CHAPEL HILL- More than thirty concerned citizens showed up at Monday’s Chapel Hill Town Council work session, an unusual turn-out for the less formal meetings that take place beyond the TV cameras.

Even more unusually, the council broke protocol to give them a chance to speak their minds about Obey Creek.

“It is hard to understand why there is no formalized role for the community in the leadership of the decision-making process,” Jeanne Brown told the council.

Brown spoke on behalf of many in the audience who live in Southern Chapel Hill near the proposed Obey Creek development on 15-501 South across from Southern Village.

The original plan for the 124 acre lot called for a high density mixed-use retail and residential development, but the developer has agreed to start from scratch in order to explore a development agreement process for the project, an alternative to the contentious Special Use Permit approval process.

In March, town staffers put together a two part plan for exploring and negotiating the agreement, a plan that featured public input sessions and workshops throughout the summer and fall.

But neighbors said that’s not enough. They want formal representation in the process of crafting a development agreement and they asked the council to form a citizen task force.

Developer Ben Perry, of East West Partners, agreed.

“I think that will be tremendously helpful in disseminating information in every direction, keeping the neighbors up to date on what’s going on, as well as providing the ability to speak to the town in a clear fashion,” said Perry.

At Monday’s work session, several council members including Matt Czajkowski challenged town staffers’ assertion that the current planning model allows for adequate public participation.

“You tell us that this process is designed for ample community engagement. I thought I heard the community saying didn’t agree,” said Czajkowski. “That’s an issue right there.”

The council debated the merits of formal versus informal representation before settling on the idea of creating a task force similar to the Central West Focus Area Steering Committee.

That group is made up of 17 members from diverse backgrounds throughout Chapel Hill who are working together to craft a small area plan for the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard and Estes Drive.

Although pausing to form a new task force could push back the October deadline to complete the first phase, Gene Pease urged staff to take the time to get the process right.

“Ultimately, if it gets a better project, I’d argue it is well worth it,” said Pease. “We’re going to be living with this development for twenty or thirty years, so another two, three, four months- who cares?”

The council will revisit the issue at a business meeting next Wednesday, with an eye to seating the task force before public information sessions kick off in May.