This is David Schwartz.
This week, Chapel Hill hosts a conference of mayors from around the country. Our elected officials are no doubt eager to tell visitors, constituents and the media about the many wonderful things that Chapel Hill town government is doing. And some good things have indeed been happening lately, such as the completion of the Morgan Creek trail and the downtown sidewalk improvements. In other respects, however, the town’s development efforts, including our first foray into form-based code, leave much room for improvement.
For example, during the past year, our Town government has:
- Taken on public debt for roads and stormwater infrastructure in the Ephesus-Fordham district before completing the traffic, environmental and fiscal analyses necessary to determine just how much these infrastructure improvements will cost us.
- Further endangered our public finances by failing to set aside funds needed to meet the Town’s future pension obligations;
- Used rezoning to enrich a handful of private landowners and developers without obtaining community benefits such as affordable housing or park land;
- Consistently ignored the planning recommendations of council-appointed advisory boards, committees and paid professional consultants;
- Approved building heights and densities that are greatly at odds with the recommendations of urban planning consultants, with the stated preferences of the town’s citizens, and with the existing character of the community.
As the conference continues today at the Carolina Inn, let’s hope Mayor Kleinschmidt, our Council members and our Town staff will glean some ideas from the visitors about how to improve our town’s planning, sustainability, and community participation efforts. Specifically, let’s hope they will come away from the conference ready, willing, and able to do the following:
- Develop financial models needed to ensure that the projected community benefits of new development outweigh the expected costs, and that we make optimal use of our limited land and economic resources;
- Integrate the planning recommendations of Town advisory boards and expert consultants into their decision-making;
- Use development and growth as a tool for increasing the Town’s supply of affordable housing and other community benefits;
- Carry out comprehensive stormwater and transportation planning and put in place the infrastructure needed to support a higher density population before approving new development.
If the conference helps bring about these changes in the way our Town government operates, then it will continue to benefit Chapel Hill long after the participants themselves have returned home.