ChapelHill


Though the day was grey, this morning’s formal commemoration of the end of the current phase of Baldwin Park’s stream restoration project was well attended by local pols: Carrboro Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnel, Lydia Lavelle, Sammy Slade, Chapel Hill’s Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Council member Donna Bell (who lives a few steps away from the park) joined Town staff and a small group of local supporters in recognizing the revamp of this stretch of stream.

Baldwin Park Work Group

Mr. Baldwin, whose uncle Henry Baldwin owned the property (and mortgaged his house to help build St. Joes), told of walking across this stretch of land as a boy in a straw hat when it was still relatively wild before thanking the community for the improvements.

Mr. Baldwin's Uncle Donated the Land for St. Joe's

Local environmentalist and incredible photographer Mary Sonis has made a stunning discovery in her backyard.

Below is a rare 4 toed salamander, “a species of special concern in North Carolina” (to quote her excited announcement).

Mary contacted an expert at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Sciences who said he had never seen one of these in the wild. These salamanders breed in bogs and seepages. In this case, a seepage from a vernal pond within the Bolin Creek forest.

Some readers might recall the recent two year long lively debate over paving tracts of Bolin Creek within Carrboro’s jurisdiction for a greenway. Several of the proposed routes targeted for obliteration the very vernal ponds and seepages making up the habitat of this exceedingly rare species.

Now that Mary has confirmed that these salamanders inhabit Bolin Creek’s watershed, it is incumbent on our local leaders to adopt those proposed routes which maintain the integrity of the stream and vernal pools that are critical components of this and other “critters” habitat.

Our community spends a lot of time talking “green”. We’ve encouraged developers and policy makers alike to commit, with some success, to an environmentally sustainable future. Most of the effort has been put into conserving energy, lowering the impact of development, preserving green-space and securing open-space.

“Think green” has moved, in fits and starts, from an empty mantra to being a more integral part of the development discussion. Unfortunately, the time isn’t always taken to tease out what is truly “green” and to what amounts to “green washing” in evaluating various development proposals. Sometimes the natural alignment between environmental justice and social justice is split. Some environmental concerns continue to be ignored.

For one, shepherding our limited natural water resources and adopting policies that constrain growth to live within those limits continues to get short shrift.

Chapel Hill’s Council recently reversed a policy of not tapping Lake Jordan for anything other than a catastrophic water crisis. In weakening the resolve earlier bodies showed, they opened the door to growth fueled by external resources. Our community has steadfastly supported land-use policies that try to maintain the high quality water drawn from the local watersheds. We have been told that our investment in those resources would maintain a reasonable level of growth for the next 100 years. Apparently the community’s resolve is firmer than our current Council’s.

Water is becoming the dominant limiting factor to growth for community’s all across the globe. Even in areas blessed with plentiful rainfall, maintaining safe and reliable access to water is a problem that only grows with time. As North Carolina continues to dip in and our of drought, we need to recommit to the vision of living within the watersheds OWASA has acquired on our behalf.

Along those lines, we need to think more than “green” in making decisions about how Chapel Hill and Carrboro evolve over the next few decades, we need to start thinking “blue”.

That is why I’m thrilled by the efforts of the Friends of Bolin Creek [FOBC] partnering with Chapel Hill and Carrboro in putting together an Earth Action Day which emphasizes WATER.

Starting off at 9:30am, a dedication will be held for the Baldwin Creek Restoration project [MAP]. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the Friends of Bolin Creek partnered on this EPA 319 grant project to start reversing some of the damage caused by previous poor management practices.

Project lead Trish D’Arconte has worked hard to make “think blue” a reflexive part of Chapel Hill’s policies and will be explaining how the work at Baldwin Park is a start on a larger effort to remediate many of the impaired streams in our community.

From 10am-12pm April 9th, 2011, the FoBC’s Creek Action Tour has 9 separate events (INFO) and demonstrations reflecting on improving our local impaired watersheds through conservation, sound management and awareness.

You can learn how to make changes at your own home, in your own neighborhood, that will improve the streams in your area. The FoBC is also holding a raffle with several great prizes, including a personal tutorial on constructing a rain garden.

