American Legion site

Facts about the American Legion site: A response to CHALT’s ‘A New Park…’ Blog Post

This piece was written by Melody Kramer with input from Geoff Green, Caroline Dwyer, John Rees, Stephen Whitlow, and Martin Johnson.

Update – June 16, 2022

On June 5, CHALT published an anonymous blog post (“A New Park…) containing serious accusations of misconduct against several Town of Chapel Hill council members without any supporting evidence. Our post presents facts rebutting these accusations and clarifying misinformation about the American Legion site and the public process.

TLDR;

What is this about? On Wednesday, June 1, the Chapel Hill Town Council discussed a petition, written by Council member Michael Parker and signed by four of his colleagues on the Council, to begin a planning process on the future of the American Legion property. For more on the meeting, see Triangle Blog Blog’s recap, Chapelboro’s recap, and The Daily Tar Heel’s recap.

On Sunday, June 5, CHALT published an anonymous, unsigned blog post that included a number of false and misleading accusations about the Council’s recent discussions of the American Legion site.

Why does this matter? CHALT’s post is designed to misinform and mislead the public on a very important issue. This harms our civic process. CHALT uses bad faith arguments to further the interest group’s apparent overarching goal of limiting development in Chapel Hill, especially the development of apartments. (For more on the danger of misinformation in local politics, see Caroline Chen’s 2021 response to CHALT and this recent Washington Post piece.)

This post fact-checks CHALT’s claims and provides you with important context and information so you can make your own decisions about the best use of the American Legion site. 

The Petition (process)

Councilmember Michael Parker authored a petition signed by four fellow council members asking the Town Manager to “begin a planning process to consider future uses of the American Legion property,” specifically so “a public engagement process can be initiated to ensure that the plan developed meets the needs and wishes of Town residents.” In plain English, the petition is asking town staff to bring the community some options for the American Legion site so the community can play a role in deciding the future of the property. This petition was submitted to council for consideration on May 18, 2022.

Councilmember Parker’s petition requests that the plan(s) include:

  1. Developing a reasonable portion of the site for missing middle housing or retail/office space
  2. Explore using a portion of the site for affordable housing, possibly for those with developmental or other disabilities
  3. Using the annual tax revenue resulting from (1) to fund, in part, the development and ongoing upkeep of a “a first-class park, including active and passive recreational activities” on the remainder of the land.

The petition aligns with Council’s justification for purchasing the American Legion property in 2016. At that time, elected officials resolved to use some of the town-owned American Legion land for park space. Councilmember Parker even proposed an amendment clarifying that the council “did not intend for the entire property to be used as a park and that the town would explore other options through the master planning process.” This motion passed 8-1, including votes in favor from Mayor Hemminger and Council Members Anderson and Parker. Former council members who supported non-park uses on the site included Nancy Oates who suggested Fleet Feet as a potential private retailer on the site… because Council wanted to ensure businesses on the site would  “fit in” (June 26, 2017 Town Council meeting).

When the American Legion property was purchased, 120 emails (including correspondence from CHALT members and leadership) were sent to the Town Council, many noting general agreement that other types of development were appropriate to place on the site including affordable housing or office/retail uses.

Takeaway: Contrary to claims in CHALT’s blog post, the petition is not intended to subvert the public process but rather CATALYZE a public process following years of inaction.

The Accusation

CHALT’s June 5th blog post suggests that the five council members who authored and/or signed the petition violated North Carolina’s open meeting law, subverting a transparent process, and blocking public engagement. In an 5/31 email to the Town Council that is publicly available on the town’s email archive, CHALT’s co-founder Julie McClintock claimed, without supporting evidence, that “while one person wrote the petition, a total of five signed it and therefore must have engaged in detailed deliberations before signing.”

A violation of state open meeting laws requires five or more Councilmembers discussing a public matter (in this case, the petition) outside of an “official meeting” (as defined by Article Chapter 143 – Article 33C “Meetings of Public Bodies”). We (TBB contributors) believe this is an extremely serious accusation that should not be made lightly, especially without any evidence supporting the claim. On the contrary, when asked, several council members confirmed that Councilmember Parker authored the petition and reached out to other council members INDIVIDUALLY for feedback and suggestions which is both appropriate and legal under state law.

Councilmember Parker circulated the petition after making revisions with fellow council members which is all part of a normal and approved process. In fact, Council recently approved an updated process for submitting and reporting on Petition/Resolution/Proclamation Requests by Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council on April 6, 2022.

