Buried deep within the agenda for the Parks, Greenway and Recreation Commission meeting on September 19, 2023 is a nugget that should make everyone in Chapel Hill who loves parks and greenways super happy:

A Request for Qualifications (RFQ) has been drafted to find an architecture, engineering and landscape architect firm to update the 2013 Master Plans for Parks and Greenways. The RFQ will be advertised this month and posted on the Town’s webpage for 30 days. The award is expected to occur in November.

Why a Master Plan for Parks and Greenways is so great

Mayor Pam recently mentioned the master plan in her excellent analysis of parks funding, but we’ll repeat: A Master Plan for Parks and Greenways spells out a vision for priority areas for parks and recreation. That’s useful for planning, budgets, operations, and communication. It allows better long-term planning, based on current needs.

But its main benefit is that it opens the door for a ton of additional funding that can be used for parks and rec projects. Having a master plan allows the town to evaluate future bonds and to take advantage of NCDOT funding to include greenways alongside road projects. It also makes the town better suited to obtain grants from the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF), which adds points to applications from towns with a recent master plan for a park or greenway system.

In other words, the master plan makes it more likely that projects can get funding.

The current Chapel Hill Town Council expanded funding for parks projects last June. In their most recent budget, they voted for the Penny for Parks (with the exception of Adam Searing) to add almost a million dollars of funding/year towards capital improvement projects.

They also

  • Championed the splash pad (very quickly) and created a feasibility study for the splash pad’s location, a necessary step before funding can be obtained for the project.
  • Set aside funding for an accessible playground. The plan is to make Community Center Park completely accessible, and add accessible playground equipment to other parks. (In other words, Community Center Park is getting a complete refresh because the playground is a little outdated.)
  • Prioritized the Parks and Rec Commission’s 2022 list of prioritized projects for the ARPA grants. Every project on the list was funded or moved along in some way – in some cases, feasibility studies that are required before additional funding can be obtained. In others (LED lights), they’re working on it piecemeal.

In April 2023, the Parks and Rec commission sent over a new list of prioritized projects for the upcoming fiscal year. Three of the 5 have already been done. The list includes funding a parks comprehensive master plan (done), increased pay-go funding (done, through Pennies for Parks), greenway planning (done – the town received a $1 million grant), the splashpad, and the Cedar Fall Park Tennis Court, which already has been designed and has roughly $900,000 currently set aside for it. Due to increased construction costs, the costs have gone up – so additional funding to bridge that gap is now needed. With a new parks master plan, it will be easiest to apply for grant funding to make up the shortfall.

Towns are made up of many parts

Like every town department, the parks and rec department has a wishlist. Some of the items are deferred maintenance, some are predictable renovations, and others are aspirational wants. (For example, both Cedar Falls Park tennis courts and Hargraves Park Tennis courts were identified as needing to be resurfaced; the Hargraves Tennis courts were added to this year’s budget and a contract was awarded.)

It would be great if the town could fund every project on every single department’s wishlist each year. But that would be impossible – which is why departments and advisory boards prioritize projects and the town goes through months of budgeting workshops and assessing priorities. Council gives some funding to parks, some to housing, some to transportation, some to the library. It wouldn’t be right – or feasible – to give everything to parks, and nothing to other services. That’s not how a town with many moving pieces works.

Pitting parks against housing or transportation or the library or any of the many other services that our town needs isn’t the way. Asheville recently passed two bonds simultaneously that will support parks and affordable housing – the $70 million in bonds will cost typical households $32 dollars a year for 20 years. We love that approach – building greenways and parks, while also increasing the number of housing units for people of low to moderate income in Buncombe County, means that it’s feasible (and not overly expensive) to do both.

We see candidates running in Chapel Hill focused solely on parks – but a town needs to balance a lot of things: housing, transportation, libraries, fire departments, police, maintenance, AND parks. And balancing and prioritizing these many needs, is the hard work of governing.

Melody Kramer contributed to this post.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

John Rees lives in Chapel Hill. His day job is an enterprise architect for a big IT company. He was, until very recently, a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and former chair. He serves on...