Of the nine members of the Chapel Hill Town Council, including Mayor Pam Hemminger, seven of nine have been endorsed by CHALT — the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town. But who — or what — exactly is CHALT?
CHALT is a progressive grassroots organization founded in 2014 by over 75 Chapel Hill residents interested in creating what they consider to be a livable future for the Town. It runs a newsletter with 2,000 subscribers and engages in community outreach and education.
“We began a group who wanted to set out some goals for the Town because we didn’t feel that our elected leaders — we’d worked really hard on various town issues and felt that our elected leaders weren’t being responsive,” said Julie McClintock, a member of CHALT who was present at the organization’s founding.
McClintock, a former Town Council member herself, said in the years before the founding, many Chapel Hill residents felt they were not being heard in regards to development projects like the Obey Creek Development Agreement, the Central West Small Area Plan and the Ephesus Fordham, now known as the Blue Hill district, development.
Del Snow, another founding member and a former member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, said the organization grew out of a concern for development projects they did not see as logical.
In the 2015 Town elections, CHALT endorsed council candidates Nancy Oates, Jessica Anderson and David Schwartz, as well as Pam Hemminger in the race for mayor. Oates, Anderson and Hemminger all won their seats. In 2017, CHALT endorsed four more candidates who won seats: Hongbin Gu, Allen Buansi, Rachel Schaevitz and Karen Stegman.
Snow said in the past, endorsements for candidates have come after CHALT separately interviewed each candidate and made decisions based on the qualities in an endorsed candidate that members share, which include commitment to the environment and affordable housing, as well as commitment to using facts and data in decision-making.
Snow said CHALT endorsements contribute to candidates’ successful elections.
“You know, you just have to look at who’s been elected and pretty much mostly CHALT-endorsed candidates have been elected,” she said. “They’re not CHALT candidates, these are people who have their own minds and they’re not beholden to us at all. But that’s why we ask, you know, thorough questions to make sure that people have similar concepts that we have. We’re very much based on using fact in making decisions as opposed to things that just sound good.”
To report the money it donates during elections, CHALT operates Chapel Hill Leadership, a political action committee. North Carolina state law requires any organization contributing to a candidate must report the financing through a PAC. McClintock said the rule is great for requiring campaign finance transparency. She also said she thinks the Town Council became more receptive to the public since the election of endorsed candidates.
George Cianciolo, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council from 2013 to 2017, said 2015 was the first year Chapel Hill saw a PAC play a role in local elections.
“I think basically they advocate for slower or no growth,” he said. “They would argue that they’re not against growth, they just want a different kind of growth.”
Despite his criticism, Cianciolo said he values CHALT’s advocacy for environmental protections. However, he views the organization as being anti-growth overall.
Snow said the organization’s mission says “nothing about being anti-development." She said the development happening at the time of the group's founding just wasn't helping the Town.
Snow said Chapel Hill’s form-based code — zoning regulation that considers form, scale and character of development — which regulates the Blue Hill district is an example of inadequate zoning. She said during its drafting in 2014, both recommendations from the Planning Commission and CHALT were ignored by the Town Council.
Cianciolo said one flaw with CHALT's platform is their alternative suggestion to development they oppose is always to support commercial development. Such development, he said, is undesirable for developers due to Chapel Hill’s smaller population compared to neighboring Durham County, where developers can draw in customers from both counties if they develop near the county lines.
“The argument that gets lost in these discussions is what would happen if you didn’t grow?” he said. “The fact of the matter is that if you don’t grow, you’re going to have to raise taxes, because just the cost of running government goes up every year.”
CHALT fears that haste to expand the tax base leads to poorly-planned development of luxury apartment complexes that generate runoff, prevent affordable housing and increase tax rates.
“When tax rates go up, it only forces more people out of town because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” Snow said. “It becomes not a livable town, which is what CHALT stands for.”
Cianciolo said the commercial development CHALT desires cannot occur without a larger tax base and that new buildings do not necessarily tax Town resources nor generate greater runoff.
Besides its visions for development, CHALT advocates for greater transit through initiatives like Bus Rapid Transit and, until its cancellation last week, opposed the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. The organization also advocated for the protection of the Chelsea Theater and works with other local organizations such as PORCH Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Habitat for Humanity of Orange County.
CHALT aims to be a grassroots organization of residents invested in the Town’s future, advocating for their idea of responsible development and climate change awareness. For example, they consistently promote petitions to preserve local natural resources.
Gianciolo said it is unfortunate that there is an “us against them” mentality. He said CHALT members and residents with differing views are both composed of good people.
McClintock said CHALT largely shares the same views it did at its founding, but its perspective has changed in terms of looking toward the future.
“The direction it’s taken is that we’ve gotten less 'pie-in-the-sky' and more practical,” she said.
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