That was one of the buzzwords that residents, both for and against the proposed Inter-Faith Council food pantry in downtown, used to describe Carrboro on Tuesday, March 22, at the Board of Aldermen’s public hearing.
The public hearing was held as part of the city’s rezoning process, which if approved would allow social services like IFC to provide meals to the community.
In a unanimous vote at the end of a three-and-a-half hour public hearing, the board passed the text amendment. The IFC can now apply for a conditional land use permit. If granted the land use, the organization could build their FoodFirst facility in the heart of downtown at 110 W. Main Street and provide meals to Carrboro’s hungry, homeless and in-need.
While the meeting was crucial for establishing next steps, it also called into the question the essence of Carrboro.
The ideas of a “compassionate Carrboro,” the “Carrboro way,” and “the Carrboro we have and the Carrboro we want to be” were in constantly challenged.
“What we want our community to be?”
LeAnn Brown, attorney for the IFC, emphasized how the conditional land use was part of Carrboro’s culture.
“Conditional zoning (CZ) is a flexible tool that allows you to take an application on an individual basis; allows you to have meaningful conversations with citizens in a legislative capacity,” she said. “We thought the CZ tool would be the perfect opportunity for us to work on the project in a Carrboro way.”
Tom Munk, a Carrboro resident who was perhaps one of the briefest speakers of the night, spoke critically but poignantly about the brewing tensions surrounding the IFC’s FoodFirst proposal.
In a measured, but syncopated rhythm he explained his fears of what Carrboro could be if the city did not work together to address the larger issues of food insecurity, poverty and homelessness.
“I am not afraid of attracting homeless people to my community. I’m afraid of attracting heartless people to my community.”
Tim West, a longtime Carrboro resident who is in favor of the FoodFirst facility, spoke to that fear of Carrboro becoming inhospitable to community members experiencing hunger and homelessness.
“One thing I most like about my hometown is there is a very clear, communal commitment to kindness and compassion,” he said. “We Carrbororites deeply respect each other as human beings, regardless and often because of our differences. And this shows in town policies and procedures.
“I certainly think that allowing social service agencies to serve meals downtown is consistent with my sense, shared by many, of a compassionate Carrboro. We would be enacting our beliefs in mutual respect and support, right in the middle of our community. Not in a more isolated and segregated place.”
Brown, Munk and West were accompanied by hundreds more Carrboro residents, who gathered in the auditorium of Carrboro Elementary School for the more than three-hour public hearing and were among the nearly 40 community members who spoke before the aldermen.
What about the business owners?
But not all who were in attendance were ready to pass the amendment. Meg Holton, whose family has owned property in Carrboro since the 1960s, said she is concerned about FoodFirst’s potential impact.
“The question is, for everyone, ‘How do we make this all work,’” she said. “How do we help the IFC clients become independent and self-sufficient? How do we provide the services needed and fit this into a vibrant, livable, walkable community?”
Questions similar to these prompted both public and private meetings about FoodFirst, in addition to garnering the signatures of more than 60 business owners who expressed concern about building the FoodFirst Facility in downtown Carrboro.
Matt Neal, a resident and one business owner who signed the letter, said if he knew then what he knows now, he would probably wouldn’t have signed it.
“I really like the IFC and the people that work there. I’m really having a good time getting to know them and getting to know more about this proposal,” he said. Neal said he donated $100 to the IFC last fall through his business, but it was a sacrifice he’s not sure he can always make.
“The point is the people who run the businesses in Carrboro support the IFC, even when, sometimes, they rush into a situation where they sign a letter because they have concerns,” he said.
[See adjoining Q&A with Matt Neal.]
Neal was just one of a few business owners to speak out. Alderman Jacquelyn Gist took note of it and shared her disappointment that many of those business owners were not at the meeting to share their concerns, particularly because some businesses had been threatened with boycotts.
“”I think that’s really, really sad,” she said. “I would encourage all of you, whether you’re for or against our moving forward, to go to Carrboro businesses tomorrow, and tell them that you respect them, regardless of their stance on this.”
Amy-Jae Crawford, co-owner of Syd’s Hair Shop and former neighbors of the IFC, said that most people expected her business to have trouble with the IFC. Or, on the contrary, that most businesses did not support the IFC.
But that wasn’t her experience.
“For a couple of weeks one summer, being neighbors with the IFC meant my morning arrival to work acted as an alarm clock for a small group of adults who respectfully packed up and moved along every day before business began with complete understanding,” Crawford said. “Being neighbors with the IFC created a chance to face fear, crush stereotypes and replace them with true experience and human interaction. I have been personally been enriched by this.”
Crawford added that none of her clients said they ever felt unsafe, though security was another cause for concern at the public hearing.
What happens next?
The text amendment included language that would require a security management system.
Alderman Sammy Slade, as well as some community members, requested that this language be removed from the amendment.
Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell said that such language allowed for panhandling ordinances that marginalized particular members of the community and said she wanted to avoid that through comprehensive planning.
“Back in October and November I talked about concerns for the language in the ordinance, in terms of how people are viewed,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “I was very concerned then and I’m very concerned now. I stand with Sammy and others in regards to extracting the language about the security cameras because, just as I said then, I find that offensive.”
The board eliminated this security measure.
While there was concern for businesses, safety and maintaining the aesthetic of Carrboro, Rev. Nathan Alan Hollister, a Carrboro resident, was one of the last speakers to speak before the board voted. He emphasized that the Carrboro he wants to have is one in which all residents are fed and housed.
“I think it’s odd that we need to pass an amendment because these areas are already zoned for people who want to give away food for money,” he said. “(It’s odd) that we actually need to pass an amendment to give away food to people who are hungry.
“I think it’s a real easy decision to pass the amendment tonight.”
In a 7 – 0 vote, the board passed the text amendment. But the approval of the text amendment is just one small victory for the IFC and its supporters. Next, the IFC has to apply for a conditional use permit, a time-consuming process that involves more advisory board reviews, public hearings and community meetings.
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