Chapel Hill’s Wes Tilghman (who I worked with on planning 2010’s Festifall) and staff put together an event that celebrates and highlights our community’s environmental commitment. From 12-5pm (INFO) a wide range of entertainments and exhibits will be shown at Southern Community Park. Free shuttles are available (check the website for more information).

[UPDATE:] WCHL’s Elizabeth Friend has a great summation here.

Over a decade ago, just as I was beginning to get involved in local issues, I heard then local NAACP President Fred Black and Roger Road resident Rev. Robert Campbell brief Council on the fairly extensive list of negative impacts our landfill was having on the Rogers Road neighborhood: rats, buzzards, landfill leachate spilling across lawns, tainted water, debilitating odors, broken sewers, dangerous roads, among others, plaguing the area for decades.

They referenced a 1972 unrecorded pledge (since disputed by local governments) by then Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee that the small community would get new services for taking on, at the time, Chapel Hill’s garbage burden. Further, they stated Lee claimed the landfill would only operate 10 years (1982) and that he promised obvious negative impacts would be mitigated over the whole lifespan of the project.

As of early 2000, after several extensions of the landfill’s lifespan, the small Rogers Road community still waited on those new services, necessary remediation and a time-certain for closure. Fred and Robert made a convincing case that given the dearth of leadership from the County that Chapel Hill should lead the way in finally addressing these issues. The Council wrung their hands but did little more than pass the buck back to Orange County claiming impotence in discharging that long held obligation.

The struggle to get some kind of reckoning has been long. Its been tough. There have been setbacks ( background).

Tonight, though, with unanimity the current Orange County Board of Commissioners vowed to finally make good on that 40 year old debt. What started out as a discussion of a proposal to extend the landfill’s life, again (through 2017), became a solid consensus to delay any further action contingent on the formulation of a firm, specific plan of remedying the Rogers Road community’s problems.

It started out with more than a dozen folks, including Rev. Campbell, standing before the Commissioners highlighting environmental problems like air and water pollution, describing the 42 illegal waste dumps surrounding the landfill, reporting on the 2+ tons of litter recently removed by volunteers from the nearby roadsides.

I focused on the process. Why, I asked, hadn’t the County included a specific mitigation plan in tonight’s proposal? A call Commissioner Valerie Foushee echoed minutes later. Where would the funds come from given the County hadn’t been setting aside funds as per the 1997 landfill extension agreement? Why hadn’t, given the breathing room last year’s decision to ship waste to Durham’s trash transfer facility, the Solid Waste Advisory Board (SWAB) taken on the task of capping of the landfill in a socially responsible fashion? What would the Rogers Road community get from yet another extension of their problems?

As I put it – irrespective of whatever promises made or not by Chapel Hill Mayor Lee in 1972, the County and the Commissioners now owned the problem.

The Commissioners, after taking in these comments, each took a turn explaining why they couldn’t endorse an extension that didn’t include a specific plan of action for mitigating the decades of harm caused by the landfill.

Relatively new County Manager Frank Clifton said as someone who hadn’t been involved in all the discussions, hadn’t heard decades of problems, as an outsider, he was mystified that the County Commissioners hadn’t taken advantage of the 1997 stipulations to fund mitigation. He said he and his staff had long been ready to take all the studies, advisory board reports, commission results, etc. and formulate a plan of action. He also said – clearly – that this had to be a County staff driven effort and that the County’s partners – Chapel Hill and Carrboro – would be advised but not counted on in moving forward (the municipalities have been missing in action for decades though the Council finally did appoint Jim Ward as liaison to the SWAB).

Brief summary: the BOCC accepts full responsibility for what should be an obligation borne by all the local leadership. They have instructed staff to create a specific plan of action and to seek funding for it. That plan will identify mitigation strategies the County can legally carry out. The municipalities will be advised but not relied upon (a sorry comment on current affairs) in moving forward.

Quiet elation – a strange feeling – and a reasonable outcome after a long, long haul. More than ten year’s in the making the final chapter, hopefully, is being written on the Rogers Road landfill story.

Looks like the rumors I’ve been hearing for the last few months are true, the much touted Greenbridge project is in deep financial trouble. The high-density development (which has saved Downtown according to the local Chamber of Commerce director Aaron Nelson) hasn’t been able to sell units and pay its construction bills according to today’s N&O.

