Folks, last week at our January 18 Town Council meeting (video here – relevant portion starts about halfway through at 1.29) the consultant we hired for over $470,000 in taxpayer money who is crafting our Complete Communities project presented a proposal to “streamline” our process for making zoning changes in town and allowing new developments. While I am not opposed to ways to make our development process more efficient (I voted last month to drastically streamline our process for developments that also contain significant affordable housing) I was appalled at this consultant, Jennifer Keesmaat’s, suggestions and last week called for the immediate termination of our contract with the firm.
The consultant's proposal would change the Chapel Hill Town Council's role in zoning and development changes into simply a "rubber stamp" for decisions made by town staff.
Besides directly violating North Carolina laws that require public meetings and comment on such changes (Article 6 of Chapter 160D), this proposal is profoundly anti-democratic. As I responded to the consultant, what if one of my constituents has a problem with a particular zoning change? Is my response when they contact me to tell them they should have weighed in two years ago on some overall policy adjustments that the proposal does allow the Council some say in? If so, why even ask people to elect town representatives in the first place? After all, as I stated, we aren’t a dictatorship!
To add insult to this proposal, our consultant indicated during the same meeting they were already piloting this process (unknown to me) on the zoning change needed for the proposed multi-story wet lab that would close down the popular Purple Bowl restaurant downtown. Now, my small business constituents may not be able to get $470,000 in taxpayer money to help them in a zoning change and development battle, but they sure as heck shouldn’t be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own taxpayer money to finance an out-of-state developer’s effort the change the zoning that would eliminate their small business.
For these two reasons last week I asked Chris Blue, our interim town manager, to immediately terminate this consultant’s contract – you can read my email to him below.
I believe taxpayers should not be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a consultant who not only lacks basic knowledge of the planning laws on which they are supposedly advising the town but who is also operating to implement these illegal and anti-democratic changes behind the scenes in a manner that directly affects my constituents.
Friday, January 20
I want to go on record with you urging the immediate termination of our consultant Jennifer Keesmaat’s over $470,000 in combined contracts with the town. This is for two reasons that go far beyond her unfortunate public arrogance and unwillingness to listen to criticism of her ideas.
First, the plan she presented at our Chapel Hill Town Council meeting this week on January 18 to “reform” our public process on rezoning and approving new developments in Chapel Hill showed that she has little understanding of the basics of North Carolina planning law. To suggest as she did that our elected council simply play a rubber-stamp role in approving rezoning decisions made by town staff is not only profoundly anti-democratic but clearly illegal under Article 6 of NC General Statue 160D. Chapel Hill taxpayers should not be required to continue to fund the work of a consultant who displays this lack of knowledge.
Second, during this same meeting, Ms. Keesmaat indicated that she was already working and meeting with key town staff to “test” some of her ideas, specifically a rote development “checklist” on a specific project, the proposed rezoning and redevelopment of a downtown property. She referred to this as the “Longfellow” project, referencing the Boston-based developer that has purchased the property at 306 W Franklin Street and is seeking a significant rezoning to allow demolition of existing structures and erection of a large multi-story lab building and parking garage. I was not aware of this “test.” As you know, this project would displace the Purple Bowl, a popular locally-owned business employing over 60 Chapel Hillians and as such has created enormous public controversy. While the controversy surrounding this project may in Ms. Keesmaat’s view make it perfect for the test of the anti-democratic and illegal process she is proposing for our rezoning decisions, as an elected official who is proud to represent the owners of local businesses, including the Purple Bowl, I strongly disagree. Whether or not we as an elected body decide to change the zoning on this property should be done not only in accordance with NC law but through an open and inclusive process far different from Ms Keesmaat’s proposed “checklist.”
While my constituents may not have the ability to spend $470,000 of taxpayer money to fund a dubious out-of-state consultant to assist town staff and a large out-of-state developer with changing our zoning decisions, I do believe they, including owners of our small businesses, deserve the opportunity for effective representation and to be heard and listened to in a fair and open process. I would also note that under NCGS 160D simply employing an expensive consultant does not shield our town from liability for actions we take in reliance on their recommendations. Finally, I do not believe Chapel Hill taxpayers are well-served by a consultant who is so dismissive of both the need for public representation and unfamiliar with NC planning law.