One of the things that you can count on with CHALT is its predictability. (CHALT, aka Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town.” is an “anti-development community group” that has “opposed nearly every major development proposal” in Chapel Hill since its inception in 2014/2015. They formed a PAC in 2017recruit and endorse local candidates to run for elected office, and have been very influential in local elections.)

If there is a proposed project that has the potential to change Chapel Hill in any significant manner, you can be sure CHALT will 1) oppose it and 2) propose a “better” alternative. And then, if steps are taken to implement the proposed CHALT alternative, CHALT will switch sides and oppose their formerly preferred alternative.

It happened with “missing middle housing.” (That’s a term that means housing types between single-detached homes and apartment buildings, like duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes.)

During the 2021 election, CHALT supported Hongbin Gu for mayor over incumbent Pam Hemminger. One of their key priorities during that cycle was encouraging more townhomes in place of large apartment buildings like the Berkshire.

Townhomes (and duplexes, triplexes, etc.) are more dense than single-detached homes on large lots and less dense than four-story apartment buildings. They are prohibited by zoning rules in many places, but having a “mix of housing types” can provide a diversity of housing options at different price points. (Sometimes, senior citizens want to downsize but still live near their kids. Other times, young people may want to stop renting, but don’t need a four bedroom home.)

A “mix of housing” is still listed as one of the priorities on CHALT’s website. But when Chapel Hill’s Town Council proposed and then implemented changes to the Town’s Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) to allow duplexes to be built in most areas, CHALT bitterly opposed it as something that they said would create “bonanzas for developers.” (The DTH recently reported that there have been 0 applications for duplexes since the changes were made.)

Moving the goalposts, and missing the point

Likewise, when the Chapel Hill Mobility and Connectivity Plan was under development in 2016 and 2017, CHALT said at the time that “the concept of interconnecting existing Greenways into an off-road bike/pedestrian network of 6 paths is exceptionally good.”

The Town then moved ahead with the “Complete Community” strategies which includes a core focus on an enhanced and better connected greenway network. Now, CHALT says, “commuters to RTP will not ride e-bikes, nor will incoming hospital employees. While building greenways for recreation is needed, building them for commuter transport is not practical or financially viable.” At the same time, CHALT members energetically advocate against proposals to extend specific greenways, such as the Bolin Creek Greenway in Carrboro and its connections to existing greenways in Chapel Hill. (They’ve appeared at several recent MPO meetings to push against funding these greenway connections.)

In fact, just last week CHALT claimed that the Town should have widened Estes Drive to carry more car traffic instead of building best-in-breed bicycle lanes and multiuse paths that provide a key link east-west connection for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Here’s exactly what CHALT says: “The Town made a huge mistake building a bicycle/pedestrian walkway along the north side of Estes instead of widening the road to also handle the soon-to-be additional vehicular traffic due to all of the new residential development.”

That goes against an extensive body of research that shows narrowing travel lanes play a key role in traffic width safety—particularly in front of a school where children are present. (The researchers also recommend adding buffered bike lanes and wider sidewalks, exactly what’s happening on Estes.)

Bus Rapid Transit: They were for it, until it looked like it might happen.

That gets us to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is a huge win for Chapel Hill. (The Indyweek has a great piece on the details.)

Here’s the Cliff Notes version: BRT is a form of enhanced bus service that is designed to improve passenger experience and reduce travel times. The North-South BRT (NS BRT) project in Chapel Hill is one such example. President Biden’s budget recently proposed supporting it with $144 million in federal funds, or about three-quarters of the project’s total cost, includes dedicated lanes that will let buses zip by car traffic. The project also includes new bus stops that provide a high-quality waiting experience, and a multiuse trail along much of the corridor, which extends up South Columbia Rd. and MLK Jr. Blvd. from Southern Village up to the Eubanks Road Park-and-Ride. Planning for NS BRT has been underway for nearly a decade, and the offer by the federal government to contribute more than the Town’s yearly budget to help pay for the project is a huge vote of confidence.

CHALT has claimed to be a big supporter of the NS BRT project, particularly before April 2019, while the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project was under development. For example, in February 2019 CHALT wrote to Town Council asking that the Town reject the light rail project’s request for additional funding and direct more of the transit sales tax revenue towards the town’s projects, so that “we could move forward with MLK BRT and other service expansions that we need locally and for our own regional connections.”

In April 2019, CHALT noted that it petitioned the Chapel Hill Transit funding partners “to project funding for N-S bus rapid transit project.” CHALT’s website currently notes, in a section on mobility goals, that the Town should “support the planned North-South Bus Rapid Transit Project that will run along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill connecting commuters from park-and-ride lots on Eubanks Road in the north and Southern Village in the south through downtown Chapel Hill and UNC.” In the past, “CHALT has put our energies in convincing our elected officials that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)  with a robust feeder system is the best way to spend out [sic] limited transit resources.” They also wrote a letter to the FTA strongly supporting the BRT.

So you’d think CHALT must have been thrilled when the President’s budget announced that the federal government would foot the lion’s share of the cost of building the BRT system.

CHALT was not thrilled. Instead, it made a rapid pivot away from support to “raising questions” about the NS BRT’s feasibility. On its website, CHALT founder Julie McClintock said the President’s budget does not include not enough money; there are still big funding challenges; operating funds haven’t been identified, and the project’s cost-saving efforts cast doubt on the Town’s ability to address other challenges (which, huh?) .

At the very end of the post, she admits CHALT’s true concerns—that “the promise of BRT will be used to justify the intensification of development along the proposed corridor. The result: another transit-oriented development that is all development, no transit.” We suspect that, even when the BRT is built—which will be transformative in the way thousands of people commute to UNC—CHALT will oppose the transit-supportive development along MLK as diminishing the traditional character of the village of Chapel Hill, despite the incredible advantages of that form of development.

Merely a stalking horse designed to oppose light rail

CHALT is an advocacy group, not a news-gathering operation. They have, of their own claim, been a long-time supporter of the NS BRT project. This is the moment where a group that is truly supportive of this transformative BRT project would celebrate this major achievement and identify ways that the town can overcome the remaining obstacles. Instead, what we get is a laser-like focus on the remaining challenges, with no hint that they have solutions, a claim that changes to the project to bring down its costs would reduce its environmental and mobility benefits (something that substantially overstates matters), and McClintock’s belief that “I personally doubt it will be built anytime soon.”

If you ever needed more evidence that CHALT’s support of the NS BRT project was merely a stalking horse intended to oppose the light rail project, and not anything that the organization actually wanted to happen, here it is.

In the future, if CHALT claims they support something conceptually (such as greenways) but oppose specific projects (such as the extension of the Bolin Creek Greenway or the Everywhere to Everywhere Greenway plan), you’re right to be suspicious of just how strong their conceptual support is. It happened with housing, it happened with greenways, and it will continue to happen with any other proposal that threatens to change the Chapel Hill of the 1980s.

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...