Mark Zimmerman: Turning point for Chapel Hill?

January 10, 2014 

Will 2014 be a turning point year for Chapel Hill? Three key decisions will tell whether the town will endorse change that has become part of the political rhetoric in recent years, or revert to its previous preservation of the status quo.

The story of Chapel Hill’s growth has been a contentious one. Most significant development proposals have historically met with stiff resistance. Advocates for small-town life, neighborhood protection and localizing the economy have either driven projects across the border or watered them down through years of delay.

As a result, build-out has been measured; Chapel Hill has sidestepped the population and commercial growth the rest of the Triangle has experienced.

But that pace has come at a price: restricted supply props up privileged-priced housing, our tax base further overburdens homeowners, amenities – even many necessities – are inconvenient, commuter congestion clogs our arteries.

By many measures, quantitative and qualitative, the cost of living here is high.

In the last half decade, a debate began about whether Chapel Hill’s path is sustainable and, even if so, whether it was leading the community away from a diverse, accessible college town to an enclave for the advantaged – an ironic unintended consequence, to say the least.

The alternative course is to allow more residential density and commercial development, a controversial shift that has prompted many neighborhoods to adopt conservation district zoning to lock in their current state in perpetuity.

The community discussion on vision came to a head with the 2020 Comprehensive Plan. Over the course of a year, thousands of area stakeholders participated in the process.

The resulting plan is very different from its predecessor. In a way, 2020 was a grand compromise. It accepted the argument and prescription for change, but went on to concentrate, or restrict, that change to a half dozen focus areas along major thoroughfares. It said we should be more aggressive with growth, but only where growth can best be accommodated, leaving the rest of the town to move forward as usual.

One would think this was a reasonable arrangement, but instead the debate has simply shifted to the focus areas, three of which are having detailed planning decisions in 2014. What the Town Council chooses to approve in each will be the real indication of Chapel Hill’s commitment to change.

First is the Central West Small Area Plan. Council adopted a citizen’s Steering Committee recommendation, but with significant traffic and economic impact caveats which may curtail its vision for development of the intersection of MLK Boulevard and Estes Drive. Development proposals are expected this year. The council will have to decide whether to embrace the plan, or not.

Second is the Obey Creek Development Agreement. Another citizen committee submitted a plan to the council at the end of 2013 for a large mixed-use development across U.S. 15-501 from Southern Village. It too, contains some caveats for more studies. The council will have to decide whether to move quickly to capture commercial opportunities created by the new Chatham County Walmart, or let that county capture the growth without competition, much the way New Hope Commons in Durham has dominated our northern border.

Finally, there is the Ephesus Church/Fordham Boulevard Small Area Plan. It governs an area from the town cemetery all the way down to South Elliott Road, incorporating potential redevelopment of three major shopping centers. At stake is a dramatic change in the development process called form-based code. If passed, developers would no longer have to endure the dreaded special-use permit process requiring council project approval, so long as they conformed to the building forms described in the plan.

2020 is a visioning document, with something for everyone. The rubber hits the road with the actual plans in the focus areas. 2014 is the year three of those areas will either come to life in a new direction, or the council gets cold feet and turns back to a past vision. With two new council members at the table, 2014 will determine much of how the town will grow for many years to come.

Mark Zimmerman owns a small business and lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at

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