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  • Writer's pictureJon Mitchell

The primary issue in this election, and a note about civil discourse

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

David Adams' August 23 "viewpoint" piece in Chapelboro, titled Municipal Election 2023: What's in a Label?, invites an "issue-oriented" election that promotes "honest interactions to find viable solutions." I couldn't agree more.

Putting aside the simplistic labels that David rightfully condemns, what are the issues at stake in this election, and how do we shift our polarized discourse?

David and I seem to have different ideas about which single issue deserves the most emphasis in this election. But we agree on the importance of civil discourse, especially when we disagree.

For some, duplexes are a key issue in this election

A duplex

In June, the Town Council approved the "Housing Choices" amendments, which permit modestly-sized two-family housing configurations in most of the Town's land area – including in areas previously reserved for detached single-family houses only. Landowners seeking to use the new authority must comply with unusually strict standards for tree canopy coverage, impervious surface, number of unrelated people per unit, and parking maximums.

David's opposition to this change features prominently in his article. He goes so far as to suggest it's the main difference between the two mayoral candidates (which I doubt, but I'll let those candidates speak for themselves).

As Chair of the Planning Commission, I supported the change. My reasons are nuanced (as are the changes themselves), and I've written a separate post to explain them. For present purposes – and in the spirit of open dialogue – I've included in a short appendix below this post a few substantive responses to David's points about Housing Choices.

Whether we effectively implement the Complete Community vision will have far more impact on peoples' lives

Many residents feel passionately about the Housing Choices amendments, either for or against. But let's keep it in perspective. Under any plausible scenario, the scale of development that will ensue from Housing Choices will comprise a tiny portion of future development in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, the Town just adopted a sweeping and highly ambitious revision to its top-level land use planning framework, and we've entered a critical period where we either sink or swim. If we're going to swim, it's wise to treat effective implementation of the Complete Community framework as the primary issue in this election.

It's important not to conflate the Complete Community framework – the Town's umbrella planning vision, unanimously approved by the Town Council in December 2022 – with the Housing Choices amendments. The Housing Choices amendments are consistent with the Complete Community framework (and even mention it in their full name, "Housing Choices for a Complete Community") but were not caused or required by it. Housing Choices grew out of a September 2021 petition from four Council members, long before the Complete Community framework came into being.

Likewise, the Complete Community framework is mostly about achieving walkable, mixed use development on larger sites and connecting the Town with greenways and linear parks. It focuses on how we move around Town, what kinds of amenities we can access from our neighborhoods, what kind of public realm we experience, and what kinds of housing options we create at scale (i.e., besides a duplex here and there). Its main thrust is not about upzoning existing single-family neighborhoods.

More than anything else, our success in implementing the Complete Community framework will determine what it's like to live in Chapel Hill 20 years from now. It deserves to be at the center of this election.

What we need right now is implementation talent

As I mention on my website's homepage, implementation of the Complete Community framework is easier said than done. It does not implement itself, and there's no off-the-shelf solution that will work here. Just building out the plans and standards will require years of focus. This will require of Council members (and our esteemed staff) a willingness to learn together and think at a nuanced level about execution-level choices and trade-offs. More concretely, the Council will oversee: major revisions to the Town's Byzantine, outdated land use management ordinances; an ongoing re-orientation of our planning function away from reactive processing of developer applications and toward proper city-building; and the development of viable funding strategies to deliver community infrastructure.

The Town's draft "natural areas model." Someone needs to think about how to operationalize this.

Even for voters concerned about Housing Choices, it's sensible to step back and consider which candidates are going to roll up their sleeves and make sure this stuff gets implemented thoughtfully (and what's likely to happen if it doesn't). As I've said, the top pledge of my campaign is to implement the new framework swiftly, thoughtfully, and collaboratively, just as my colleagues and I on the Planning Commission have already begun to do.

I want less divisiveness and will lead by example

Regardless of how one perceives the key issue(s) in this election, David is right about the importance of honest interactions and civility.