Most of the “successful” sales have been the moderately priced affordable units. Those are the same units Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward wanted a report from staff on to verify that they were serving the broader community instead of housing well connected community members or graduate students. Most of the current sitting Council enthusiastically endorsed Greenbridge, creating a new Downtown zoning district and then granting variances on density and height above and beyond the new zones limits, because they bought into this new model of development.

With the Town’s similar joint project with RAM Development (West140) just underway, now would be a good time to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from Greenbridge’s difficulties.

The Carrboro Citizen has another report on Carrboro’s BOA’s decision not to amend the inter-local agreement governing access to Lake Jordan water.

I was bothered by this passage:

Board member Joal Hall Broun said the issue was not the lake water, but freeing up OWASA in the event of emergencies and allowing the utility to find ways to keep the cost of water from rising. Many people in the community can’t afford increases in their water bills like those seen in recent years, she said.

Joal should recall that OWASA bills went up as this community met the conservation challenge. It was not the lack of water that increased fees but the unsustainable cost structure of OWASA and the way capital outlays are financed.

It boggles the mind that five years into our great conservation efforts local leadership still hasn’t pushed OWASA to rework its financial model to reward good behavior.

[UPDATE] WCHL’s newest reporter Freda Kahen-Kashi has the story – Mayor Mark Chilton Finds Faults With OWASA Plan.

[UPDATE 2] Further information on the meeting from the Daily Tar Heel.

They quote Gordon Merklein, OWASA Chair and UNC’s Director of Real Estate as saying “Jordan Lake is essential because the other water supplies cannot meet all of the expected needs of the community over the next 50 years.”

Continuing, the DTH says Merklein said the water might be needed sooner than expected. “Recent droughts have emphasized the need for a diverse water supply as we face increasingly uncertain future conditions of climate, land use and hydrology,” he said.

If this is an accurate quote then we should be concerned.

Chapel Hill’s Sustainability Visioning Task Force probed OWASA on this point repeatedly last year. They were told that the Long Range Water Plan, which relies on the local watershed, had sufficient resources allocated for non-emergency use without tapping Lake Jordan for the next 50 years.

Chapel Hill’s Town Council was told the same thing several times, last year when OWASA presented the Long Range Plan and as recently as last week.

Gordon is right highlighting the uncertainty in land use policy. Until Chapel Hill adopts policies which specifically tie resource constraints to growth, OWASA and other local agencies will have difficulty planning for the future.

Our community has invested heavily in acquiring and maintaining a watershed that was projected to suit our needs far longer than 50 years.

With the recent flurry of statements coming from OWASA’s Board to the contrary, do we need to re-evaluate that previous assertion? Like I said last night, what has changed so dramatically?

Or, rather than bungled projections, is this a case of wanting to accommodate a much higher growth rate than local resources will ever sustain?

[ORIGINAL POST]

Following up on yesterday’s post (Water, Water, Everywhere…), I just heard that Carrboro’s Board of Alderman have decided not to approve OWASA’s proposed amendments.

I don’t have anymore detail at the moment so I’m not quite sure if they agreed with all the points I outlined or had a few additional ones I didn’t pursue. In any case, maybe Council will now take time to review the provisions and reconsider last night’s vote.

Look for updates tomorrow.

After a very long day and a very long evening. I finally got a chance to ask Council to take a more measured approach to approving OWASA’s proposed modifications to the agreement controlling access Lake Jordan’s water.

The proposal might have appeared technical in nature but, at the heart of it, had policy ramifications impacting our community’s environmental commitments, fiscal health and pledges of sustainability.

Unfortunately Council, by a 7 to 2 vote, passed the resolution tonight without reviewing those wider issues and doing due diligence.

What might the future hold then?

1) Non-emergency use of the 5 million gallons per day (5MGd) to meet unsustainable growth patterns.

Current utilization is 6 to 7 MGd per day. No justification was made for doubling our water usage profile by tapping Lake Jordan for new non-emergency uses. Sadly, Council decided not to limit water allocations to clear emergency conditions.

UNC has already stated several times that it is keenly interested in securing this supply. If the new supply is only to function as an “insurance policy”, why that sharp interest?

