Pease calls on Del Snow to resign from Planning Board

As reported by the Herald Sun, Chapel Hill Town Council Member Gene Pease has written Planning Board Chair Del Snow asking her to resign from the Planning Board. In his letter, which can be downloaded from the Town's email archive, he launches a blistering attack on the "responsible growth" advocates in the community, calling them against any growth whatsoever. Interesting, to say the least.



For folks (like me) who find the Town's e-mail archive extremely difficult to use, below is the text of the letter, which was attached as a PDF in a reply from Councilmember Pease to a message from Chairwoman Snow requesting "Guidance" from the Council in the wake of their approval of the Bicycle Apartments after the Planning Board recommended denial.



Let me provide some feedback you have requested in your email last week.
First let me state that I sincerely appreciate the work and commitment any citizen makes to our advisory board system. Prior to my Council commitment I was in your position for approximately twelve years serving on a variety of town boards and commissions, and at different times felt both a connection and disconnection to the town Council. Whether I agree or disagree with some of the Planning Board, or other Boards and Commissions, recommendations I appreciate your work.

Second, in the last year or so you and a few other planning board members, and a small group of activists in the community (primarily from the neighbors for responsible growth group NRG) say they are not against growth, but support “responsible development” and consistently have used the vocabulary of “fact based information” in the arguments which primarily focus against the majority of developments the Council has considered. I have had multiple discussions with members with these opinions, and when challenged they can’t articulate what responsible growth is. I’ve concluded in reality they are against any growth. They can’t articulate how we pay for the increased costs of running the town, they don’t want our town services cut, nor do they not want their taxes raised, but consistently they are against growth in any form. After serving in various volunteer capacities in this town for fifteen years, I don’t understand how this could possibility work if we don’t increase our commercial tax base.

So what is “fact based” decision making? Let’s be clear that I understand the term. For the past ten years I have been CEO of an analytics company who solves complicated problems using advanced statistical methodologies for Fortune 500 companies (like Chrysler, Microsoft, US Bank, etc.). To put it simply our work is centered on “fact based” decision making in the purist sense, making decisions in a logical manner based upon data and facts, not individual opinions. In my experience the rhetoric around “fact based” decision making generally is used by amateurs trying to sway an argument that is primarily based on their personal bias. In our town the term has been greatly overused.

Most of our work in considering a development application is interpreting criteria that are not crystal clear, and we use our best judgment as to how to interpret the language of the Comprehensive Plan, LUMO, 2020 goals, etc. That is primarily why I hope the 2020 outcomes puts clearer language around our future development and takes much of the ambiguity out of our future development process, and discussing we have around it. Today, we expect the citizens we appoint to our Boards and Commissions to use their best judgment interpreting these sometimes confusing and not entirely clear language and documents. We also expect our appointed citizens to be open minded and fair in the interpretation of these documents. We would love to have our appointed citizens use “fact based” decision making, without a ton of biased in their decision making. But we know that we all bring some level of opinion and bias into our decision making. That’s human nature. The challenge we have is to not let our bias overrule the data that we are presented with. Sometimes the information we have makes our decisions crystal clear, but in many cases it is not. That is why we have differences of opinions from our various boards, citizens and Council members in this process.

I have to say I have seen very little of that unbiased decision making from you and a few others on the Planning Board in the past several years. I can recall several instances where you have spoken to Council representing the Planning Board’s recommendation of a development application, and have spent equal or more time articulating the minority position (which you have been on the side of) rather than presenting why the Board recommended approving the development. Because of this I have over the past year lost confidence of some of the Planning Board recommendations, and as painful as it is to say, I have very little confidence in the Board’s ability to weigh the development applications fairly, particularly with your leadership. Your rhetoric around “fact based” decision making has in reality not been applied.

I respect the right for any citizen, or appointed Board or Commission member, to disagree or vote against any proposal in front of them. We celebrate discussion in Chapel Hill. It is our right to disagree and/or vote against an issue before you as a volunteer. It is another to sue the town because you don’t agree with a decision the Council has made. That is taking the opinion to an entirely another level. It is the right of any citizen to sue an entity over an issue they feel wrongly hurt. Those are our rights under the law.

But how can you as a member of the Planning Board have an unbiased opinion on any development application before the Board, when you are leading a citizen group suing the Council over a development decision you disagreed with? I don’t dispute your right to sue, but you cannot have an unbiased opinion, nor should have a role, in future development applications while you are involved in a development law suit against the town.

You have shown a pattern of bias in your decision making on the Planning Board. There is a major ethical line that has been crossed with the filing of the law suit, therefore I respectfully ask you to resign from the Planning Board.

Gene Pease Councilmember

And here is the letter that prompted the reply above:

From: Del Snow
Sent: Thursday, February 28, 2013 2:17 PM
To: Town Council
Cc: Neal Bench; John Ager; Brewer, Kimberly; Melissa McCullough; Deborah Fulghieri; Jason Baker; Amy Ryan; Andrea Rohrbacher; Suzanne Haff; Jason Baker
Subject: Guidance

Mayor and Town Council -

As Chair of the Planning Board, I feel that I must follow up on last night's Bicycle Apartments decision.

