Keren Goldshlager, Journalism Student at the University of North Carolina
Each decade, Chapel Hill officials create a comprehensive plan for the town that guides policy making in areas such as land use and transportation.
But this time around, there is one important addition to the plan: you.
Although the kick-off date is still two weeks away, an initiating committee has been meeting since May to set the framework for a plan that will hinge upon citizen involvement and participation. They have named the plan Chapel Hill 2020 to emphasize its visionary approach.
The committee’s 15 members were appointed by the Town Council and were chosen for their involvement and diversity. The group included a social worker, the operations manager of an affordable housing nonprofit organization, the chair of the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, a Duke physician and more.
Lee Storrow, a recent UNC graduate and candidate for Town Council, was a committee member.
“There were lots of new faces and new voices on the committee,” he said, “specifically because we’re hoping to bring new faces and new voices into the comprehensive plan.”
Chapel Hill officials hope that these new faces and new voices will bring life to the project – but they are well aware of the challenges they face in trying to engage an entire community.
“The hardest part is finding out how to connect with all of the residents, and not just the ones who read the paper and know about this,” said Kathy Atwater, a Northside resident and initiating committee member.
That’s why the committee partnered with two facilitators, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the National Civic League (NCL), to help develop strategies for promoting civic engagement.
“These groups were very instrumental in starting the initiating committee because they had worked with other towns and other cities across the nation with their future plans,” said Atwater.
Atwater was inspired to take part in the comprehensive plan because of her interest in affordable housing.
“I would like to see more zoning regulations as far as housing, and more housing for people who want to live in Chapel Hill but say they can’t afford to,” she said.
In addition to housing, Chapel Hill 2020 will encompass transportation, downtown businesses, sustainability, land use, environmental justice and any other topics that residents deem important.
“We really want to make sure that this vision is inclusive of all the opinions and all the experiences of the diverse group of people who live here,” said committee member Allisson DeMarco.
DeMarco, who has a background in social work, was especially interested in involving low-income families and immigrants.
To encourage this involvement, the initiating committee decided to host meetings at schools rather than in town hall.
Mary Jane Nirdlinger, assistant director of the town’s planning department, said she thinks that these meetings will allow the project to touch everyday residents who may not attend government-sponsored events.
“If you really want to touch 10,000 people,” she said, “you need to do it in all kinds of ways.”
In addition to meetings, the initiating committee planned a series of open houses, at which Chapel Hill residents will be able to meet, mingle and share.
The open houses will be both fun and informative, and will be centrally located said Nirdlinger. A family-focused open house and a job-themed open house are already in the works, she added.
The committee was also tasked with appointing two chairs – Rosemary Waldorf and George Cianciolo – to guide the development of the comprehensive plan. These co-chairs will also act as spokespeople for the project.
Cianciolo is a pathologist at the Duke University Medical Center, and Waldorf is the project manager of a local community-building company. Waldorf also served as mayor of Chapel Hill from 1995 to 2001.
Although the work of the initiating committee is over, the overall project has barely begun. The first public meeting will be held on September 27 at East Chapel Hill High School, and all residents are invited to attend.
“I encourage all residents to attend the meeting to get an overview of what this plan will entail,” said Atwater. “Now is our opportunity.”