2) As OWASA Chair Merklein put it so well this evening – there is only room for one more straw into Lake Jordan.

Any of the 5MG/d we draw down from Lake Jordan will have to come through either Cary’s or Durham’s infrastructure. OWASA clearly suggested that Chapel Hill will eventually rely on Durham’s “straw”.

Given that, I don’t think there’s any scenario involving long term draw downs through Durham which don’t incorporate significant additional costs to the OWASA customer base.

Why? As Durham has already signaled, as recently as 2008, it wants its Lake Jordan intake partners to participate in the financing and build-out of that new “straw”. If OWASA doesn’t directly underwrite its part of the project, it is hard to imagine that Durham and its other partners won’t charge a higher fee for water in order to recover their expenses. Either case, the fiscal impact was totally ignored this evening.

3) When OWASA’s 2010 Long Range Water Plan was presented to the Sustainability Task Force last year, we were told that supplies were sufficient for the next 50 years. The only “tight spot” were the years just prior to 2035 when the Rock Quarry reservoir comes online.

That point was reiterated this evening by Gene Pease, who spoke of a meeting he had just last week where he was told the same thing. The maximum anticipated shortfall is well less than 15%, very much less than the 5MG/d Council just approved, so why the hurry to move ahead?

OWASA stated approval was needed this year to secure the allocation, and I accept that, but that doesn’t excuse Council from putting some constraints on non-emergency allocations.

4) Water is required for growth. That point was well-understood when our joint community’s financed OWASA’s acquisition of a watershed that was supposed to meet our very long term needs. This community has fought hard – continues to fight hard – to maintain the best environmental standards within that watershed.

Council repudiated that tough fight this evening when they essentially agreed that OWASA could “borrow” as much as 5MG/d from Lake Jordan (an impaired water source).

Worse, we don’t know what constrains OWASA from tapping Lake Jordan for “non-emergency” reasons. If Council or Carrboro approves one too many East54 type developments – is that considered grounds for purchasing resources to fuel inappropriate growth?

5) Finally, as Council member Jim Ward pointed out this evening, just knowing we can tap another 5MG/d makes it tough to sell even more stringent water conservation policies. An important negative feedback loop has been removed.

Tonight’s misstep, of course, is part of a wider problem which our community and, especially, its current leadership has yet to successfully grapple with – are there constraints to growth?

Are we willing to purchase resources on the open-market to fuel an unsustainable level of growth? What, exactly, are we willing to trade away in building our future?

Unfortunately, the answers this evening were loss of local control of our water, loss of community reliance on local resources, loss of a commitment to live within our own footprint.

Spent a tad more than 5 hours discussing zoning and zoning related issues today.

Had an incredible work session with UNC’s Counter-Cartographies Collective (www.countercartographies.org), who “seek to create collaborations for engaged research and cartography — transforming the conditions of how we think, write and map and the conditions about which we think, write and map.”

Got a quick refresher on ArcGIS and then got some excellent practical advice on how to work with our local GIS (geographical information) to tease out socio-economic trends within our community. The technical know-how of the UNC students is impressive, the commitment to rethink cartography’s role in shaping our world view even moreso.

Maps, as one of the CCC members noted, are presented as fact. We habitually consume their content without due consideration, assuming the scientific trappings they come bundled with convey a solid certainty.

But maps can lie. They are often stripped of social context and employed to force a particular narrative. The CCC is interested in expanding the capabilities of maps – integrating a wider community-based context – exposing a richer variety of stories within our community.

After the work session, I sped off to the Southern Human Services building for a review of the County’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).
(more…)

As Anita Badrock kept reminding us this evening, the Personnel Appeals Committee doesn’t operate like a court – loose evidentiary rules, committee questions and witnesses, multiple cross-examinations, commentary from both parties.

If tonight’s hearing was cast as a made-for-television movie, the writers had a ready made character in Chapel Hill government’s own Voldemort. “He who must not be named” was not only responsible for starting the cascade of events leading to Clark/Bigelow’s termination but also stifling attempts to intervene before catastrophe struck.

The man in the shadows is a convenient trope but not a likely explanation for the evident failures in the Town’s disciplinary process.