The Council appointed a diverse group to the Planning Board.  One of our charges is "to determine whether specific proposed developments conform to the principles and requirements of the Comprehensive Plan for the growth and development of the Town." (See - bullet point five) We had serious concerns about the Bicycle Apartments and the applicant returned a second time to try to address them.  We certainly appreciate the removal of the balconies facing Hillsborough Street that resulted.

However, these same diverse Board members, none of whom are against growth or economic development, all agreed that this application did not reflect the guidance of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan. We are looking at applications with attention to fact-based data in order to justify how we arrive at our recommendations.  I found it very distressing that Council brought up legitimate concerns that Staff could have answered, but chose, instead, to act last night before answers were received, instead of deferring action. 

If the Planning Board's attention to the Comprehensive Plan and fact based information is the wrong approach,I would appreciate knowing that so that we can act with that knowledge.

I'd like to add that while I don't very often agree with Gene, I do think he quite nailed it in the problem with Del's approach to being the leader of the Planning Board (which is a position I have also held, so I know a thing or three about it). I also want to call out this from Gene's letter:

That is primarily why I hope the 2020 outcomes puts clearer language around our future development and takes much of the ambiguity out of our future development process, and discussing we have around it. Today, we expect the citizens we appoint to our Boards and Commissions to use their best judgment interpreting these sometimes confusing and not entirely clear language and documents.

What a shame that our extensive 9-month Comprehensive Planning effort left Chapel Hill with exactly no clarity about these issues! In fact, the purposeful ambiguity of the 2020 plan allows any activists to use it or negate in any situation according to their own desires, just as Del does in her letter.</broken record>

I do not agree with Snow's position that "deferring action" would be better in this situation.  The Bicycle Apartments SUP approval process was anything but smooth, quick and undebated.  The SUP process started well over a year ago, and went through several Boards (BPAB, Planning, CDC, etc.) and made significant changes to the overall design, the balcony removal being one of the least significant ones.  Ethically, I think that we all know that we all should refrain from voting or using our positions to further a personal goal or interest.  The line of argument that I personally heard on several occasions regarding the Bicycle Apartments was not that it needed to be slightly changed, but that the entire project needed to be scrapped.  In this sense, I understand Pease's argument that it is seen as "anti-growth" or anti-development.  When pressed for details, the advocates against the SUP approval did not have specific recommendations for changing the SUP or building layout or dimensions, but instead that they just didn't want it to be there, specifically that they didn't want students to be there. My favorite quote during one of the public comments was that "students do not have fully developed frontal lobes," and that they cannot be trusted to take care of themselves.  This type of input and dialogue not only is disrespectful to a specific group (age-discrimination), but it is adversarial to the opposing side, and doesn't foster a healthy dialogue on the project itself.From beginning to end, the Bicycle Apts project underwent significant changes in placement, size, parking, bike advocacy, bus line management, etc.  and the project after town input from the TC, Boards and public put some needed changes in the project itself; however, after a year or more of revision, you would think that someone who is so integrated in the process as Mrs. Snow is would trust in the system that the Town has established.  Obviously, she has lost faith in the development review system, and if she continues with the suit (i'm not aware of the specifics) then I would support her resigning from her position of Chair on the Board.

Those who would speak against students living within walking and bicycling distance of campus should (unless they were born here) reconsider exactly why they are living in a college town. Perhaps they could lobby to cut UNC funding.

from Del's letter to Gene "these same diverse Board members, none of whom are against growth ..." (emphasis added)Sure. 

According to the Planning Board notes from 2/26/2013 (email Del sent to Ed Harrison), every member of the Planning Board opposed Bicycle Apartments. So why is Del being singled out? Isn't it the chair's job to represent the group view? 

It basically revolves around the conflict of interest from her participation in the lawsuit. It seems perfectly understandable that she could use her position as PB Chair to influence stuff related to the case.

Mark, I generally hold you in high regard because of your views on national politics and the environment.  I was surprised then that you chose to fall into lock-step with the crowd before finding out what  (dare I say it?) the facts are about Charterwood.When Charterwood was heard at the Planning Board, I recused myself over the objections of then Chair Mike Collins.  The current lawsuit against the Town is based on procedural errors made during the rezoning process.  All citizens should be able to rely on the integrity of the process and when the process is broken, it must be fixed.  Charterwood is now a strictly judicial matter and, in the unlikely event that the complainants lose, Charterwood has its approval and will proceed.There is no "stuff" for me to influence on this case.The magic of on-line communication has its plusses and minuses, as everything does in life.  With one click of the mouse, you "branded" me unfairly and now I am left to hope that I can undo your mistake.  It would have worked out better if, instead of speculating, you had just picked up the phone or emailed me. Del Snow


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