Name as it appears on the ballot: Jon Mitchell
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: jon4chapelhill.com
Occupation & employer: Bank regulatory lawyer – freelance
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 8
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
This must be an exceedingly slow elevator!
I’m running to implement the Town’s new development framework (“Complete Community”), which is our best chance of finally shifting away from disjointed, car-oriented development patterns that under-deliver on workforce housing, community benefits, and sustainability. Going forward, we’re going to deliver high-quality public places and amenities, walkable, economical housing options, and a rapid expansion of our greenway and linear park network. In the process, we’re going to be more sensitive to the interface between nature and development. Instead of clearcutting and regrading every site, we’re going to respect Chapel Hill’s topography and preserve more of our signature tree canopy, even while we build. That’s how we’ll maintain a sense of place as we grow.
I’m running to help the Town implement this vision quickly, thoughtfully, and collaboratively. My website lists ten steps to get there. Warning: many will find the steps boring and technical. They are. That’s why it’s important to elect at least a couple people with a demonstrated interest in land use planning.
2) If you don’t currently serve on the town council, what is something members could be doing better? If you do, what has been your biggest accomplishment during your time in office?
The Town’s approach to land use planning needs to become more organized and pro-active. Instead of evaluating development applications project-by-project, we need to actively coordinate walkable neighborhoods connected by greenways. That means identifying the specific “nodes” where we’re going to focus growth, determining what sort of infrastructure and amenities they require to become walkable neighborhoods, and partnering with developers and other stakeholders to get these things in place while we still can. It puts our Planning Department in a coordination and negotiation role, as opposed to a paper processing role. And it allows our Council members to focus on policy, instead of negotiating the location of bike racks.
But there’s no switch we can flip. It will take years for us to build planning capacity and complete the transition, which is now in its early stages thanks to the Complete Community framework. Hopefully readers are hearing the message that the ship is turning in the right direction, but we need to be patient and keep at it until we see results. Abandoning the changes underway at such an early stage would set us back years. For those unclear on the changes I’m referring to, this blog post on my campaign website provides an overview. Please check it out.
While I’m not an incumbent Council member, I just finished a term as chair of the Planning Commission (a citizen advisory board that makes recommendations on growth and development matters). My biggest accomplishment in that role was re-orienting the Planning Commission’s development review process around nine specific Complete Community criteria (described under question 7, below). This has made our discussions more rigorous and systematic, and less impressionistic. Developers are starting to show up with better proposals in anticipation of our review. When we receive proposals that pay lip service to the criteria without actually meeting them, we’re more confident in recommending denial. That’s how we’ve started to change things. I’m happy to share examples of our matrices (which are public documents) with anyone who’s interested.
I also led an effort to rethink the Town’s parking standards in light of the Complete Community framework, but I won’t bore readers with that.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
To prevent duplication, I’ll save the key issues of housing diversity and fiscal soundness for questions 5 and 6, respectively. Here I’ll talk about two other key issues: transportation infrastructure, and maintaining Chapel Hill’s sense of place.
In 2022, the Town hired the former chief planner of Toronto to help us rethink our approach to growth and development. One of the first things she noticed was that we have “a difficult urban form to remediate,” due to the way our roads are configured (i.e., the opposite of a grid) and our land uses are separated (i.e., residential uses here, commercial and institutional uses there). For reasons of physics, adding density without addressing transportation infrastructure would be problematic. After a couple months of interviews and focus groups with community stakeholders (including me), she steered us toward a vision characterized by walkable, mixed use neighborhoods with a diversity of housing types, connected by a Dutch-style “everywhere to everywhere” greenway system, mostly separate from our road network. That’s the foundation of the Complete Community framework that the Council unanimously approved in December 2022.
I want to emphasize that the greenway piece is essential to our new development framework. The framework doesn’t make sense without it, and I wouldn’t be running if I thought building another 25 miles of transportation greenways was unrealistic. It’s mostly a question of political will. And just to be clear, cars will continue to be the predominant form of transportation in Chapel Hill. The point of greenways is to free up road capacity and give people options.
On my campaign website, I published a 2,000 word blog post titled It’s Time to Get Serious about Greenways. It discusses what the Town is currently doing about greenways and additional steps I believe we should take. In my view, the Town probably needs to spend more of its own money (in addition to all the federal grants we can get) on greenways over the next decade. Otherwise, we can’t be confident we’ll deliver on this component of the Complete Community vision in time to meaningfully shape the Town’s future development. We should also explore ways to decrease design and construction costs per mile, and my blog post includes several ideas in that vein.
