Monday, January 08, 2007

Kudos to Carolina North committee

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on January 6th, 2007:

Around this time last year, I was extremely skeptical about UNC's plans for a "Leadership Advisory Committee" on Carolina North. It seemed like just the latest in a series of bureaucratic bodies, at best another pointless waste of time and at worst a cooptation technique designed as an end run around substantive public input on one of the most important issues our area has ever faced.

Twelve months later, I am pleasantly surprised with the work it has done and cautiously optimistic about the direction we are heading in. Folks are engaging in a constructive dialogue about town/gown issues in a way that we have not often seen.

That this committee has been successful is a testament to the quality of the folks leading it. In particular I give credit to the head of the committee, former Mayor Ken Broun. Bill Strom and Cam Hill from the Chapel Hill delegation, and Mark Chilton and Dan Coleman from the Carrboro delegation have also been integral to its productivity. Roger Perry, who has an interesting dual role on the committee as both a Chapel Hill resident and a UNC trustee, has also played a key part.

The thread that ties those folks together is that they've been working on the Carolina North issue forever. Broun and Chilton were on the Chapel Hill Town Council back in 1994 when the first Horace Williams committee was formed. Strom and Coleman were leading progressive activists in the community then, and while Hill is newer to involvement in Chapel Hill politics, he served on the Horace Williams Citizens Advisory Committee before being elected to the Town Council.

Stacking the LAC with folks who have a long background of working on Carolina North is important because they've learned from past experience what sorts of things have allowed previous bodies to stagnate and fail to reach consensus.

That was an important factor in the early stages of the committee, when it worked to set its ground rules. Leaders of the Chapel Hill and Carrboro delegations were criticized for slowing the committee's work by spending a lot of time focusing on what the vision and goals of the body were. Instead they should be commended -- the LAC has been successful because it has clarity about what it is trying to accomplish. Without that, it likely would have become just another in a long list of committees that failed to meet expectations.

Ken Broun deserves a lot of credit here as well. In May 2006, several members of the UNC Board of Trustees, frustrated with the pace of the process, made some thinly veiled suggestions of obstructionism towards the Chapel Hill and Carrboro delegations. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy responded in kind, and things were pretty hot for a little while.

The committee could have degenerated then and there and lost any possibility of accomplishing something. But Broun worked to help keep the group together and on focus, and in the seven months since that flare up it has entered the period of its greatest productivity.

The goals that the committee has agreed on are admirable. For instance, UNC has committed to including space for schools and child-care facilities. The more the university provides the infrastructure to handle its expansion, the less Chapel Hill and Carrboro will be adversely affected.

Bill Strom has been calling for a transit master plan and a fiscal equity study related to Carolina North for years. Roger Perry has played a key role in getting UNC to agree to fund those projects. He also seems to have convinced the university through the LAC process to agree to the town's stated principle that this should be a transit-oriented plan. The collaboration of Strom and Perry in this group has been something to see, and is a great sign for future town/gown relations.

On this issue, Carrboro's leaders also deserve credit. When transit discussions bogged down last spring, Chilton and Coleman deftly and articulately advocated for a transit-oriented approach that all agreed to.

I was disappointed that UNC wouldn't commit to preserving a set amount of land as open space, but it does seem committed to keeping the tract as beautiful as possible without making specific promises.

The goals that have been agreed on are broad. Former Town Council member Joe Capowski, who has been following the process closely, says "the lower strategic planning level, at which the principles are implemented, will force the difficult tradeoffs."

Capowski is particularly concerned about parking at the site, possibly the greatest area of worry for southern Orange residents and particularly neighbors of the project.

There are difficult decisions that still need to be made. Nevertheless, the process has been the most productive example of town/gown relations in recent memory. This is in no small part thanks to the good will shown by the delegations of Chapel Hill and Carrboro by engaging in the process. Hopefully this positive momentum will continue.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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