CommentaryDavid Tuttle, Mickey Jo Sorrell, Firoz Mistry and Julie McClintock.

Commentary: Town Council takes a broad look at Central West

December 17, 2013 

Planning for growth has been a red hot topic in Chapel Hill this year. The 2020 plan, completed in June 2012, skipped over land-use planning, leaving that critical task to be completed over the next few years in six designated “focus areas” where growth and change are most expected.

In the planning world, land-use planning is the civilian equivalent of “boots on the ground,” the sort of planning that affects our community’s health and quality of life most directly. So it’s not surprising that citizen interest is running high. Planning is already underway for potentially large projects near Obey Creek across from Southern Village, and for redevelopment plans along a huge area on Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard, Glen Lennox, and downtown, where big projects are already going up on Franklin and Rosemary.

Following the adoption of the 2020 Comprehensive Plan, the first plan up for a council decision was Central West, a much smaller land area along Estes Drive, just east of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The council named a steering committee to develop a plan for this area, and the result of almost a year’s work was delivered to the council on Nov. 26.

The council’s action on this first focus area plan was heartening. The council held a thoughtful and far-ranging discussion that brought the most important issues into clear focus and set a good starting direction to deal with most of them.

Council Member Matt Czajkowski concisely framed the growth-management debate by observing that we have four priority public concerns: traffic, town finances, flooding and schools. He pointed out that many growth proposals make all or many of these problems worse! The council tackled these challenges directly. The general direction of their discussion pointed toward knowing where we are going before making commitments. We heard members cite the need for data, analysis and thoughtful review to make sure that development proposals are really beneficial to our community’s future before we make decisions.

Traffic: Jim Ward and Ed Harrison pointed out that we must not evaluate traffic for each development proposal or each focus area in isolation. What happens at Central West will affect traffic-clogged Estes Drive, but so will development at Ephesus-Fordham, near the other end of Estes. Ward pushed for a town-wide traffic model that can assess traffic interactions for the whole town. Town planner David Bonk said that this was feasible.

Town revenues vs. costs: Many are concerned about how to maintain good services without letting taxes get too high. Here the critical measure is how much new revenue will be brought in by a development proposal, compared to the additional town costs to service the new development. There was consternation when a last-minute town analysis showed that the Central West proposal would not bring in any significant excess revenue. Council member Gene Pease had often raised the fiscal issue and wondered why we would want to burden ourselves with so much more traffic at Central West with no gain for the taxpayers. Pease and Ward advocated for use of an economic model to evaluate development proposals before approval to encourage the approval of projects with a net benefit to the Town so we do not make the tax bills higher.

Flooding: Flooding is a more urgent topic now after last summer’s extremely damaging floods that even put part of Town Hall out of operation. Building on the committee’s recommendation to do a stormwater management plan for Central West, the council took broader action. When there is a big impact on a watershed, the council agreed to conduct a watershed-wide stormwater impact analysis of the potential cumulative stormwater impacts on Bolin and Booker Creeks.

Schools: Parents are concerned that Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools will have the needed space for their children and will retain their high quality. Just like traffic, we have tended to deal with school capacity on a project by project basis, asking the schools if a given development proposal can be accommodated. Czajkowski urged a comprehensive approach which may show school capacity is exceeded. The question is whether all the development projects (approved to be built, and all those planned for the focus areas) can be handled by the schools at the time they are anticipated to be built. Mayor Kleinschmidt urged the town to continue to work more closely with the schools as they plan for the sites and financing that will be needed to meet our projected growth.

Council Member Ed Harrison successfully urged his colleagues to adopt the Planning Board conditions into the Central West plan, which made official many of the positive directions discussed by the council. If the council continues the thoughtful direction set on Nov. 26, Chapel Hill’s future economy and quality of life will be on a sounder footing. We urge the new Town Council to build on this trend.

Submitted by David Tuttle, Mickey Jo Sorrell, Firoz Mistry and Julie McClintock.

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