  If you were at the meeting,  you may have noticed Commissioners who appeared to find  the information helpful and important.  To me that is the meat of the matter.  Bonnie Hauser  

It would be great if advisory boards were more than cheerleaders or clones for the elected board that appointed them but with elected officials like Ms. Rich I don't see that happening. Advisory boards could provide valuable input if there was more political diversity built into the appointment process.Ms. Snow did nothing other than express the Planning Board's viewpoint. If the CH Town Council disagrees with their Planning Board then they need to fire all of them not just Ms. Snow. 

As far as I know Town Boards, as a unit, exist at the pleasure of the Mayor and Council. (Correct me please if I'm wrong Council members.) Individuals on the boards are of-course allowed to state their opinion. But as others have said here a Council can fire a board or member they appointed in the first place. I know. I watched Mayor Foy and former Town Manager Cal Horton can the Technology Board. I won't ever forget that...

The Planning Board, Board of Adjustment and Historic District Commission are called "semi-autonomous boards" ....which have been granted the power to act independently of the Town Council in most instances but on occasion serve in advisory capacity of the Council." (Source: Town Council Procedures Manual).  State statute requires that some seats on the PB and BoA be appointed by a County Board of Commissioners, specifically those representing extra-territorial zoning areas. All other CH boards and commissions are "creatures of the Council."  Some of them don't appear to exist in other jurisdictions, Ed Harrison

Thanks for that clarification Ed.

Ed, I think you'd agree that while the Planning Board (PB) has been granted the power to act independently its actual powers are somewhat limited.  For instance, while it is charged with giving a recommendation on a proposed rezoning only the Council has the power to rezone.  And while the PB gives recommendations to Council on SUP (Special use permit) applications, only the Council has the power to approve SUPs.  There are, of course, some instances, such as certain Site Plan submissions, in which the PB has the power to approve without Council even seeing them.  But overall I'd say that at least in CH the PB serves more as an advisory board than as a truly independent decision-making board.  

As a member of the Planning Board, I'd like to comment. The Planning Board under Del's leadership has worked to make data driven decisions and not emotional decisions. It does not have a bias for/against development as general comcept. Whether you agree or disagree with decisions of the board, I'd appreciate knowing the data you are using to support your positions, not your opinions. I want your input and will continue to try to make the best decisions I can for the community as a whole. Del read to the BOC what we had all worked on over 3 meetings to be our best effort to present what we thought was the best transportation guidelines for Orange County including Chapel Hill. Del is data driven and I don't understand the emotional response her presentation has gotten. 

From the town website. 8.2. - Planning board.8.2.1. Establishment of the Board; Qualifications.A planning board, consisting of ten (10) members, is hereby established. Eight (8) members, appointed by the council, shall reside within the corporate limits of Chapel Hill. One (1) member shall reside within the town's extraterritorial planning jurisdiction, and shall be appointed by the Orange County Board of Commissioners. One (1) member shall reside within the town's Joint Planning Transition Area, and shall be appointed by the Orange County Board of Commissioners. Members shall serve without compensation, but may be reimbursed for actual expenses incidental to the performance of their duties within the limit of funds available to the board.8.2.2. Tenure.Members of the board shall be appointed to serve terms of three (3) years, and until their respective successors have been appointed and qualified. The terms of the original members may be staggered so that all terms do not expire simultaneously. Vacancies shall be filled for the unexpired term only.8.2.3. Officers.The board shall elect one (1) member to serve as chair and preside over its meetings, and shall create and fill such offices and committees as it may deem necessary. The term of the chair and other offices shall be one (1) year, with eligibility for reelection to a second term.8.2.4. Powers of the Board.The planning board shall have the following powers and duties:(a) To develop a comprehensive plan for the orderly growth and development of Chapel Hill and its environs. Such plan shall set forth goals, objectives, and policies designed to manage the quantity, type, cost, location, timing, and quality of development and redevelopment in the Chapel Hill community;(b)To seek to coordinate the activities of individuals and public or private agencies and organizations whose plans, activities, and programs bear on the general development of the community;(c)To undertake, on its own or in collaboration with any other board, commission, agency, society, or organization, any programs of information, research, or analysis relating to any matters under its purview;(d)To cooperate with other commissions, boards, or agencies of the town or other governmental unit in offering or requesting assistance, guidance, or advice concerning matters under the board's purview or of mutual interest;(e)To make studies of the general development characteristics and problems of the community, including surveys and inventories of an appropriate nature, and to recommend standards and policies of development for the entire community or any portion or neighborhood thereof, or any project to be undertaken therein;(f)To request from the proper officials of any public agency or body its plans for public buildings, facilities, or projects to be located within the town's jurisdiction, and to review such plans as to conformity with the comprehensive plan to make recommendations regarding such plans to the appropriate agency or body, or to the council. The board shall review all such plans in a prompt and expeditious manner, and shall make all recommendations with regard to any public project in writing, and shall promptly transmit copies of the recommendation to the appropriate agency or body, and to the council;(g)To formulate and recommend to the council the adoption or amendment of ordinances that, in the opinion of the board will serve to promote the orderly development of the community in accord with the comprehensive plan;(h)To direct the attention of appropriate town officials to needed enforcement of any ordinance that may affect the general development of the community;(i)To enter, at reasonable times, upon private lands and make examinations or surveys as necessary for the performance of its official duties;(j)To promote public interest in an understanding of its recommendations, studies, and plans, and to prepare, publish, and distribute to the public such studies and reports that, in the opinion of the board, will promote the orderly development of the community in accord with the comprehensive plan;(k)To request the council to hold public hearings on matters within the purview of the board;(l)To conduct public meetings and hearings, giving reasonable notice to the public thereof;(m)To review and make recommendations to the council on proposed plats of land subdivision, applications for special use permits, and proposed amendments to Land Use Management Ordinances;(n)To review site plans for conformity with land development regulations, in accord withsection 4.7 of this appendix;(o)To review minor subdivision for conformity with land development regulations in accord with subsection 4.6.4;(p)To recommend to the council suitable arrangement for the procurement or provision of staff or technical services for the board;(q)To establish an advisory council or other committees within its membership as it may deem necessary;(r)To accept funds from private agencies, foundations, organizations, individuals, the State or federal government, or any other source, and to disburse such funds for any purpose within the scope of its authority; and(s)To exercise such other powers and to perform such other duties as are authorized or required elsewhere in this appendix, the N.C. General Statutes, or by the council.   Bonnie Hauser