As much as it has been discussed, the fate of the workers doesn’t hinge on whether race played a role in their termination or possible union busting efforts by the Town or documented poor performance or complaints by citizens over debris handling or offhanded remarks or “flinging arms” or rude remarks or angry calls for water or almost any of the other points/counterpoints flung about the last few months.

Their fates, I think, hinge on whether the P.A.C. thinks the two were afforded proper due process.
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Tonight’s Personnel Appeals hearing for Clyde Clark is more sparsely attended than last week’s for Kerry Bigelow (Personnel Appeals Hearing Kerry Bigelow: Evidence and Process). Roughly 40 folks in attendance, 5 from the local press (Elizabeth [WCHL], Katelyn [Chapel Hill News], Greg [HeraldSun], Don and Nancy [Chapel Hill Watch]). About 2/3rd’s are clearly supporters of Mr. Clark.

Unlike last week, I’ll be posting more abbreviated comments about testimony, tenor and process as the hearing progresses.

Anita Badrock has once again been chosen as the Chair. She reminds the audience that the committee is “not to replace the judgement of management” as per the Town’s ordinance (here).

(a) Conduct grievance and appeal hearings and render advisory opinions to the manager.
(b) Develop and maintain adequate records of all its proceedings, findings, and recommendations.
(c) Inform the employee(s) and the manager in writing of its findings and recommendations in all cases referred to it.

Clyde Clark is here tonight to ask to be reinstated, to get the safety and racism problems in Public Works fixed.
(more…)

Some quick thoughts on tonight’s hearing (Personnel Appeals Hearing Kerry Bigelow: Evidence and Process).

Was there clarity? No. Are some issues more understandable? Yes.

Both the Town and Mr. Bigelow agree that he was a solid worker with a “good attitude”. Both agree that something changed when Mr. Bigelow filed an EEOC complaint when he was passed over for a drivers job, a job his supervisor Larry Stroud said he was well suited for, a job that went to a less qualified candidate.

While the Town and the Appeals Board skirted the issue numerous times, it is also clear that the Town agreed Bigelow’s initial review process for that job wasn’t handled appropriately, that the deficiency in that review rose to the status of a “serious incident” and, apparently, led to the dismissal of a public works manager.

From that point on both sides construct a completely different, but strangely congruent, narrative of Bigelow’s employment.
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It’s interesting to see the Librsary Meeting Room set up for tonight’s hearing on Clyde Clark’s personnel appeals hearing. There are 87 seats prepared for the public, four police cars in the front parking lot (one unmarked), six uniformed officers downstairs,me and fellow local activist Terri Buckner.

Folks are trickling in – as of 6:40pm there are still plenty of seats.

I’m here this evening to see, after all these months of back and forth, the evidence the Town will present to justify the firing of Kerry Bigelow.

To date, the Town has said, justly, that they cannot reveal the details or specifics of the allegations in order to provide due process for the workers. On the other side, the workers have claimed retaliation for filing grievances, racism and a pattern of general disregard. They and their supporters claim the Town has persecuted them through a series of dirty tricks and deceptions.

I follow local events fairly closely and, as of this evening, I’m still unclear as to the factual basis for either sides claims. I do know, though, some of the folks making the claims and they’ve always been trustworthy.

A couple weeks ago, the “Sanitation 2″‘s supporters made their final appearance before Council ( Purest Form of Democracy: Raging Grannies to the Fore ) to plead their case (background here (Clark-Bigelow Out).

I made the following comments then:

I’ve been asked numerous times where I think the truth of the matter lies by folks who know I try to keep up with what is going on in Town and will call it as I see it. Simple answer? I don’t know. Lots of questions. Many raised over and over by the two’s supporters. I’m certainly sympathetic to Mr. Clyde and Bigelow’s situation – it is a very tough economy and getting a new job with a cloud hanging over their heads will be difficult to say the least.

I definitely think the Town made a boneheaded mistake in hiring CAI, a firm known for its anti-union bias.