The policy clearly outlines the purpose of Council petitions and the process Council and staff must follow. Councilmember Parker’s petition is well within the requirements of the updated process.

Councilmember Parker’s petition is also not an anomaly or living in the shady boundaries of public process, as has been suggested in the CHALT blog post. Numerous examples of petitions submitted by council members are available including:

CHALT’s blog post notes that, “There are UNC experts right here in our community who can advise Council members and advisory board members about what is required of a public official and how to comply with ethical guidelines and the NC open meetings laws. Chapel Hill is a community that should strive to more than fulfill its legal obligations of transparency to its residents.”

Public records show that Ms. McClintock consulted via email on 5/31 with Frayda S. Blustein, the David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s highly regarded School of Government to validate the petition process. Professor Blustein’s email response was forwarded to council by Ms. McClintock indicating the petitioning is a legitimate practice and no open meeting laws were violated stating “If I understand the situation, one person prepared a petition, and others separately signed it.”

Takeaway: CHALT’s blog post accuses Council members of violating open meeting laws (without supporting facts) but the available evidence, including evidence sent to Council by Ms. McClintock, confirms that the process was well within the law and has precedent in Council.

The claims of malfeasance

The anonymous author of the June 5th CHALT blog post states that the Council’s response to Councilmember Parker’s petition was “a surprising turn of events” making Town staff “complicit in failing to follow due process.”

It is also important to consider that NO decisions have been made as a result of Councilmember Parker’s petition. Per the approved process, Council received the presentation at the 5/18 meeting and received a presentation from Town staff on the petition at the June 1 work meeting.

Relative to the matters included in the petition, Council has not:

  • Reviewed, considered or discussed any plans
  • Voted or adopted plans
  • Sold any land
  • Spent any public funding
  • Opened a public hearing

A majority of Council has:

  • Requested via an approved petition process that Town staff, as part of their day-to-day responsibilities, analyze conceptual scenarios for the American Legion site that could meet multiple community needs.

While CHALT’s blog post claims, “It is highly unusual that a Council majority would petition itself, and then that the Town staff would undertake to work behind the scenes on materializing Parker’s plan,” the evidence shows that it is, in fact, quite normal with standard procedures and precedents.

Information provided by staff informs Council’s decision-making processes. And one of the Town Manager’s primary roles is directing Town staff based on community needs and priorities. The adopted petition process extends the opportunity to give direction to staff on specific matters and priorities to council members (if requested by a majority of Council).

Takeaway: The accusatory statements in CHALT’s blog post reflect either a lack of understanding of the (clearly defined and approved) petition function and process or a deliberate distortion of information intended to mislead the public.

The Public Process

CHALT’s blog post suggests the public process was undercut by community members “not [being] permitted to speak” at the June 1, 2022 meeting. Several TBB contributors would have liked an opportunity to comment as well but council work sessions (like the June 1, 2022 meeting) only occasionally provide opportunity for public comment, primarily if time remains at the end of a meeting (which are intended to last 2-2.5 hours). This ensures our Council members can work through all the items on their agenda (and get some sleep). The June 1st meeting was well over three hours long when council wrapped up their discussion on the staff report and decided to not accommodate public comment.

Additionally, and as noted in Point 3 above, the Council was not taking action at the last meeting. They were only receiving information from staff in response to Councilmember Parker’s petition. Town Council meetings (held on weeks when there aren’t work sessions) feature multiple opportunities for public comments, for both agenda items and issues not on the agenda. There are also many ways to provide your feedback to the Town Council outside of regularly scheduled meetings including the Mayor and Council’s email where they can be reached anytime. As council members noted at the June 1 meeting, they received dozens of comments in advance of the meeting. Our council members and mayor are also extremely accessible by phone or in person if you want to connect with them in person.

Takeaway: The CHALT blog post takes issue with the fact that public comments were not accommodated even though council members got to discuss the petition and staff report for 90 minutes during…a council work session. Based on council member’s comments (“my inbox is full,” etc.) we are relatively certain they are well-aware of the community’s various positions on the future of the American Legion site.

The Petition (intent)

Councilmember Parker’s petition directs the Town Manager to launch a planning and public engagement process to consider future uses of the American Legion property, ensuring that the plan developed meets the needs and wishes of the community (see Points 1, 2, and 3 above). Consistent with the intent of the land purchase in 2016, the petition specifically asks staff to explore or consider a plan or plans for:

  • Developing a reasonable portion of the site for missing middle housing or retail/office space
  • Using a portion of the site for affordable housing, possibly for those with developmental or other disabilities
  • Using the sale proceeds and subsequent annual tax revenue resulting from bullet 1 to help create and maintain “a first-class park” on the remainder of the land

CHALT’s anonymous blog post claims that the petition asked the Town Manager “to take specific actions that would:

  1. sell up to 9 acres of the Legion property for commercial uses, and
  2. reserve at least 4.5 acres for affordable housing.”