Never been impressed by Penny Rich.  This just adds to my conviction.  She should have done her homework before foaming at the mouth. I am all for public transit, but am definitely in the camp that the current plan has serious flaws. 

OK, we had several camps pre- referendumCAMP A: All elected boards, transit agencies, and various citizens. Rail was included from UNC Hospitals to Durham as a top priority IF state and federal funds become available.  Bus expansion would come first, with BRT also out there, and if no rail money was available then all would be used for bus expansion (incuding BRT). The approved transit plans on which the referendum was based included this rail priority. In fact the entire thrust of the  study commission that recommended the authorization for the sales tax to the 2009 General Assembly based its recommendations on rail being priority #1. (I know because I wrote them)CAMP B: Groups like the Planning Board and citizens like Bonnie Hauser who felt that rail was an unwise first priority. The Planning Board unanimously staked out this position in October.CAMP C: More conservative groups who seemed to oppose any transit.An election was held and the voters by a 59-41 margin endorsed the position of Camp A.  We don't know of the 41% how many were in Camp B and Camp C.  But at the post-election public hearing we had Del come and restate the position of Camp B. Camp A got righteously indignant (perhaps over the top so) that this issue had already been settled by the voters.That's my short analysis.

Hey I don't want to rehash transit - but there's no facts to support your "analysis" For the record, voters voted for "a one-half percent local sales and use taxes, to be used only for public transportation system".   There was nothing on the ballot about the plan, light rail, or the vehicle fee.   Bonnie Hauser, Camp B

Bonnie the transit plan with the rail component was a statutory prerequisite of the referendum and is thus part of the issue on the ballot - just like a constitutional amendment ballot wording does not have the gory details. You are 100% correct on the vehicle fee not being part of the referendum (although the Camp C GOP leaflet said the fee was part of the referendum - but I don't hold Camp B responsible for that). The transit plan is binding until TTA and the county commissioners change it - which they will if federal and state funding is rejected

Gerry - I'm not going to debate the facts. The ballot asked voters to vote (and I quote) "for or against a one-half percent local sales and use taxes, to be used only for public transportation system"There was NOTHING on the ballot about what's behind the referendum including the TTA plan or LRT.   Of course voters had the additinal info from the Democratic party that said Vote "for" - also with no specifics about the plan behind the vote.  I don't remember the wording they used. I do agree that our fate is now in TTA's hands, and we're stuck with LRT until the state and/or federal funding is denied and our elected officials decide to change the plan.    But there is no basis to argue that voters understood the far reaching implications of the words that appeared on the ballot.    Bonnie Hauser

Bonnie the NCDP voter guide specifically said the plan included light rail 

In nearly every precinct the transit referendum trailed the D-R vote split by 10% so I'm going to posit that camp B was 10% of the electorate. A significant % but the election was over by the time of the post election tax levy public hearing


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