Buses will also remain central to our transportation infrastructure. We’re likely to secure the necessary grants to move forward with the North-South Bus Rapid Transit project along MLK and South Columbia from Eubanks Road to Southern Village within the next year or two. In the meantime, I would like the Town to begin planning in earnest for an east-west version along 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. This idea has been around for a long time but only at the theory level. We’re a regional economy, and we need regional transportation alternatives that get people out of traffic jams.
Maintaining our Sense of Place
The default approach to development in our area is to clear cut, regrade, build, and then plant new trees to satisfy tree canopy regulations. It looks great after 30 years. As I mentioned above, we need to be more sensitive to the interface between nature and development. Mature tree canopy along our key transportation corridors is part of what makes Chapel Hill distinctive. We can absolutely add housing density without allowing indiscriminate clear cutting. But the right balance heavily depends on the facts and circumstances of each project. I would like the Town to negotiate over trees as zealously as it negotiates over affordable housing units. I wrote in a recent blog post about the example of 710 N. Estes, a development proposal that initially called for clear cutting but ultimately featured a substantial stand of mature hardwoods toward the center of the site – without sacrificing a single housing unit. I personally helped negotiate that. It required shifting an underground stormwater tank and some other technical adjustments to the site plan that normally receive little attention.
Too often we get caught up in false binaries like housing vs. trees. I want us to be a little more nuanced about possibilities and trade-offs.
4) Local government, given the construction of the North Carolina constitution, is often highly limited in its jurisdiction. How would you best leverage the powers of the town council? What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
On the first question: It’s true that North Carolina law hamstrings us in many ways. We can’t regulate whether housing units are for-sale or rentals. We can’t charge developer “impact fees” to fund community infrastructure. We can’t require that rental properties include designated affordable units, or that developers provide units for existing tenants post-redevelopment at costs resembling their rents pre-redevelopment. And so on. That said, North Carolina municipalities have fairly broad authority to regulate land use, and conditional rezoning is a powerful tool to secure community benefits like workforce housing and local neighborhood amenities and open space. We have the authority we need to implement the Complete Community framework.
In the past, the Town seemed to underutilize its negotiating leverage by waiting until the end of the rezoning process to start negotiating. Developers would receive very high-level feedback on concept plans, mostly ignore it, and squeak by during the final hearings anyway. Part of the problem has been a failure to keep our land use ordinances aligned with what we actually want. As a result, the Town’s standards were basically inscrutable to developers. We’re in the process of addressing that. Another part of the problem was a lack of meaningful engagement with developers earlier in the process. It’s just not possible to negotiate complex land use matters three hours into a public meeting on a Wednesday night. We need to be clear about what we want and then negotiate for it aggressively (and efficiently) from the start, especially behind the scenes. That’s a role we ultimately need to prepare our full-time planning staff to play, with oversight from the Council.
By the same token, we need to be careful about dissipating our leverage through over-use of form-based codes. Some of the things we need to produce walkable neighborhoods can’t necessarily be standardized. Ninety percent probably can. But the other ten percent, which is absolutely critical to the overall result, requires one-off negotiations. (And even if I’m wrong and this stuff can be standardized, we don’t know how yet!) Blue Hill was in some respects a humbling experience for the Town. There’s still time for a partial course correction in Blue Hill, and that’s going to be a priority for me, but in other parts of Town, let’s make sure we have our standards dialed in and we’re consistently getting the projects we expect before we remove the Council’s ability to say no. (To be clear, my primary concern about Blue Hill is not about density but place-making and walkability.)
On the second question: I’ve been on the Planning Commission since June 2021 and recently finished a term as chair. I’ve been closely engaged in Chapel Hill land use planning issues for 2.5 years, a period that included the development of the Complete Community framework. The work we need to do as a Town to implement the framework is, in many respects, work I have been engaged in at a fairly technical level for almost a year. As discussed in questions 2 and 7, I developed the Complete Community Matrix that the Planning Commission now uses to evaluate development applications. I’m also a lawyer (banking, not land use!), and I keep a now dog-eared copy of David Owens’ textbook “Land Use Law in North Carolina” on my bookshelf. This work is complicated, as is the legal and institutional context around it. I’ve put an immense amount of time into educating myself on land use and urban planning. And yet, I’m nowhere near mastering it (if that’s even possible).
