This series considers 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.

Is Chapel Hill “a deal-making town or a plan-making town?” That question was posed by renowned planner and former New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver in early October at the Council Economic Sustainability Committee meeting. This is what the next Chapel Hill mayor and Town Council will decide as the town moves forward on the rewrite of its Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO). Silver, who formerly served as Raleigh’s planning director, clearly understands the stakes.

The LUMO is the set of regulations that govern how land can be used in the town. These development regulations are called zoning ordinances or Unified Development Ordinances (UDOs) in other cities and towns.

The LUMO rewrite can go in two very different directions, depending on who is elected. If those who understand the need for and support the rewrite are elected—including several who have worked with the LUMO on Planning Commission— the LUMO rewrite will better support our town’s plans to develop in the form of a Complete Community and meet goals such as connectivity, housing options, and smart growth. It will be an enormous improvement over the town’s antiquated LUMO, which is hard to understand, poorly organized, and does not support the types of development that we want to see in Chapel Hill.

Other candidates have cast aspersions on the LUMO rewrite, wondering why the town is spending money on—dirty word here!—consultants to do the task. The mayoral candidate doesn’t even seem to understand what the LUMO does. They don’t see the rewrite of the LUMO as a priority, which is of a piece with their desire to slow or stop development and end efforts at developing a complete community.

What is the LUMO?

The LUMO is the set of ordinances that regulate development in the town. For every piece of land, the LUMO sets rules for how the land can be used (such as a house for a single family, an apartment, a store, or a mixed-use building), how large each piece of land needs to be, how far back any buildings need to be from the front, side, and rear property lines, how tall the buildings can be, how many trees need to be preserved, whether sidewalks are provided, how much car and bike parking is provided, and what type of landscaping is required..

(Technically, land owned by the state is exempt from zoning regulations, but UNC has worked with the Town to plan out development on its main campus and elsewhere, such as the now-dead Carolina North project).

What’s wrong with the LUMO?

A lot—where to start?

The LUMO was first adopted in 2003. It’s been amended since then, but those changes have not been comprehensive, and over time the LUMO has gotten more cluttered and disorganized. And, it wasn’t well organized to start with. Moreover, it does not support the type of smart, compact, mixed-use development that accommodates walking, bicycling, and transit and will help us meet our climate goals.

The consultant team that is preparing the new LUMO provided Town Council with a report of its review of the current LUMO in June. This LUMO Audit combined input from stakeholders (including citizens, staff, and developers) with the consultants’ expert review of the existing ordinance. This summary near the beginning of the report refers to a 2011 evaluation of the LUMO, which identified key shortcomings that have only gotten worse:

[T]he [2011] report correctly identified that the LUMO, as currently written, was a suburban development code being applied to an urbanizing environment. Chapel Hill has continued to evolve over the past decade, from a sprawling university town to a compact, infill-oriented community, making the LUMO even less responsive to current growth patterns and development. The 2011 report identified that certain regulations in the LUMO “perpetuate unsustainable and outmoded sprawl development patterns and in many cases prohibit or severely limit the ability to build truly sustainable, compact, walkable and mixed-use places.” It went on to reinforce that “the Town relies on an ambiguous and potentially arbitrary case-by-case approval process for most development,” a sentiment heard consistently and repeatedly throughout this audit process over a decade later.

More importantly, the LUMO does not reflect the Town’s current preferences for development. In a particularly brutal statement, the LUMO Audit notes: “While some aspects of the LUMO reflect current plans and policy, the conclusion following review is that this is largely accidental.

This comes as no surprise. Several of us blog bloggers have served on (or are serving on) the Planning Commission, and we see it during just about every meeting. If you’ve watched Town Council deliberate over projects like Aura or Chapel Hill Crossing, you’ve seen it as well. The LUMO lacks standards to accommodate development other than suburban single-family homes or downtown development, and so every project comes before council with a set of standards developed for just that project. Things like street width, sidewalk width, width of landscaped buffers, building height—all of these project elements are customized for each project. And not by experts. When Town Council deliberates, they design the project from the dias and change project elements based on what seems right to them at the time.

That’s no way to run a town, as Silver noted. And hopefully the new LUMO will get us away from this “Let’s Make a Deal” approach where development depends on the particular aesthetics of elected officials.

So the LUMO Rewrite is Underway? When Is It Going to Be Ready?

Yes. The consultant team released its LUMO Audit in June, and has been working on preparing the Town’s new LUMO. However, the LUMO is a large and complicated document. It will take time for the consultant team to draft the new regulations, and even more time for staff, the public, and the Town Council to review  them. According to the project schedule, the new LUMO is not expected to be complete and ready for adoption until the end of 2024.

The fate of the new LUMO will be in the hands of the next Town Council.

What decisions will the next Town Council make about the LUMO?

The current Town Council has taken some important steps towards improving land use in town. The Town Council has done so by approving good projects such as Aura and Chapel Hill Crossing (even though the approval process is terrible). And they have also made some small but important changes to the LUMO, such as the housing choices proposal which allows two-family homes to be built in many more parts of the town, an expedited approval process for projects with affordable housing, and some additional changes in the pipeline.

The new LUMO can build on these successes by updating the type of housing that can be built, cleaning up the housing choices regulations to spur the development of more housing (the Daily Tar Heel recently reported that no permits have been issued for two-family homes since it passed), and better supporting high-quality, compact, transit-friendly development.

