Commentary

Terry Vance: Caution needed on new zoning

February 18, 2014 

I was surprised by Tammy Grubb’s story “New ideas for Ephesus-Fordham: ‘Form-Based Code’ Could Simplify Town’s Development Process.” (CHN, Jan. 22, http://bit.ly/1c1W4WI) It reads like a propaganda piece for the developers; Dwight Bassett, the town's economic development officer; the Town Council staff; and Roger Stancil, the town manager.

The article is unabashedly positive, from the phrases “new ideas” and “simplify” in the headline, to the body of the article which includes the sentence: “It gives the community a more predictable understanding of how land could be developed and simplifies the town's project approval process.” The article poses the question, “Does the public have a voice once the code is approved?” “It depends” is followed by obfuscation: “meetings are open to the public for comment.” The real answer is no; once approved, the public and council members have no power.

The article continues: “Small and midsize retailers, similar to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s would be more appropriate elsewhere ...” Why? Most of us love the location of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Grubb quotes the plan’s creators who say that “Taller buildings ... are expected to increase the number of people working and living in the area, increasing the demand for local places to shop.” But redevelopment is likely to come with a steep price tag, and up-zoning to promote seven-story buildings is likely to make real estate more expensive, leading to higher taxes, higher rent and probable loss of our favorite businesses.

As regards development making flooding worse, instead of acknowledging that so far there is no plan and no financing, the article relates that the town is “drafting” a plan and “looking” for ways to finance it. It continues, “Compact development also should boost environmental protections by reducing car travel and sprawl, and adding more green spaces.” But, the proposed redevelopment is in a flood plain and upstream of many existing homes and businesses which could experience more flooding if storm-water facilities fail. The current plan assures no green spaces but places buildings and roads close to creeks, removing protections. What would the residents of Chapel Hill gain in exchange for big profits for the developers? Where is there a plan for affordable housing, green spaces, an overpass, bike lanes, or a walkable community which retains what’s left of Chapel Hill's uniqueness?

I urge critical examination of this plan before it’s too late to have a say. Learn about the other side of the story: watch the Jan 22 council meeting video on the town’s website, note the mayor's eagerness to approve the plan (even Stancil admits this project “is a calculated risk.”) Hear the comments of citizens and council members who have concerns. Council members Ward, Czajkowsi, Harrison, Cianciolo, and Palmer acknowledged being troubled by the rush to approve the plan before appropriate study of issues involved, including: transportation studies ensuring that people can get around easily and that there is a pedestrian-friendly ambiance, significant affordable housing and green spaces, traffic projections to deal with new construction, plans to build school(s) to handle the additional children of residents of the new tall buildings, a viable storm water plan, requirement that developers deal with design commissioners’ concerns, and incorporation of energy efficient principles.

Read the informative petition by our citizens at bit.ly/1obETa3. Please sign it if you are convinced that more safeguards are needed before plan approval.

Editor’s note: The wording regarding retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s was unclear. The plan says big-box retailers would be most appropriate in the Rams Plaza and Elliott Road locations, while future mid-size retailers like the two mentioned would be appropriate anywhere in the area.

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