We are beginning a new series to consider policy questions that will be addressed by the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Town Councils in the next two years. As we always do at Triangle Blog Blog, we will offer our opinions, but we’ll also point you to primary source documents so you can make your own judgment.

What is a comprehensive plan?

Comprehensive plans are what they sound like—a plan for a community’s future that considers everything, from the environment to transportation to infrastructure to the economy. The best comprehensive plans combine “big picture” idealism with an instruction manual for how to achieve a community’s goals.

While communities use comprehensive plans for many things, they’re particularly useful when it comes to making decisions about how and where a community’s land changes. How many parks should a community have, and where should they be located? Where do we want new housing to be built, and how should its residents get around? How do we address concerns that our community will become unaffordable as demand to live here rises? How do we ensure that our community has a strong local economy?

These are challenging questions to answer, in part because we have to make difficult tradeoffs.

  • Should we require every house to be a single-family home and have a large footprint?
  • Or do we allow for a variety of housing types to accommodate people at every stage of their lifespan, from seniors who would like to downsize and remain in their community to young families who may not be able to afford a large single family home?
  • Is it better for the environment if we limit the number of people who can live in Carrboro, with the result that many of the people who work in town or UNC commute from Alamance and Chatham Counties?
  • Or do we allow our community to grow in ways that allow more people who work in town or at UNC to commute via bus, bike, and foot?
  • Do we want our tax base to be mostly big-box retailers located at the edge of town and keep our neighborhoods exclusively residential?
  •  Or do we allow for small businesses to operate in neighborhoods, creating places where people can more easily walk to get a haircut or grab a coffee?

When a community makes a comprehensive plan, they consider these tradeoffs in the abstract, which makes it easier for them to make choices when it comes to making decisions about specific new developments, as well as investments in parks, greenways, and infrastructure.

How did Carrboro create their comprehensive plan?

With the creativity and commitment you would expect from Carrboro. After years of planning, the comprehensive plan community engagement process was scheduled to start in 2020. But despite “a global pandemic, racial equity injustices, and a climate emergency,”  town staff and dozens of volunteers were able to engage thousands of Carrboro residents, including Spanish speakers, from across the community to create an “ambitious and bold” plan. Initially, virtual workshops were used to solicit feedback when in-person meetings were not possible. As people became more comfortable gathering in person, outdoor sessions were added.

Over 1,600 residents from across Carrboro engaged in the comprehensive plan process. The Carrboro Connects Task Force, the committee formed by the town to oversee the formation of the plan,  was chaired by Catherine Fray, who also chaired the Planning Board, and is now running for Town Council. The process was co-chaired by three other longstanding civic activists in Carrboro—Quinton Harper, chair of the Affordable Housing Commission in Carrboro; David Jessee, who runs a furniture company and is active in the Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro; and Tim Turner, chair of the environmental advisory board in Carrboro. The plan, which won several awards for community engagement, was adopted by the Carrboro Town Council on June 7, 2022. It was notable for the ways it reached and received input from many communities across Carrboro. The plan was communicated in a myriad of ways—including on paper, at community meetings, in Burmese and Spanish, and with flashing signs across Carrboro.

What are the goals for the comprehensive plan?

In the first chapter of the 229-page document, the comprehensive plan defines  two foundational themes for the plan—“race and equity,” and “climate action.”

From there, the plan sets a series of ambitious goals for Carrboro, including:

  • Achieve 80 percent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as compared to 2010 levels.
  • Increase the number of permanently affordable for-sale and rental housing, and “[d]iversify and expand a variety of housing options throughout Carrboro using a mixture of affordable housing types.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicle use by 80% by 2030
  • Promote economic development that is resilient, promotes excellence in design, reinforces a sense of place, expands commercial development opportunities, promotes infill development and reduces the tax burden on residents.
  • Ensure all people in Carrboro have safe, equitable, and connected access to parks, open space, and recreational facilities.
  • Promote land use planning and development that reduces GHG emissions through reducing auto-dependence.

What does Carrboro have to do to implement its Comprehensive Plan?

You can think of a comprehensive plan like a vision and a town’s land use ordinance like the concrete steps to fulfill that vision. Now that Carrboro has a robust, community-oriented plan, their next step is to modify their land use so that they can fulfill the ambitious climate and racial justice goals they set forth. Minor details, like how many parking spaces a taco stand has to have in front of its business and how far a new house has to sit back from the street, make a big difference when it comes to the look and feel of our community over the next decades. (On Tuesday, the town council took the first step in implementing its comprehensive plan when it eliminated parking minimums in residential areas.)

How long will the Comprehensive Plan be in effect?

While the comprehensive plan is technically in effect until it is replaced, typically these plans are intended to guide development for the next generation. Carrboro Connects is designed to shape town development for the next twenty years, until 2042.

Where do the candidates stand on Carrboro Connects comprehensive plan?

There are five candidates running for three seats on the Carrboro Town Council. 

  • Incumbent Eliazar Posada voted for the comprehensive plan, one of his first votes as an elected official. (He took office in May 2022, after winning a special election). During Carrboro Connects, Posada helped lead Spanish-language sessions on Zoom, and worked to support multilingual inclusion throughout the project. As you might expect, he supports its implementation.
  • Catherine Fray chaired the Carrboro Connects Task Force, and is a longtime chair of the Planning Commission in Carrboro. One of their top priorities is implementing the plan.
  • Jason Merrill also supports implementing the comprehensive plan. He specifically mentions wanting a future that is “more equitable and more sustainable” based on “our community’s values and vision have been clearly spelled out in the comprehensive plan.”
  • April Mills acknowledges on her campaign website that Carrboro passed its comprehensive plan in 2022, but she also states that Carrboro adding any “new construction” would conflict with reducing municipal emissions and says she “will ask hard questions to understand the cost and the benefit to the community.”
  • Stephanie Wade mentions two other town plans on her campaign website, but not Carrboro Connects. On social media, Wade has criticized the town encouraging housing near transit services—something that has been proven to help reduce carbon emissions. (At other times, she says that transit is key for “affordable living” but has then criticized housing near transit.) At the recent El Centro forum, she criticized the comprehensive plan because she felt there was a lack of “awareness” around it. (The plan, as noted earlier, was an extremely public process—one that won an award for its thorough and thoughtful community outreach.)

Why does this matter?

The Carrboro Connects Comprehensive Plan was an amazing achievement. The town engaged marginalized communities, talked to stakeholders, consulted experts, and did everything possible to map a future for Carrboro in which everyone has a place.

If a future Carrboro Town Council allows it to sit on a shelf, or contests some of its key conclusions, we will all be the poorer for it.

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Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...