Chapel Hill council reviews major planning changes for Ephesus-Fordham area

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJanuary 23, 2014 

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— A Town Council review Wednesday of a draft plan to transform 190 acres in the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard corridor raised many questions.

The corridor – from Village Plaza shopping center to the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery on Legion Road – is one of six smaller focus areas identified for development in the town’s 2020 plan for growth.

The new planning approach, called “form-based code,” is a way to simplify and speed up the development and redevelopment of properties in certain areas. The code – a set of written guidelines and sketches – addresses building size, uses and setbacks, as well as landscaping and building design and how it all fits together.

Some council members and residents worry the wrong changes could add more cars to heavily traveled roads, worsen flooding in low-lying areas and create too tall buildings surrounded by asphalt. Many of the 26 speakers Wednesday night were development and business owners supporting the change. Several said they have plans ready to go if the council approves the code.

The council adopted a timeline for talking about the new code. An information meeting will be held Feb. 20 at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

Council member Jim Ward said it will be vital to measure the code’s success or failure, and how to fix any problems that arise.

“We’re counting on a lot of things happening right,” council member Jim Ward said. “I want to understand why it’s appropriate for me to expect that to happen.”

The council will meet at least twice more before making any decisions. The first would be meeting would be to decide whether to rezone 60-plus parcels to allow three- to seven-story walkable residential and mixed-use buildings in the area.

Town staff would have leeway to approve or reject most future Ephesus-Fordham projects under the new code. The resulting development is expected to generate tax dollars to pay for unmet town needs, such as affordable housing and greenways.

“It has the potential to be much more than a key gateway to the community,” Town Manager Roger Stancil said. “I believe it could be the next cool place to live and work in Chapel Hill if it’s done right.”

It also could boost the town’s commercial tax base and make better use of underused and vacant properties, with up to 250,000 square feet of retail, 280,000 square feet of hotel space, 360,000 square feet of office space and 1,000 apartments, staff said.

Council member Matt Czajkowski said the draft plan is “great work” but has too much housing. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, with a couple of hundred more students, might run into local Schools Adequate Public Facilities rules linking continued development to the schools’ available room for more students, he said.

“I think it would be negligent to approve this plan and others until staff has an analysis of what’s coming online, when and how many students it would generate,” he said.

The Ephesus-Fordham plan also includes two housing projects: a town partnership with Raleigh nonprofit DHIC Inc. for a 160-unit family and senior housing complex on Legion Road and The Park apartments redevelopment on Ephesus Church Road, which could add several dozen more units.

New council member Maria Palmer said it would be good if apartment complexes were required to accept Section 8 vouchers from low-income families. UNC also should be an active partner in improving transit for folks in affordable housing, she said.

Resident concerns

Erin Lanston and Julie McClintock shared a letter signed by 20 town residents who were less sure about the staff recommendations. The draft code doesn’t include the necessary data or a plan for addressing the town’s environmental, bike, pedestrian and green-building goals.

The proposed code also “would replace council approval and citizen participation for land use in a large portion of this town,” Lanston said.

The council needs to know first how streets and stormwater would handle additional growth, whether the changes would realize more benefits than costs for the community and if the proposed code can deliver on its promises, the residents said.

The town could use a bond and create an area tax district to pay for more than $1 million in stormwater improvements. Developers would take care of on-site stormwater issues.

A $10 million loan, using Town Hall as collateral, includes several million dollars to pay for Ephesus-Fordham road improvements. The additional property taxes from redevelopment would help foot the bill, staff said. The town’s debt management fund could be used in a pinch.

The town also plans to redo the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard intersection, extend Elliott and Legion roads, and add connector roads between Elliott Road and Franklin Street. Some improvements will depend on what the N.C. Department of Transportation will allow.

Several lots could be developed in the near future, including Rams Plaza and the site of a former movie theater near Whole Foods.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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