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Public Hearings Don’t Matter Any More?

April 5, 2011

(Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published on March 31.)

In the past CCEC has been diligent about informing citizens of upcoming public hearings and urging them to show up and speak out. We’ve advocated for citizen involvement in such public forums because we value informed citizen input in critical governmental decisions, and believe it is important for commissioners to be open to and eager for people’s input. Now we are alarmed to learn that our newly elected county commissioners seem to think that public hearings really don’t matter anymore.

This was the clear message delivered by the Chatham Board of Commissioners Chair, Brian Bock, at the 2011 Chatham County Development Briefing held last Tuesday, March 21 at the Governor’s Club. Approximately 160 realtors, builders, and business people from Chatham and surrounding counties attended the event.

Speakers included Mark Zimmerman of Chapel Hill’s Great Harvest Bread Company; Kevin Graham, the project manager for Briar Chapel; Diane Reid of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation; and Chatham Commissioner Brian Bock. Kevin Graham’s and Diane Reid’s presentations featured photographs of scenic Chatham County. Their comments indicated that the rural qualities of Chatham, as well as developments with an emphasis on environmental stewardship and preservation of natural open spaces like Briar Chapel, are an economic asset to the county and attract desirable businesses.

Realtors love to talk about what a great success Briar Chapel turned out to be. But they neglect to mention the positive impact that Chatham County’s Compact Community Ordinance (CCO) had on the development. The original Briar Chapel proposal was denied by Chatham County. The county then initiated, developed, and finally approved the CCO that provided the regulations and guidelines needed for rational approval of a development on the size and scale of Briar Chapel. CCEC was born out of the painful labor to form a credible CCO, and citizen participation in the form of citizens’ advisory boards and citizen organizations was fundamental to the development of the CCO. The result is the much-lauded Briar Chapel, which is now held up as an example of green development and used as a beacon in marketing campaigns for economic development.

Yet Chairman Bock told recent attendees of the business summit that “advisory boards are a problem,” and his focus is on changing the rules and regulations to make it easier for projects to get through the bureaucracy. This includes shortening the approval process for developments by eliminating certain advisory board reviews, most notably that of the Environmental Review Board. Bock said there will be changes to the subdivision and zoning ordinances to further “streamline” (a.k.a. “deregulate”) processes, and county staff will be given much more discretion and approval power. Bock went on to state, “Of course, this still has to go to public hearing, but the majority of the board has agreed to these steps.”

Whoa … did he really say that? According to someone who was there, he most certainly did. In other words, regardless of what citizens say at the upcoming public hearings about the so-called “text amendments” to zoning ordinances, those changes are a done deal because the majority of the Board has already gotten together and made that decision. Bock went on to say, “There is a new Planning Board with seven new members with a ‘different attitude.’ They’ll ask, ‘How can we help you?’ rather than telling people to follow the rules.”

This new approach suggests that whatever advisory boards remain will be serving businesses and developers rather than Chatham citizens, adjacent landowners and the county’s natural resources. It’s in keeping with Commissioner Petty’s suggestion at the January BOC retreat that the Appearance Commission could act as “landscaping consultants” for a prospective applicant.

But that’s not all. Bock says he wants to make things even easier for developers by having a staff member “act as an ‘ombudsman’ who will steer businesses and developments through the approval process.” What exactly is he saying here? Is he proposing a new staff position? How will he accomplish this? And how is such a service a “core government function” (a standard to which all decisions by the new BOC majority are held)?

Chairman Bock has declared publicly that Chatham County is “Open For Business.” And with his comments last Tuesday, he has left little doubt that his true allegiance is to businesses and developers above all citizens and the natural resources of Chatham County. We’ve sat through this movie before during this past decade and watched the red carpet for “business as usual” roll over concerns for environmental protection and sustainability. The movie ends with a relative few taking home the goods at the expense of the common good.

Do public hearings still matter? The answer to that question lies in our hands. There’s a second one on regulatory processes and proposed changes to zoning ordinances scheduled for April 18. CCEC urges you to get your act together, show up and offer your two cents worth. Take a stand on these issues.

And let the commissioners know how you feel about public hearings.


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