When I think about the high level of discord that tends to characterize Chapel Hill politics, I often reflect on what Brent Toderian, former chief planner for Vancouver, said in a 2019 interview (excerpted below). He was addressing the topic of NIMBYism, a term he employs without disparagement:

If you think NIMBYs are hard, it’s astronomically worse when the NIMBYs are right. So you should do everything you can to avoid helping the NIMBYs be right.
I’ll often point to existing buildings and say, "If I thought that’s what I was going to get as a community, I’d be against it too." The city has to be able to virtually guarantee the quality of the outcome from the urban design, livability, multimodal perspective. And a lot of cities have not set up the culture, the structure, the capacity, the training, or the tools to deliver quality. So when NIMBYs express a fear of change over density, they’re often right.
Don’t let them be right, is what I’m saying. Vancouver has a track record of delivering density in a pretty good way, so we can have a different conversation about change and density and height.

Toderian makes a deep point here, often lost in our oppositional discourse between housing and livability advocates. Ineffective planning and execution begets distrust and skepticism toward growth. In a word, it's divisive – needlessly so. To turn that around, our Town needs to, as Toderian says, "set up the culture, the capacity, the training, [and] the tools" to deliver on our new planning vision. The Town is in the process of doing that, and my colleagues and I on the Planning Commission have been working diligently to move it forward. We have a ways to go.

My first foray into Town land use policy was to make a public comment critical of the initial concept plan for the Aura development (back in 2020). I disapproved of some features of the site plan, advocated for more of a retail component, and tried to convey the gravity of the traffic situation on N. Estes (which at the time backed up a half mile during the afternoon rush hour, landlocking my neighborhood). I came away from that experience feeling sort of listened to, and sort of not. I understand perfectly well what that feels like. It's one reason why I applied to be on the Planning Commission.

I strongly believe the Town must bring along more development skeptics, rather than trying to vanquish them, for the Complete Community vision to succeed over the long term. That starts with making them (us) less right. The way to build trust is to listen and respond in good faith, and to produce superior outcomes that speak for themselves. It's not to dismiss residents who feel their voices aren't being heard.

You will not find me labelling or attacking fellow candidates during this campaign, or from the dais. That simply has no role to play in the approach I just described. Instead, I will continue to focus on the issues.


Appendix: Responses to David Adams' Points on Housing Choices

David writes in his "viewpoint" piece that a primary reason to oppose the Housing Choices amendments,

as stated repeatedly by the Planning Department and Council majority – is that the rezoning is for housing choice, not affordability. It’s claimed affordability will "trickle down" in [the] future as supply increases. If rents for our current oversupply of luxury apartments are any indication, that will not be any time soon. [Emphasis in original]

In the spirit of open and respectful discourse, I'd like to briefly respond to three points embedded in this passage.

  1. David suggests that the Housing Choices amendments will not produce affordable housing, at least not directly. Indeed, proponents of Housing Choices have readily acknowledged that the changes will not necessarily create "affordable" units in the technical sense that housing specialists sometimes use this term – that is, units that households below 80% of area medium income (AMI) can afford. (In 2022, 80% of AMI was $76,400 for a family of four). Nevertheless, the amendments can reasonably be expected to yield lower cost housing in relative terms. That seems like a valid policy objective.

  2. David states that Housing Choices proponents rely on a "trickle down" theory of affordable housing. Actually, the primary justification for the Housing Choices amendments has little if anything to do with filtering. The rationale is more straightforward than that: In general, the cost per unit to produce single-family houses is relatively higher than the cost to produce two-family configurations, due to land costs alone. Housing Choices directly benefits whoever enjoys the cost savings of living in a two-family unit that the market may now build.

  3. David suggests Chapel Hill has an oversupply of "luxury" apartments. However, according to the Census Bureau, rental vacancy rates in Chapel Hill for the period 2017-2021 were approximately 5%, which is exceedingly low by historical standards. I understand that some may have a different impression based on Search results on that site tally the total units expected to become available over the next several months (even if one specifies a move-in date of tomorrow). The vast majority are currently occupied and are likely to turn over quickly. This can be verified by clicking on specific listings in the search results.

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