This is great news, as it aligns with national guidance provided by the Sierra Club!

The BlogBlog caught wind of a brouhaha at the latest meeting of the Orange-Chatham chapter of the North Carolina Sierra Club. We did some digging and were able to obtain leaked drafts of letters of support from the chapter’s executive committee: one to the Town of Carrboro in support of construction of the Bolin Creek Greenway and one to the Town of Chapel Hill in support of the Housing Choices proposal (which addresses missing middle housing).

While the letters are drafts, this is great news, and we look forward to seeing final versions soon. Triangle Blog Blog hopes the Sierra Club Orange County Executive Committee will follow national guidance and vote to support the greenway and missing middle housing!

Here are the highlights

What is the Sierra Club?

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest and most respected environmental conservation and preservation organizations in the world. The nonprofit organization was co-founded by John Muir and boasts 750,000 members, which includes quite a few us who write for the BlogBlog. Their mission is:

  • To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth;
  • To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources;
  • To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.

The North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club is 50 years old and is currently focused on mitigating climate change and pollution, protecting and ensuring access for all to public lands, and promoting equity, justice, and inclusion for BIPOC and other North Carolinians that have experienced environmental injustices.

The national Sierra Club has campaigns and policies to assist in members’ environmental advocacy.  The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has, for example, been suing UNC over their coal-burning power plant.  The Sierra Club Smart Growth and Urban Infill Guidance is a guide for activists at all levels of the Sierra Club in implementing their national Urban Infill Policy. Infill and smart growth, as the Sierra Club has defined it, is an antidote to the environmental, social and economic costs of sprawl.

It’s a pretty rad group and we encourage you to join and support them.

What is in the draft letter from the Orange County Executive Committee’s letter supporting the Bolin Creek Greenway?

According to the draft letter, the greenway is consistent with the Sierra Club’s Urban Infill Policy, which states that the “Sierra Club’s mission in combination with growing threats to our environment require a renewed emphasis on cities and towns where people can live, work, and thrive while protecting and restoring our natural environment and fighting the causes and impacts of climate change.”

Furthermore, the policy calls for “Transit, bike, and pedestrian first approaches to transportation,” among other strategies.

Additional Sierra Club guidance notes that “to fix the rising rates of emissions from transportation we have to change both the physical layout of our communities and transportation infrastructure” and emphasizes the importance of active transportation choices, including “walking, bicycling, and/or rolling, including wheelchairs, walkers, baby strollers, skateboards, scooters.”

And it recommends “Constructing connected network of multiuse trails,” and “providing safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian connections” to public parks, recreation areas, and schools.

Is this a match made in heaven, or what?!

The Bolin Creek Greenway is a fantastic opportunity AND it reflects many of the Sierra Club’s values: connected, accessible, and practicing and promoting the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources.

The Sierra Club letter recognizes these benefits: “They include greater access to nature, to jobs, and to downtown amenities for young people, other folks without access to cars, folks in wheelchairs, and older people who may not drive. People who use active transportation are also healthier, both physically and mentally. While there is no one solution to climate change and community health and sustainability, it is clear that getting our citizens out of cars, as much as possible, is critical.”

What is in the draft letter from the Orange County Executive Committee’s letter supporting missing middle housing?

Missing middle housing include all the housing types between single-family homes and big multi-family apartments like duplexes, triplexes, and cottage apartments.

We call it “missing middle” because it has not been legal to build in most cities for many decades. Chapel Hill is proposing modest changes that would enable these housing types to again be built.

According to the draft letter we obtained, the Sierra Club recognizes the importance of middle housing to its Urban Infill Policy, which is anti-sprawl and aims to mitigate climate risks and reduce auto-dependency.

As the letter puts it, “For a more vibrant, resilient and equitable Chapel Hill, we support the proposed changes to the [land use management ordinance], changing the single-family ONLY zoning to be able to include gentle density – a return to historic housing patterns.”

They add: “As Sierra Club members, we want to, and work to, protect the environment, the climate, trees, green space and natural habitats. We also recognize that the best way to accomplish these things now is to prevent more sprawl. We hope that you will pass the proposed changes to the LUMO, allow gentle densification of Chapel Hill, and help to preserve the natural lands that we have remaining.”

Who else supports missing middle housing?

In January, the Chapel Hill Carrboro Chamber Of Commerce sent a letter to the Chapel Hill Town Council offering its strong support for missing middle housing. In their letter, they noted the following:

As you know, attracting and retaining workers is a real challenge for local employers, made more difficult by a shortage of diverse local housing options, especially in the ‘missing middle.’

Workers today, including firefighters, teachers, and nurses, want to live and work in their community. Measures that diversify available housing types and increase housing supply make it easier for employers to recruit and retain talent, which in turn makes our employers more competitive, our community more diverse, and our economy more vibrant and sustainable.

Chapel Hill has a long way to go to properly address the housing gaps that were created over the last several decades, but these text amendments are important early steps towards creating a more complete and inclusive community.

What about national organizations?

At a national level, the biggest supporter of missing middle housing is the AARP, which has created terrific online resources on how new housing types will benefit older Americans, people with disabilities, and everyone else who needs diverse housing choices. They support missing middle housing because it allows people to stay in their communities even as their needs change. Instead of having to move to a nursing home after climbing stairs becomes impossible, families can add an apartment to their home, or move into a single-floor townhouse down the street.

Just this month, AARP release a new guide entitled Re-Legalizing Missing Middle Housing: A Model Act and Guide to Statewide Legislaton. This new resource provides guidance to state government that want to make it legal to build missing middle housing types in communities throughout the state. Many states are considering this approach instead of relying on each local government to update its zoning regulations.

What can you do?

A quick email to Council Members goes a long way.

Simply tell the Carrboro Town Council that you stand with the Sierra Club in support of constructing the Bolin Creek greenway. Email them at: [email protected]

And tell the Chapel Hill Town Council that you stand with the Sierra Club in support of the Housing Choices proposal. Email them at: [email protected]

That’s it!

Melody Kramer, Martin Johnson, and Geoff Green helped with this post.

Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...