I’ve been endorsed by every Planning Commission chair since 2014 who is not also running for Council, as well as the current vice-chair. I have personally served with each of these folks. They have very different views on land use planning.
The current chair said, “[h]aving served as vice chair of the Planning Commission with Jon as chair, I experienced first hand what a hard-working, wise, and empathetic leader he is. He was always the most prepared and most ambitious in what we could accomplish, but would happily listen to and incorporate the ideas and concerns of others — whether Town residents, Town staff, or other commissioners.”
The previous chair (before me) said, “[o]n the Planning Commission, Jon Mitchell has shown himself to be very intentional, transparent, focused, and fact-driven member. He delves deep into the specific technical details that underpin our regulations and decision-making, while also maintaining a big-picture vision of how to balance the interests, needs, and expectations of the Town and its stakeholders. Jon has demonstrated the capacity to devote the time and mental energy required of an involved council member, and the ability to work towards functional consensus on important issues that face the Town.”
I’ve also been endorsed by the past two mayors, and by multiple current and former Council members. That said, I’d urge residents to judge candidates primarily on the depth of their answers and their demonstrated capacity to collaborate with others that don’t necessarily agree with them. Action by the Council requires five votes.
5) Community members frequently show up to town council meetings to share that they work in Chapel Hill but cannot afford to live here. With rising rents, even some that already live here are worried they will no longer be able to afford it. The town recently passed an affordable housing plan and investment strategy, which provides a general path forward. Do you support this plan? How would you, on the council, move forward to increase Chapel Hill’s affordable housing stock?
Yes, I support the plan. It’s more comprehensive than our prior plans, and it’s ambitious.
As we proceed with implementation, I’d like to further explore two aspects of the plan, together with my colleagues on the Council. First, do we have, or can we devise, measures of effectiveness for the various sub-components of the plan? In other words, is there a way to measure whether we’re making as much impact per dollar in one area of the plan (e.g., rental or down payment assistance) as another (e.g., grants for development of new affordable units). I want us to make as much impact as possible with our limited resources – similar to the approach organizations like GiveWell take to philanthropy – and not necessarily to spread funding among the broadest array of programs.
Second, we need to understand the implications of Town staff’s request for $50 million over five years to implement the plan. This aspect of the Plan has not been adopted yet. I’m enthusiastic about funding our housing programs generously, as we have in the past. At the same time, this proposal would represent a dramatic increase in average annual funding for housing, immediately after a 10% property tax increase, and at a time when we’re struggling to find money to cover deferred maintenance needs and Complete Community infrastructure needs. We need to look at these needs, and our available revenues, holistically and make thoughtful trade-offs, recognizing that housing and community infrastructure are interrelated, and the community’s appetite for additional tax increases is limited.
Separately, I’d like to see more emphasis on ways we can facilitate production of market-rate (unsubsidized) units at lower price points. I think we’re leaving too much on the table here. We can’t control construction costs, but we can control unit sizes, which are a decent proxy for unit cost. And we can “set the table” for walkable, amenity-rich neighborhoods in which people might find small-unit living attractive. We can also experiment with co-housing, where residents share certain amenities to decrease average costs. I raised the idea of a co-housing pilot with the Town’s affordable housing staff last year, and they were enthusiastic about it, but they noted that they could not explore the idea further without a directive from the Council. I think it’s time we did so.
In the same vein, I wonder why we haven’t done more to promote “tiny houses,” including by making any necessary adjustments in our ordinances. I see that the UNC School of Social Work has partnered with Cross Disability Services on a tiny house village demonstration project in Pittsboro. I’d like to see our Town pursuing things like that, which might be scalable even without public subsidies. Overall, I’d like us to try harder to address the demand for small, market-rate units in neighborhoods with amenities and green space, where families of average means could realistically live with multiple bikes and one car. That’s my take on the Complete Community vision.
