Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lots of work going into Chapel Hill growth issues

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 17th, 2007:

Last Monday night's Town Council agenda pretty much summed up the amazing number of growth issues happening now in Chapel Hill. There are three developments on the table this month -- Lot 5 and Greenbridge downtown, the Residences at Chapel Hill North in the northwestern part of town, and East 54 on, well, East 54. There are also the issues caused by the large number of proposed developments -- re-evaluations of the comprehensive plan and tree protection ordinance, and a neighborhood conservation district in the Whitehead/Mason Farm area.

When all this stuff is going on, the Town Council and Planning Board (of which I am a member) get a lot of attention, as do the engaged citizens who speak out and make their feelings known.

Who don't get a lot of attention are the folks doing much of the work behind the scenes to make all of this happen. They're probably perfectly happy to keep it that way too, but the Planning Department, under the direction of J.B. Culpepper, deserves some recognition for all the extra work it's doing to keep Chapel Hill moving forward during this hectic period.

A perfect example of this is the work recently done in regards to strengthening the town's Tree Protection Ordinance. The Planning Board, concerned that the current ordinance is not doing enough to maintain the beauty our trees bring to Chapel Hill, decided to create a subcommittee to look at where improvements could be made.

This required staff members to spend a lot of time pulling together information about what other cities across the Southeast are doing. It also resulted in a bunch of extra night meetings for a crew of folks who already spend far too many evenings in Town Hall and away from their families.

There was never the hint of a complaint about this from Culpepper, development coordinator Gene Poveromo, urban forester Curtis Brooks or Emily Cameron of the Public Works Department, though. This process created a lot of extra work for the four of them, but all they cared about was being responsive to citizen concerns about trees in Chapel Hill.

It appears the council will move forward on some major changes, which will help to preserve one of the things folks most value about our community. The Planning Department should be lauded for the work it did to get us to this point.

Culpepper has aptly filled the big shoes left by her predecessor, Roger Waldon. Fortunately, Waldon continues to make a strong contribution to the town as a consultant for neighborhood conservation district processes.

The five NCDs that have commenced in the past year and a half have also been a big time commitment for the Planning Department. While Waldon and his employer, Clarion Associates, have done a lot of the work, it's also put an extra burden on several town staffers, namely Housing and Neighborhood Services Coordinator Loryn Clark and planner Rae Buckley.

NCDs provide a lot of comfort to folks who are worried about the direction their neighborhoods are headed. Their addition to the universe of Chapel Hill planning over the four years has been a very good thing for the town and is doing a lot to preserve the historical character of our community.

But they're also quite a time-consuming process, and while they go on, the normal flow of development applications does not stop. They, like revising the tree ordinance, create a lot more work for town staff. Chapel Hill residents should take a second to show some appreciation for the good things made possible by the hard work ethic of the folks in the Planning Department.

Renee Zimmermann, an administrative clerk in the department, probably best exemplifies how hard everyone in her office has been working lately. During the first 15 months I was on the Planning Board, she did not miss a single one of our twice-monthly evening meetings.

When she finally did, it was not because of a vacation but due to a death in the family. I wish for her sake she would get away for a while, but she really reflects the effort that's being put in to steer Chapel Hill through this period with a high level of proposed developments.

The high volume of newspaper articles, letters to the editor and blog posts about all the ongoing growth issues in Chapel Hill aren't going away anytime soon. When you read them and think about how much is at stake for our community, please give some thought to the underappreciated town employees who are giving their all to making sure this remains such a great place to live.

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