We have updated this post with a comment from Council Member Amy Ryan.

The February 15 town council meeting was so sparsely attended—even the Mayor and the Mayor Pro Tem were absent—that council members joked about it several times. While it was a council meeting, the tone was more like a work session, with the council receiving updates on town planning efforts and the budget.

But despite the meeting’s fast pace and low-key tone, Chapel Hill Town Council members discussed some really important issues, revealing the degree to which they’ve been thinking about how our town works—and doesn’t work. Let’s hit some of what we learned:

?Budget preparations are underway in Chapel Hill

Matt Brinkey, the Assistant Director of Business Management, presented an initial read-out of the FY23-24 town operating and capital budgets. He talked about when various budgets will be presented to council and committees, and how public input will be received. The town has set up a web page for the budget development process. Next up: A council work session on March 15 (although it looks like there may be one on March 1 as well, stay tuned).

?The 1-800-VISIT-NC number is staffed by the women’s prison in Raleigh.

Laurie Paolicelli of the Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitor’s Bureau gave an update on visitors. Most people visiting Chapel Hill are from other parts of NC and Virginia. Demand for hotels is increasing again, after a slump.

We didn’t know this…but if you call 1-800-VISIT-NC to ask questions about visiting Chapel Hill, you’re reaching a prisoner at the women’s prison in Raleigh. The prisoners make $1/hour. (We appreciate Council Member Berry asking that question; we find this to be another reminder of how anti-labor NC is.)

? Hooray! The town is considering adopting 100-year standards for stormwater controls

Many in town have been pushing for this for a while, and it’s great that the town is considering it. The idea is that climate change will impact stormwater, and the town will work on a number of items, including clarifying and updating stormwater management requirements and utilizing greenways/TOD corridors, to make the town more resilient.

? Streamlining Advisory Board input (Hooray!)

Last summer, we talked about the development review process — which takes a really long time. As Stephen Whitlow recently noted, the costs of the development process are substantial, and are paid for by scrimping on design and building materials and charging more in rents.

Part of the reason the review process takes so long is that over the past 30 years, we’ve substantially increased the number of advisory boards that review projects (and the times that advisory boards review those projects.)

These boards, by design, have different priorities. Developers will make changes to a project after input from the advisory boards, but when they get to Council they’ll learn that the advisory board members and the Council disagree, and only the Council’s vote matters. Should the developer build more bike racks or change the shape of the windows? It’s never really been clear what should be prioritized as more and more boards offer input over longer periods of time.

Over the past year, the council has been looking at how to deliver better outcomes and ensure that boards and commissions are appropriately used. Each board has a staff liaison and they take up a lot of staff time. The demographics of the boards aren’t representative of the town. It’s been really hard to recruit for boards, which are very time-intensive. And they’ve increased in number over the years.

Take, for example, what happened with our lone Dunkin’ (Donuts). They want to add a drive-through to their store on Franklin Street. We watched as the owner presented his pretty straight-forward plan to (at our last count) three advisory boards. One of them recommended he use native plants around the Dunkin – that seems fine – but not really something that we need an entire advisory board (and staff member) to do.

Even though two council members were absent from the meeting, including the Mayor, it was obvious that there was disagreement among the council on this decision, with some council members celebrating the move (“I’m in full support of this,” said Tai Huynh) while others were clearly not happy. (“I was stunned to see this come forward this way, and very, very upset,” said Amy Ryan). (Amy Ryan reached out to us after this blog post was posted. She wrote “As you correctly reported, I’m deeply bothered by what happened Wednesday, but I want to make it clear I support reorganization. What I oppose is (1) staff implementing this policy by fiat and (2) making drastic changes to board responsibilities before we’ve figured out their new roles in the streamlined project review system that’s currently being developed.”) 

Last spring, two affordable housing projects went through an expedited review process. It went well. The plan now is to have all new conditional zoning applications go through a detailed technical review by town staff – who have expertise in all of these areas – and then the Community Design Commission (which most towns call the Appearance Commission) in the concept plan phase and the Planning Commission during the conditional zoning application. Other advisory boards will still be able to provide input on developments, and, of course, public comment will continue to be taken at the public meetings.

We agree that our advisory boards can offer useful advice and recommendations to the town. To give one example, we appreciated the Planning Commission’s recent proposal on parking reform in Chapel Hill, which they’ll discuss next week.

A Planning Commission subcommittee has produced a well-researched and focused memo on how the council might change its approach to parking requirements in the future — something that’s important but not necessarily on the council’s radar (and town staff may not have time to work on).

We’d love to see more work like that in the future from our advisory boards, as well as efforts to help publicize the need for affordable housing, environmental protection, better design, and other reforms — all things that speak to why people get involved in advisory boards in the first place.

That’s better than discussing, at length, how many native trees the Dunkin’ owner is going to plant next to where you get your coffee so you can stay up and watch these discussions.

?We got an update on the land use management ordinance (LUMO) audit and rewrite

Next up: a roadmap on March 22 and a final report in April.

This piece was written by Martin Johnson, Geoff Green, and Melody Kramer.

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