One last point on housing: It’s evident from this campaign cycle that our community has not reached a consensus on the need for growth, or the trade-offs involved with different growth scenarios. I’ve had residents ask me why we shouldn’t just put a moat around the Town. That’s actually an excellent question that deserves a serious answer. On the other hand, I’ve heard things like, “increasing supply will lower prices,” which is obviously true at some scale but not at the scale of our little town. Mostly it depends on what kinds of units we’re producing, and whether we have the multi-modal transportation infrastructure to enable households to own fewer cars. My point is that our dialogue is pretty confused, and that’s making it almost impossible to plan effectively for the future.
I’d like the Town to start facilitating frank conversations among different community stakeholders about trade-offs. And I’d like the Town itself to be more transparent about what it’s hoping to accomplish on the housing front, and to be willing to expose its own premises and assumptions to scrutiny. Otherwise, I fear we’ll continue to talk past each other and get mediocre development outcomes.
6) In June, Chapel Hill approved its largest tax hike in years. In a town built around a tax-exempt public university with large land holdings, how can the council finance future projects? Should the town look to build a larger commercial base? Increase residential taxes? Some other way?
To avoid further tax increases, we have two options: increase revenues in other ways, and control costs. On the revenue side, the Town’s new Complete Community development framework helps. The kind of walkable, mixed use development it calls for tends to increase property values (and therefore tax collections), diversify the tax base (by increasing sales tax revenues), and spread out the fixed costs of government. In addition, commercial projects either approved or under review for downtown, including two “wet lab” projects, will generate significant property tax revenues while costing us little in terms of Town services used (schools, facilities). They will also bring unusually high paying jobs. Some of this income will be spent here (e.g., on lunch at local restaurants), generating sales tax revenues.
On the cost side, we face new challenges that require creative solutions. Well-planned, walkable development often requires up-front investments in public infrastructure like connector roads, off-grade bike and pedestrian crossings, parks, greenways, and stormwater facilities. This was a key take-away from the Complete Communities Trade-Off Analysis delivered to the Town in December 2022. If we’re serious about implementing the Complete Community framework – which I am – we need to get serious about how we’re going to finance this infrastructure without continuing to raise taxes. Part of the solution could involve leveraging the higher property values that accompany new development to pay for necessary infrastructure. Tax increment financing (TIF) and synthetic TIF are effective ways to accomplish this (and they are permissible in North Carolina). I won’t bore readers with the details.
In addition, I suspect we can tighten our belts in some areas. This month I requested and obtained from Town staff a spreadsheet showing line-item detail on the Town’s spending on professional services of all kinds since January 2020. All candidates were copied on the response to my request. The results were not shocking, but some of the line items concerned me. I’ll save the details for another time. Council members have a lot of different responsibilities, and I’m not sure anyone has thought to ask for a report like this (perhaps some folks have). Given how little money we have lying around, I’d like to devote extra attention to good financial management and housekeeping.
7) Much of the work of the town council involves judging rezoning requests for new developments. Looking especially at recent proposals such as The Reserve at Blue Hill and Chapel Hill Crossings, what criteria should developers meet in order to gain approval?
This year I designed a tool for the Planning Commission called the Complete Community Matrix. It sets forth nine specific criteria for evaluating up-zoning requests:
- Land use efficiency (measured as housing density per acre)
- Mix of housing unit sizes/configurations that address affordability goals
- Both walkable and bikable to several daily needs, such as housing, jobs, schools, recreation. Mixed use buildings encouraged
- On bus line
- Parking aligned with Planning Commission recommendations (from 6/21/23 petition to Council)
- Quality design, place-making, and prioritization of the pedestrian realm
- Reasonably respectful of surrounding neighborhoods
- Respect for topography and natural landscapes (tree canopy, green space), including any protected natural areas
- Responsive to stormwater concerns
For each criterion, the Planning Commission describes relevant facts and provides a written analysis to the Council. So far, this approach has been well received by the Council and seems to be having a clarifying effect both for the Town and for developers. The goal is to weed out proposals that represent sprawl, and instead to identify and encourage proposals that represent walkable development that addresses the Town’s housing needs while respecting the Town’s sense of place and delivering value to the Town’s existing residents.
Chapel Hill Crossing went through this matrix process and subsequently underwent major changes. The Reserve at Blue Hill has not yet come before the Planning Commission. When it does, I presume we’ll analyze it systematically according to our usual criteria. I’m well aware of the implications of this project for residents of the Kings Arm Apartments, and this will require special attention. The Town cannot prevent a landowner from renovating or re-developing pursuant to the current zoning. But the Town can use the conditional rezoning process to extract enforceable promises regarding future affordability, in exchange for permission to build more densely.
