Jon Mitchell is running for Town Council in Chapel Hill.
Mitchell is a lawyer specializing in financial regulation, and a part-time stay-at-home dad. He has served as Chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission since 2022.
On his website, Mitchell lists some of Chapel Hill’s biggest challenges, including affordability, sustainability, livability, and lack of execution. He writes, “Growth and development are the central issues facing voters in this election. The question is, how do we align Chapel Hill’s growth with the values of our community? Livability, sustainability, and affordability are important. Actionable plans based on those values are even better.”
We interviewed Mitchell about his platform and his decision to run for Town Council.
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What are your focus areas for the council race?
My priorities are affordability, sustainability, and livability. The Town has a new development framework that’s based entirely on these ideas. Most Chapel Hill residents haven’t heard about it. I’m not even sure all the candidates know about it (some do). I’m running to make sure we do all the detailed work that will determine success or failure at implementing it.
The framework basically says, look, we had good intentions but made some mistakes in how we were coordinating growth around Town. We could have grown at the same rate or faster, but in a better designed, less car-centric way. And that would have benefited basically everybody, from those who struggle to afford the cost to live here, to people who want to see the Town become more livable in other ways.
So going forward, we’re going to be more intentional about how we grow. The emphasis is going to be on adding diverse housing options in the form of mixed use, walkable neighborhoods. Think about the best aspects of Southern Village, or Meadowmont. We’re going to incorporate those in all our new development. And we’re going to connect the entire Town with a first class network of greenways and linear parks. That means replicating the Bolin Creek Greenway all over Town, until people of all ages can safely bike or walk most everywhere they want to go, instead of adding car traffic. That’s not all we’re going to do, but that’s the foundation.
The catch is that this is harder to orchestrate than what we were doing before. It takes a lot more than approving rezoning applications. We need to be proactive, not reactive, toward developers. That begins with clearly stating our priorities and expectations, so that developers can adapt to the community goals of Chapel Hill, rather than devoting all our energy to negotiating small changes to already-designed projects. We also need to find ways to build infrastructure like greenways more efficiently.
Like many candidates, current council members, and residents of Chapel Hill, I value diversity, livability, and sustainability. The difference is that I am focused in my campaign, and will be focused as a council member, on the nitty-gritty of executing the plan we agreed on, based on those values and priorities.
What are three things that you believe the town could be doing better?
First, we need to get more organized about plan implementation. The last update to the Town’s Complete Community website was December 2022. We’ve made progress on many fronts, but where is the end-to-end plan? What timelines and metrics are we holding ourselves to? Here’s an illustrative example: When I started as chair of the Planning Commission, I couldn’t find data on our pace of new housing approvals over the previous three years. I asked the Planning Staff. They compiled an excellent spreadsheet with exactly the information I wanted. I shared it with some Councilmembers, who found the information surprising (and very encouraging). The information had not previously been tracked or reported. Having this information is a necessary first step toward making informed decisions about how to proceed. This is the type of detail-oriented approach I bring to this work.
Second, we need to make sure we have enough staff and that we’re using their time efficiently. Due to staffing shortages, we’ve had long delays in deploying federal funding that we’ve already obtained for specific greenway projects. This particular issue is being addressed, but it illustrates what happens when we stretch ourselves thin.
Third, we can improve, and are improving, our long-term budgeting process. We have substantial funding backlogs for things like police vehicles, fire trucks, parks maintenance, and office space for municipal services. This is making it difficult to deliver on key parts of our vision that require capital projects, like parks and greenways. To its credit, the current Council has taken steps to address this.
What are the things you think the town currently is doing right?
First, our four-year rolling average rate of granting new housing entitlements (i.e., approving new units) is currently exceeding our target of 485 units/year by about 50 percent. (To be sure, the target is for units built, not just entitled, but we’re getting there.) We are also approving designated affordable units at unusually high rates – punching well above our weight class. I don’t think this is widely known. We should keep it up.
Second, we are beginning to get serious about greenways and linear parks. Several important sections are either being built or about to be. More importantly, the federal government recently awarded us a $1 million grant for initial design and feasibility analysis for 25 miles of new greenways. I can’t tell you what that means in terms of the likelihood of obtaining construction funding, or the potential timing of that, because I don’t know yet. But that’s about how many miles we need to hit “critical mass,” and I’m encouraged it’s being discussed seriously.
Third, we’re finding creative ways to attract businesses, such as the forthcoming downtown innovation district. Successful execution of the Complete Community strategy will reinforce these efforts. Communities that are attractive to the workforce also tend to attract employers. These things work together to keep our Town — including our downtown — vital, lively, and a source of innovation and progress.
How has your experience on the Chapel Hill Planning Board informed your decision to run?
My decision to run is largely driven by my experience on the Planning Commission. We have a capable, collaborative group, and we’ve been working on a lot of tough problems. I certainly feel well prepared. I’ve been on the Planning Commission for two years and have been chair for the last year, since June 2022. I closely followed the Complete Community initiative from start to finish and was one of the “community leaders” that provided input along the way. I understand the framework inside and out.
In much of my work on the Planning Commission, I’ve been dismayed to find our board’s role, and that of the Council, reactive rather than proactive. This is not the fault of any individual; it’s due to our standards and processes. With the new Complete Community framework, we have an opportunity to shift toward a proactive approach.
During the past year, the Planning Commission’s development review process has become noticeably less impressionistic and more methodical and objective. This is partly due to the Complete Community matrix that I devised and that we now use to evaluate development applications. It’s been very well received by the Council and has resulted in demonstrably better projects. I also did the heavy lifting on our recent parking policy recommendations. (Here I also want to acknowledge my fellow candidate and TBB contributor Theodore Nollert’s key role in pushing this over the finish line.) I would like to bring this kind of constructive problem solving spirit to the Council.
We know that feedback the Council receives does not reflect Chapel Hill’s population. How will you ensure your decision making process takes into account the perspectives of people who may not have the time or resources to attend council meetings?
The Town recently conducted an engagement study that demonstrates the premise of this question, i.e., that certain populations are under-engaged by the Town, due to specific barriers related to trust and accountability, communication, and inclusivity. The study contains 15 recommendations. We should implement them.
I listen closely to public comments and sometimes learn new things. But I always weigh those against unspoken comments that I learn about through other avenues, especially my own reading and outreach to different groups. One thing I’ve enjoyed about campaigning is the chance to connect with a broad cross-section of the community and make contacts that I can call on later for perspective. I am committed to meeting residents on their terms and outside of official meetings, as they wish.
UNC produces thousands of talented graduates each year, most of whom move away for a variety of reasons. Should Chapel Hill and Carrboro make more of an effort to keep homegrown talent here? If so, how?
The Complete Community framework will make the Town more attractive to recent graduates and other young professionals by:
- Providing more housing options beyond detached single-family houses, which, at median prices near half a million dollars, recent graduates can’t plausibly afford;
- Creating mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, which many young people (and older people!) prefer;
- Providing transportation alternatives that many young people prefer, in part because the existence of these alternatives significantly lowers the overall cost of living here.
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