History and Arrogance

Private Town Hall land piggy-bank
On paper, for lack of better terminology, the entire 8.7 acre Fidelity-Davie tract has been referred to as the “Westwood Cemetery”.  But since at least 1989 Town Hall officials, both elected and staff, have in practive regarded the open 5.5 acre Fidelity tract as their own personal land piggy bank that is potentially available for whatever project they want to consider.  (And without any notification to the neighborhood or community at large, much less any consultation!)  When was this 8.7 acre tract purchased, and for what purpose?  When it was bought the population of Carrboro was tiny.  Even by the early 2000’s no more than a dozen plots were being sold in most years.  At 700 graves per acre, there could be 6100 graves placed into 8.7 acres.  Surely fewer than 5 burials per year were made when the cemetery was first created.  Did they buy 8 acres to provide over 1200 years of future burials?  When it was bought it was known that much of the area east of the driveway would be too rocky for graves.  So it is specious to claim that the entire tract was always intended to be used for cemetery purposes, especially in light of its recent history:  Circa 1989 our neighborhood was told that the decision to put the new post office there was a “done deal”:  all of town government and the business community had arrived at this consensus.  But the still-extant cemetery commission did not want the post office as a backdrop and the post office insisted upon a highway location.  In the 1990’s Mayor Nelson was considering putting the new Public Works maintenance yard into this tract.  It was also considered for the Carrboro library and for affordable housing (as in Chapel Hill).

Even parts of Town Hall have been confused over the status of this 5.5 acre open space.  At the same time that CVDA was being retained at $47,000 by Public Works to draw up a landscaping plan for a new cemetery in the 3 acre meadow, the Planning Department was retaining Testka at $180,000 to conduct the Carrboro Connects process.  CVDA produced a detailed conceptual sketch for filling the meadow with structures and graves at the same time in 2020 that Testka was referring to the meadow on a crucial map as “The Commons”.

Google shed rammed down our throats in 2016
In 2016 the Town leased part of the woods to Google without any notification or consultation to people living less than 100 feet away.  Months after that contract was signed we were given only 3 weeks’ warning before the trees came down.  When we objected to the impropriety of the decision being made entirely within Town Hall, we were told that the Land Use Ordinance’s notification and hearing rules did not apply to the Town — that none of the Town’s devlopment rules apply to itself.  That May I complained to Town Manager David Anderson about the lack of a citizen’s cemetery commission to oversee the usage of this tract.  A debate between us ensued as to whether the Google shed was to be located on “cemetery land”.  He firmly asserted that it was not;  later I noticed that the blueprints for the shed did describe its location as “Westwood Cemetery”.  Also that month I complained to Planning Director Trish McQuire that the location of the shed might in the future better serve as a “least worst” location for a parking lot if the tract were to become a park.  I said that there should be some sort of planning process with community involvement.  She stated emphatically that siting the Google shed there did not conflict with anything, since there was no “Plan” at all for the 5.5 acre site!  These are both vivid memories since I felt vindicated by winning the technical nomenclature argument with the town manager and since I was shocked that the planning director was boldly asserting that our most valuable open tract having no planning and did not need any planning!  So as recently as May 2016 the top two staff members were saying nothing about possibly extending Westwood cemetery into the 5.5 acre open area in the future.

No notification to neighborhood about cemetery expansion
I only found out about Public Works’ 2020 expansion plan by sheer accident in October 2020, and to date I do not know of anyone outside of Town Hall that knows about the expansion plan that did not learn about it from me through word of mouth, through my five presentations to Council last fall, or via my comments in Carrboro Connects.  It has been a well-kept secret!  Fidelity Court (now 400 Davie Road) was condo-ized decades ago and Hillmont has been condo-ized for many years.  Purchasers of those condos were likely told what I had long taken for granted:  That the cemetery would not be expanded across the driveway because the land was too rocky.  In October 2020, I was making a rare daytime trip past the meadow to bring my laundy in.  When I saw a road grader spreading dirt out across the meadow I stopped to ask the driver what was happening.  He (one of the lowest ranking members of Public Works) told me that they were getting ready to put some graves into the meadow.  This turned out to be an erroneous statement, since in fact he was performing the routine distribution of the surplus dirt from graves.  Otherwise I still would not know about the expansion plan, since his warning is the only reason that I later became involved in Carrboro Connects.

In October 2018 an inquiry from Ellie Kinnaird regarding green burials prompted Public Works to give a report to Council.  On the side this report noted that the supply of plots in the traditional Westwood cemetery were dwindling.  This report contains the earliest mention that I know of that refers to the possibility of putting some graves to the east of the driveway.  While doing so it noted that parts of the meadow are too rocky for graves.  After that report was presented, the Council directed the staff to bring forward a plan to plot some of the land in the meadow.  At that point at least five of its members had been present for the 2016 Google shed fight.  At the end of that fight in June 2016, Councillor Jacquie Gist had declared that Town Hall owed our neighborhood an apology for the lack of prior warning.  She said that they should do better at informing the neighbors “next time”.  After the fight was over, I was wondering out loud while discussing the future of this tract with Zoning Administrator Mary Roupe about whether I should invest additional efforts to protect it in the future.  Marty said something like “Gee, Bob, [given the fuss the neighbors had just made] I think it will be a long time before anyone considers doing anything in that tract.”

Expansion decision and planning lack legitimacy
So given Carrboro’s claimed commitment to open government that fully engages the community,  it can be said that the 2018 expansion decision and the 2020 retaining of CVDA both lack legitimacy:  although all of the 2016 key people were still in their positions in 2018 there was no efforts made by anyone in Town Hall to engage with the neighbors.  More broadly, since this tract is centrally located and since it is the Town’s only sizable open piece of land in town, everyone in the broader Carrboro community should have been informed and involved with any plans being made for it.  So it is shocking that the planning to consume the meadow by siting a third town cemetery in it has not received the publicity outreach that all other land use debates (Llyod Farm, 203 Project) have received.  In contrast, the other public agency neighbor of Village Square, OWASA, has been a fine neighbor:  they often send us letters apprising us of their planning for their maintenance facilities located behind some of our buildings.

To summarize:  in the past the Town has continually been arrogant in their planning for the Fidelity tract.  Since they have had the implicit bias that multifamily residents are subhuman it never came to their mind that we had a stake in what happens with this land, of which we are the co-owners.  They refused to apply their own development rules to themselves, and they did not apply in actuality the principles of “communication and engagement” about which Carrboro Connects now brags.  Will our new mayor, our new council members, a new Town Manager, and a new Public Works director do better?