Let’s make history again

Chapel Hill elections make history. In 1969, we elected Howard Lee, the first African-American mayor of a predominately white city in the South. In 1987, we elected Joe Herzenberg, North Carolina’s first openly gay elected official. And two years earlier, in 1985, the citizens of Chapel Hill accomplished something that citizens rarely achieve: they managed to save the town they loved from being overrun by uncontrolled development, and they set Chapel Hill on a path of more thoughtful growth that respects community desires and values.

Here’s how it happened:

In the early 1980s, developers began inundating the town with proposals to build dense housing on the many wooded tracts of land that at the time still composed much of Chapel Hill’s land area. The sitting Town Council approved most of these development applications, despite the problems such rapid, poorly planned growth created. The Council refused residents’ appeals to manage all the new construction more responsibly and declined the recommendation of a task force—which the Council itself had appointed—to adopt policies that would ensure new development did not outpace the town’s ability to provide the necessary supporting infrastructure.

When the Council proved unresponsive to residents’ concerns over the uncontrolled rate and manner of growth, the residents mobilized to elect new leadership. They formed a town-wide civic organization called the Alliance of Neighborhoods, endorsed neighborhood advocates and political novices for Council, and set about campaigning on their behalf. When the dust settled on election night, three of the Alliance’s four candidates had won seats. These three, together with mayor Jimmy Wallace, helped form a voting majority to enact the responsible growth policies the community sought.

The progressive political culture the Alliance movement ushered in guided Chapel Hill’s growth for a generation, but much has changed in the last decade. The old timers are gone or retired, and the values they championed are under siege. Incumbent Council members have embraced the myth that rapid growth will bring prosperity and the notion that we must lower our standards to attract investment. Both ideas are false.

The result has been an unprecedented string of Council land use decisions—Central West, Ephesus-Fordham, Obey Creek—that will enrich a handful of individuals while imposing costs—fiscal, environmental, quality of life—on the broad majority of town residents.

So now, 30 years after the uplifting election of 1985, the residents of Chapel Hill have again mobilized to ensure that the values that for half a century have defined our town—our commitment to education, environment, and inclusion—will continue to define us, and that we will not become an increasingly exclusive and generic enclave where the interests of landowners and developers are placed above those of the town residents.

Over the past few months, we have seen the spirit of 1985 resurgent throughout Chapel Hill. From Southern Village to Parkside, and from Meadowmont to Ironwoods, residents are voicing a desire for more responsible stewardship and a community in which all of us, not just the fortunate few, can thrive. It lies within our grasp. We can elect candidates, such as Pam Hemminger, Jessica Anderson, and Nancy Oates, who will restore Chapel Hill’s proud tradition of responsible growth and our high standards for new development. It’s time for us to rise to the challenge and make history again. Go to the polls and make your voice heard. Early voting begins October 22 and Election Day is November 3.