Some may wonder whether the Complete Community framework is merely a cover for officials to continue approving dense housing projects indiscriminately. I’d invite anyone curious about this to review the recording of the Planning Commission’s October 3rd meeting, available through the Town’s website. At this meeting, we voted to recommend denial of a 16-acre housing project that, in my view, paid lip service to the Town’s Complete Community criteria without actually delivering a better product than we’ve seen in the past. In contrast, recently approved projects such as South Creek and St. Paul Village show the kind of well-designed, mixed-use development that the Complete Community framework calls for.
8) How should the Greene Tract be developed? Should affordable housing be built on part of it? How much should preservation be balanced with development?
In 1984, the ~164-acre Greene Tract was purchased jointly by Orange County and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro as a potential future landfill site. It was never actually used for that purpose and is now available for other uses. Under the most recent (2021) agreement between the three jurisdictions, the property is proposed to be allocated as follows: 82 acres of preserved green space (comprised of the 60-acre Headwaters Preserve, owned exclusively by Orange County, and a 22-acre joint preserve), 66 acres of affordable and mixed-income housing and “other uses,” and 16 acres for a future public school site with public recreation.
I understand that some residents believe more of the land should be preserved and less of the land developed.
My own view is that we should have some kind of transparent methodology for allocating the land – preferably one tied to the Complete Community framework – and that should be the basis for further discussion. Otherwise, we’re debating arbitrary numbers, or administering a kind of Rorschach test designed to draw out the relative value residents assign, in the abstract, to green space and housing – with residents of the historically oppressed Rogers Road community caught in middle. That doesn’t seem like the best way to reach consensus. In short, I’m less interested in the number than the methodology that produced it. I feel the same way about the Legion property.
It’s worth noting that the Complete Community framework places high value on preserved natural areas. One of the first tasks the Town needs to accomplish under this framework is to identify its highest value natural areas so that we can figure out how to avoid building on them.
9) How can the town improve its community engagement process to make sure that residents, especially those who do not have the time or resources to attend town council meetings on weekday nights, have their voices heard?
The Town recently conducted an engagement study that demonstrates the premise of this question, i.e., that certain populations are under-engaged by the Town, due to specific barriers related to trust and accountability, communication, and inclusivity. The study contains 15 recommendations. We should implement them. I have nothing else to add to this excellent work that was just done.
Separately, as I noted under question 5, the Town also needs to engage in more constructive conversations with those who do show up to public meetings and feel that they are unfairly lectured and dismissed as NIMBYs. We need to start having more open and nuanced discussions about the point of growth and the embedded trade-offs, and these discussions need to occur outside the context of specific land use decisions. I’ve had countless discussions of this sort during the course of my campaign, and they’re often illuminating to both sides. We agree on more than we realize.
10) How can the town leverage its relationship with the university to achieve its goals? Should the town be trying harder to keep young talent in the area?
On the first question: The Town recently negotiated a $5 million revolving loan fund from UNC in connection with the Eastowne rezoning. It’s currently in discussions with UNC about a Complete Community pilot project that involves UNC’s Bolin Creek Center (next to the Root Cellar). These are ways the Town is currently leveraging the relationship.
We’d all like for UNC to open up the old Horace Williams Airport site for workforce housing. Unfortunately, that’s for the UNC Board of Trustees, and perhaps the General Assembly, to decide. We should absolutely pursue discussions about this. Theodore Nollert and I had fruitful discussions with UNC folks earlier this year about student housing issues. But we should be realistic about how this works. In the absence of negotiating leverage, just saying “fix this” to UNC officials elicits a predictable response.
On the second question: Yes. The downtown wet lab projects (one approved, one under review) represent an effort to retain and capitalize on university talent for the Town’s long term economic benefit. The forthcoming downtown innovation district hopefully will have a similar effect.
More broadly, the Complete Community framework will make the Town more attractive to recent graduates and other young professionals by:
- Providing more housing options beyond detached single-family houses, which, at median prices near half a million dollars, recent graduates can’t plausibly afford;
- Creating mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, which many young people (and older people!) prefer; and
- Providing transportation alternatives that many young people prefer, in part because the existence of these alternatives significantly lowers the overall cost of living here.
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