Forest Heath III is a 19-year-old Chapel Hill native who runs a PR firm based in D.C., and is currently applying for the town of Chapel Hill's Planning Commission. Staff Writer Gabrielle Micchia talked with Heath about his passion for local politics.
The Daily Tar Heel: How did you start getting involved with the planning commission?
Heath: I've lived in Chapel Hill my entire life — I was actually born at UNC, but I kind of spend a lot more time in D.C., Medellin and Colombia as well. Two of these cities have experienced a lot of urban growth and have gone from not really having many vibrant centers of mixed-use or commerce, to being really, really great cities to live in.
I wanted to apply this to Chapel Hill since we are in the process of growing and changing. And I really thought it mattered for people like you and I to have more of a voice in stuff that’s going on. Ultimately, we’re the ones who are affected by the planning that we are doing now. If we build a building, that building is going to be there for fifty years, and you and I are the ones that are going to be dealing with it if we end up staying in Chapel Hill. So, I really felt this burden to get involved on a much more in-depth level in the local government.
DTH: What are you trying to accomplish in the planning committee?
Heath: One thing is having a more diverse voice in the commission. Right now, it’s largely comprised of retired North Carolina residents who have great opinions and input, but I don’t think they totally get the perspective that someone closer to our age may have when thinking about the long term, or thinking about how to make a community that attracts millennials and really drives sustainable growth in Chapel Hill. So, one thing is advocating for that younger voice.
The second one is acting as this community connective tissue. I have had meetings with a bunch of community council members in the process of getting this started, and the striking thing is that it kind of develops from since there is not much talk between the planning commission and the town council in an official capacity. So, instead of there being this informal dialogue, if something comes in the smaller scale stuff, it doesn’t actually get referred to the Town Council. We’re kind of in this situation where there’s a disconnect between the different groups that are involved in Chapel Hill politics and development-related stuff. So, I really want to be a part of that connective tissue.
DTH: How did you get involved with the Planning Commission?
Heath: I went to a couple of their meetings and started to do more research, and realized that, back to the central point, there’s this space for someone to advocate for future-focused development for millennials and younger people. I just really wanted to give some level of service to my community. I’m at a weird position being a 19-year-old in a state where I can dedicate a lot more time to public service, so I thought this was a really good avenue for me to pursue that service, in a way that is something I am really passionate about and enjoy as well.
I am kind of a nerd when it comes to designing better urban spaces and planning stuff, so it was kind of this intersection of many different passions of mine, and kind of this impedance to really have an impact on the community.
DTH: Have you had any pushback as far as your age in the process of joining the commission?
Heath: There is pushback because it’s generally not normal for a 19-year-old to a) want to get on the Planning Commission and b) be involved with local political stuff. So I don’t know if it's innate discrimination or pushback as much as it’s sort of a level of skepticism. But on the flip side, I think there are a certain few in the group, maybe not everybody, but there are people in the deciding body that really see the advantage of more diversity in the planning commission and in local government in general.
DTH: Why did you feel the need to get involved with local government at such a young age?
Heath: Two reasons. One, I am in a very unique position since I have a degree of free time that I can effectively use to advocate for our generation. Most people our age are working to stay afloat in college, or have to work a side job to support rent and other stuff. And because of my success in business, I have this degree of free time that I can devote to giving back to the community. I really felt like my specific position necessitated me to get involved in some way.
The second point is that our community is not really representative enough and I think it is really, really important for a younger perspective, and maybe a different perspective than a 60-year-old retired Chapel Hill resident, to have influence on how we are shaping the flow of our city. All of the little decisions we make, whether it be a day care or a 10-story apartment building, are going to be there for a fairly long period of time, so having input for the generation that is actually going to be inheriting most of this stuff is really important, and I want to advocate for that.
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