It’ll be up to the next Town Council to do so.

Adam Searing and his slate of council candidates—Elizabeth Sharp, Renuka Soll, Breckany Eckhardt, and David Adams—have already expressed disgust at the fact that money is being spent on the LUMO rewrite project. There’s a real chance they may just cancel the consultant’s contract, and we’ll have to rely on our terribly inadequate current LUMO for years to come. Or, if they let it move forward, you can bet they’ll be itching to incorporate their campaign promises to further restrict the types of housing that can be built in Chapel Hill, making our single-family neighborhoods even more expensive and expensive, and limit the connections that are critical to creating a Complete Community.

Moreover, Searing himself voted against the “Shaping Our Future” recommendations that would allow greater density along the North-South Bus Rapid Transit project. Higher density should be placed next to high-capacity transit to take full advantage of the great transit service. It’s a pretty basic concept in planning. But he objected to the recommendations because they called for some higher density in existing neighborhoods right next to BRT stations that currently only support single-family homes. If he won’t allow density there, next to an expensive, high-capacity, frequent bus rapid transit line, where will he allow denser development that will help us achieve our climate and connectivity goals?

While some of their campaign statements may differ, the Searing-Adams-Eckhardt-Sharp-Soll slate came together in shared opposition to the housing options proposal. Thus, if they take office, you can bet the next LUMO—if there is one—will make land use in Chapel Hill even more restrictive than it was a few years ago.

What have the candidates said?

On her website, mayoral candidate Jess Anderson says that “’Parcel-by-parcel’ planning is resulting in: Missed opportunities to connect neighborhoods to parks, schools, transit, shopping, jobs and more. Development geared toward specific sites, which provides less community benefit.”

Her goal: “Move away from ‘parcel-by-parcel’ planning toward more comprehensive ‘community’ planning that: Prioritizes shared infrastructure as a way to get more community benefit (larger green gathering spaces, better stormwater management, increased tree canopy, etc.). Develops Natural Areas Maps and other strategies for protecting and preserving environmentally-important areas of our town.” Her eight years on council have taught her the drawbacks of our current planning process and a desire to implement an improved set of development regulations.

Her opponent, council member Adam Searing, seems to lack even basic understanding of the development process. In a recent newsletter, he writes “Chapel Hill taxpayers spent $470,000 on a recent development consultant from Canada and have hired another record four separate consultant companies  (total cost at least $1.4 million, see “LUMO re-write” line item) to help us rewrite our future land use development rules and map despite having just updated our future land use map development rules three years ago!”

Two key problems with this statement, and one vastly misleading fact. First, rewriting the LUMO is a big task. Chapel Hill does not have the staffing or expertise to do it in-house, and so completing it without consultants would simply shift money from consultants to internal hiring of employees who may not be needed in two years.

Second, the Future Land Use Map and the LUMO are two completely separate things. That’s Local Government 101. The Future Land Use Map sets the community’s vision, The LUMO establishes specific regulations to implement the vision. While it’s unsurprising that a regular citizen may not understand this distinction, it is astounding that someone who has been on Town Council for nearly two years and wants to serve as mayor is so oblivious.

In addition, his reference to the project’s cost is misleading. The $1.4 million fee includes a transit-oriented development study along the North-South Bus Rapid Transit line, for which the federal government contributed nearly $600,000.

The four candidates running with Searing—Elizabeth SharpDavid AdamsBreckany Eckhardt, and Renuka Soll—have echoed many of Searing’s complaints about the town’s ongoing planning processes, and are poised to push for a revised LUMO that discourages more housing from being built in town. Eckhardt has even suggested that the town ask UNC faculty, staff, and students to work on town planning, with the implicit understanding that the town would save money by asking people with planning expertise, and maybe some people without any expertise, to donate their time. (As a former UNC student in planning, and friend with some of the faculty, I’ll just say you can either get free help or good help, and the good help won’t be cheap.)

While Theodore Nollert, Erik Valera, Melissa McCullough, Amy Ryan, and Jon Mitchell do not directly discuss the LUMO update in their campaign materials, their support of the Complete Community framework suggests that will support applying those principles, also espoused by Jess Anderson, to the LUMO. McCullough’s emphasis on the environment, Valera’s commitments to diversity and inclusivity, Nollert’s interests in creating spaces for thriving local businesses, Ryan’s desire for sustainable systems, and Mitchell’s passion for devising efficient and effective processes will all be integral to their evaluation of and support for the LUMO rewrite.

Why does this matter?

Chapel Hill is a safe, well-educated, and prosperous town. We have a strong local economy, and a high quality of life. The fact that almost every election turns on how we want to address the strong demand to live and work in our town suggests that we are very lucky.

Development issues are so contentious in town in part because our current LUMO is outdated and ineffective. The next council will, in all likelihood, adopt a new LUMO that will set the course for development for the next generation. A council that is interested in making Chapel Hill a welcoming place for all, including those who would like to live here but are not currently, will approve a LUMO that meets those objectives, lowering the heat for future discussions about development. A council that is interested in making Chapel Hill even more exclusive will pass a new LUMO that is similar to our current LUMO, full of road blocks that make it difficult for our community to adapt to current and future demand by people who would like to call our community home.

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Geoff Green, AICP lives in Chapel Hill. In his day job he's a practicing urban planner; in his spare time he rides his electric bike around town and advocates for improved facilities so that everyone can...