Councilmember Parker’s final request to explore a plan to turn “the remainder of the land into a first-class park” is notably absent from CHALT’s post.

If you read Councilmember Parker’s petition, you will see that the petition does not recommend or imply a specific number of acres to be sold or reserved for commercial uses or affordable housing.

Most importantly, though, the petition does not ask the Town Manager to take any action except initiating a planning process with the express intent of providing the community an opportunity to participate in determining the disposition of the American Legion site. Specifically, the petition asks the Town Manager to “bring forth a preliminary version of such a plan in the fall of this year (2022) so that a public engagement process can be initiated to ensure that the plan developed meets the needs and wishes of Town residents.”

We should note that the “plan” referenced here is the process plan for developing a conceptual plan and facilitating an engagement process, not a plan for the final disposition of the property. We hope this helps clarify this point.

A final note is that, despite the property being purchased in 2016, some council members feel the petition’s timeline (creating a work plan by Fall 2022) is too fast. You can draw your own conclusions on the pace of progress.

Takeaway: CHALT’s blog post (either unintentionally or willfully) misrepresents the content and intent of the petition submitted by Councilmember Parker. We’ve provided clarification based on the language in the petition.

The Misrepresentation

The post spends a considerable amount of time dissecting the comments of council members Camille Berry and Paris Miller-Foushee. Unfortunately, CHALT uses this discussion to pit council members Berry and Foushee against the public by stating they were “particularly sharp in their condemnation of public feedback with which they disagreed.” If you watched the meeting like we did (if you missed it, the recording is available here) you’ll know that this comment is taken out of context. We won’t speculate why.

What actually happened during the meeting is that Councilmember Miller-Foushee responded to a comment made by Councilmember Jess Anderson who suggested the petition’s timeline was “political.”  Here’s Councilmember Miller-Foushee’s direct response to Councilmember Anderson (NOT the public) in full:

 “This petition is a direct reflection and an iteration of the original resolution. My signing on to this petition is not a political move. I’m putting folks on notice to not ever frame my service or leadership or the decisions I make as a political move.”

The CHALT post goes on to scold Councilmembers Berry, Miller-Foushee, and Tai Huynh for “refus[ing] invitations to visit the property they have formed such strong opinions about.” The not-so-subtle undertones in this rebuke suggest that these specifically-named council members don’t understand or appreciate something that the other councilmembers or CHALT members understand and appreciate. We don’t know, and will not speculate, why these three members are specifically called out. The only way the author could claim with certainty that these three refused invitations is if the author were the one who invited them. But, if the sense of disdain in the blog post is any indication of the way these council members are treated, it’s not hard to imagine why they might have declined the offer. We have confirmed with council that all council members have visited the American Legion site.

Takeaway: CHALT’s blog post misrepresents an exchange between council members and reframes it as council members “criticiz[ing] the public.” The author also makes unsupported (and somewhat spurious) claims about certain council members failing to tour and/or appreciate the property.

The park that’s not a park

TBB has already written on the importance of language and the ability of words to influence outcomes. CHALT’s blog post misrepresents comments made by Councilmember Berry who suggested we not call the property a park (presumably because it’s not a park). Councilmember Berry’s experience running Durham Central Park adequately qualifies her to make a determination about what is – or is not – a park.

And while her priority is housing, Councilmember Berry’s park management experience will certainly benefit the American Legion process. She also pointed to Durham Central Park as an example of small park success. While DCP is only 5 acres it is wildly successful and extremely popular. Lastly, Councilmember Berry asked her colleagues to use “more than fear” when considering possibilities for the property and noted that the council has a track record of slow decision making.

While it is true that town parks and recreation bond funds were used (funding just over half the purchase price of the property), there was never an expectation that the entire American Legion site would be used as a park. CHALT’s post is at odds with the Town Council’s resolution approving the purchase of the property in several critical respects. The resolution explicitly states that:

  • The acquisition of the Legion property will provide the opportunity for the Town to consider opportunities for potential different uses for parts of the property which will provide benefit to the Town and its residents
  • The Council affirms its intent that the American Legion property be used for a mix of purposes, both public and private, consistent with the guiding principles approved by the Council in June, 2016
  • Council expects the Town will recoup a portion of the purchase price by making some portions of the American Legion property available for private development.
  • The Council directs the Town Manager to initiate the steps, as outlined in the report to the Council, as soon as practicable to begin a planning process to consider potential future uses of the American Legion property. 