From what has been reported, the case against the two workers seems tenuous and more deserving of management intervention than dismissal. Their reported grievances, unfortunately, are nothing new to me. Over the last decade, I’ve spoken to several dozen employees throughout our Town who have claimed similar malfeasance, discrimination, abuse and impropriety.
….
At that point, I expect the Town to lay its case out fully – with great specificity. I expect the Town to establish why normal management procedures failed, as they seemed to have (and, afterwards, explain how that failure is being remedied) and explain clearly why the workers were fired. I would hope that the Town also explains what yardstick they judged the two’s actions against. Is it true, as has been claimed by some of the workers’ supporters, that other employees with far more serious infractions (even criminality) haven’t been dismissed?

As I said then, some of the claims are, unfortunately, old news ( Council Oblivious: How Long Must This Go On? June, 2008).

7pm. Anita Badrock, Personnel Appeals chair, stands to address what is now a full house.
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Probably the best Council comment during Monday’s Comprehensive Plan discussion came from Ed Harrison.

Ed, who often relates how his neighborhood straddles the Orange/Durham county border, explained how Durham has newly integrated a set of tools in its comprehensive plan to guide both developers and staff.

The effort was spurred, Ed said, primarily by the planning staff, who wanted a better “planning toolbox” to manage the sprawling growth we often associate with Durham. That refresh complements the joint Durham County/City UDO (unified development ordinance) and extends beyond simply affirming base principles by integrating specific small area, transit and economic development initiatives and plans.

During next week’s Council Planning Retreat, Ed’s colleagues should take a few moments ahead of time to review Durham’s work with an eye towards integrating “lessons well-learned” from our neighbor’s work into our own new effort.

Chapel Hill’s AAA bond rating is noteworthy. The care our elected folks have taken to maintain it over a decade laudable. But is it fair to say, as Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt did yesterday, “it is almost, but not quite, as rare for a town our size to have a AAA rating by Standard & Poor’s and Moody as it is for Clemson to win in the Dean Dome”?

Well…

As one municipal bond specialist noted, today’s ratings aren’t quite the same as a decade ago:

Since early last year [2009], the number of “AAA”-rated localities has more than doubled, according to a newly released Standard & Poor’s report. Over the last 1 ½ years, despite the withering economic downturn, changes in rating criteria combined with a number of first-time rated “gilt edge” communities served to produce an increase of 86 communities now rated in the top “AAA” category.

Of the newly rated “AAAs,” S&P raised 65 from the “AA” category, with the remaining 21 representing communities never previously rated.

Traditionally, rating agencies have been tightfisted in their willingness to assign “AAA” ratings to municipal debt. Now, 169 local governments carry S&P’s top rating, up from 70 in late 2006.

Jay H. Abrams, FMS Bonds, Inc.

Standard & Poor’s (S&P) isn’t the only rating agency to review and relax the conditions for awarding a AAA rating:

In early April 2010, Fitch Ratings overhauled the way it assigns grades to the credit quality of state and local governments, recalibrating ratings on 40 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The move affects some 38,000 municipal bond issues. The rating agency’s wholesale recalibration is in part recognition that municipalities were being held to a higher standard than corporate and sovereign debt. Moody’s Investors Service also started to recalibrate its universe of municipal bond ratings in mid-April 2010, beginning with changes for 34 states and Puerto Rico.

Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association,2010

So, yes, the Town has managed to hold onto its AAA rating another year but the quality, so to speak, of today’s rating is not necessarily equivalent to that of the ratings awarded 2 or more years ago.

As far as municipal bond ratings, recall that there are three dominant rating agencies (CRAs) who manage the market for ratings (little competition), they routinely make huge mistakes (all 3 rated Enron investment grade right up to the collapse, all 3 rated many of the bundled mortgage securities highly right up to their failures), they are slow to adapt and have a poor record of understanding how to value new trading instruments (like the ARRA Build America Bonds [BABs] our Town just issued).

As I noted previously (most recently here) Chapel Hill’s Town Council has maxed out the credit card. The debt ceiling they have adopted is a reflection of previous borrowing decisions – not a prudent fiscal analysis of what is reasonably sustainable with our current tax-base.

One tool a concerned citizen can use is the Municipal Securities Rule-making Board’s (MSRB) relatively new
Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system – an analogue to the SEC’s EDGAR – to track filings.

Chapel Hill’s recent $20.1 million filing, which includes the $16+ million for the Library expansion, is here.

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