Notably, the one thing we DON’T find in the resolution is the word park.

Takeaway: Councilmember Parker’s petition is entirely consistent with both the letter and spirit of the 2016 resolution and with the expectations of community members when the resolution was passed, including CHALT members who provided comments that are part of the public record supporting commercial uses on parts of the site. (See: 12/4/16 Letter, Rudy Juliano; 2/28/16 Letter, Julie McClintock)

The “False Equivalencies”

CHALT’s blog post author attempts to justify their position by claiming that residents who support Councilmember Parker’s petition (i.e., using the property for a mix of uses, as stated in the resolution) are unfairly pitting housing (affordable or otherwise) against open space – in their words “false equivalencies.” There are several problems with this framing (in addition to this not being a situation of false equivalence). We will attempt to respond to the questions and concerns, as posed in the post.

CHALT: Is it fair to say that anyone hoping this particular tract will be preserved for its original intent are against affordable housing?

TBB: The “original intent” of the tract is a mix of uses. There is no evidence that “anyone” has been labeled as anti-affordable housing.

CHALT: Is it misleading to refer to it as a park considering that the property was acquired for that purpose?

TBB: Yes. It’s not a park and that’s not why the property was acquired.

CHALT: Is it good stewardship to sell off public land, our most valuable and limited asset, for private profit and little in return?

TBB: Maybe? But we certainly won’t know until there’s a plan. Which is what the petition is asking for.

CHALT: Does it even accomplish the stated goal of easing our affordable housing crisis?

TBB: Who’s stated goal is this? The petition asks staff to explore opportunities for affordable housing, “possibly for those with developmental or other disabilities.” It certainly doesn’t help the affordable housing crisis if we refuse to even consider the possibility of housing on the site. Especially in a location close to high-frequency transit service and a range of goods and services.

CHALT: Why is it that our Council will not require large new developments to provide adequate affordable housing, but it’s the public’s desire for recreational space that is anti-housing?

TBB: Chapel Hill has had an Inclusionary Zoning requirement since 2011. This requires development applications with five or more units to provide 15% (10% in Town Center) of the units at prices affordable to low- to moderate-income households. However, the ordinance only applies to “for sale” residential units and does not apply to rental developments. In North Carolina, this is the extent of a Town Council’s ability to require affordable housing from a developer.

CHALT: Access to public parks is a well-known equity issue with far-reaching implications for climate resilience and residents’ physical, social, and psychological well-being.

TBB: We agree. In terms of equity, however, we would argue that providing safe affordable housing needs to be prioritized over park space. We also note that the Legion space borders the existing Ephesus Park and Ephesus Elementary School, which collectively houses tennis courts, pickleball courts, trails, a playground, baseball fields, and free space — and is available for all to use.

CHALT: Despite urgent warning from the Town’s own urban planning consultant in November that the Council must change course, we are poised to do more of the same.

TBB: The consultant’s findings continue to be taken out of context. The primary finding was that Chapel Hill has an extreme shortage of housing units driven by years of delay, debate, and hankie twisting. His main advice is BUILD MORE HOUSING.

Takeaway: Answering these questions only highlights the illogical foundation of the arguments being made.

It is unfortunate that some members of the community have a pattern of attacking elected officials and Town staff when they take different courses of action. This unfortunate pattern is occurring more frequently — we saw it during the last election cycle, when lawn signs accused Karen Stegman of not consistently fighting for the best interests of our community. We also saw it during the debate over the Greene Tract, when false information circulated.

Conclusion

The Mayor and Town Council members in Chapel Hill are entrusted with making the many decisions — large and small — that go into moving our town forward and making it a welcoming place for all. One of the key factors used by these elected leaders in making these decisions is input from residents. Unfortunately when CHALT repeatedly misuses its platform to obscure, misinform, and stoke fear, the input that the council receives from residents is often distorted and misguided, thus making it demonstrably more difficult for the council to make the kinds and quality of decisions our community depends on. It is to be hoped that in the future CHALT will choose to inform rather than inflame, thereby making Chapel Hill a better place for all.

Update – June 16, 2022

Since the publication of our piece, CHALT has updated their piece. Updates include multiple changes in text and the addition of a byline. You can see how the page looked before and after the changes were made here.