Chapel Hill residents question rezoning, growth plans

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 23, 2014 

  • If you go

    You can learn more about the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard focus area at a public information meeting Feb. 27. The meeting is from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Meeting Room B of the Chapel Hill Public Library. A brief presentation starts at 12:15 p.m.

    Find more information about the Ephesus-Fordham project at bit.ly/1nQyo9B.

— Town staff faced a sometimes hostile crowd at last week’s information meeting on the proposed Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard development zone.

Most residents agree the 190-acre, residential and commercial district needs a facelift but said they don’t understand the rush to adopt a “form-based code.”

The plan has spawned suspicion, rumors and accusations against town officials in emails and meetings. Several residents grew angry – some turning to curse words – when town staff did not sufficiently address their questions Thursday.

A form-based code is a development tool that outlines allowable building size, heights and uses, plus how buildings relate to parking, streets and other buildings in the district. It would not apply to the rest of Chapel Hill.

More than 100 people attended the meeting Thursday at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

Commercial buildings could be up to 60 feet, or five stories, near the street and up to 90 feet tall, or seven stories, at the core, according to the draft plan. Near existing homes, buildings could be up to 45 feet tall. Town economic development director Dwight Bassett said there’s a potential for roughly 1,000 apartments and 700,000 square feet of commercial space.

Most developers won’t build the maximum, but they need to know what’s possible up front, Bassett told residents. The plan is driven by economic need, he said. A man who did not identify himself interrupted – “Which is why New York City’s so cheap” – and Bassett asked if he could continue.

“Go ahead. I’d like to hear more of your double talk,” the man said.

Town Council member Maria Palmer urged residents to direct their comments to the council instead ( mayorandcouncil@townofchapelhill.org).

Targeted to grow

Ephesus-Fordham, between Elliott Road and Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery on Legion Road, is one of six areas identified for future development in the town’s 2020 growth plan. Bassett said he only expects a few changes in the next 10 years, including at Village Plaza, the Shops at Eastgate and Rams Plaza.

Resident Whit Rummel said the changes will be good for the town. Rams Plaza hasn’t improved over time, and Eastgate isn’t much better, he said.

“I’m really looking forward to this, because I think it’s a step forward in almost every way,” Rummel said.

The council now rezones property while considering a project, giving it leverage to negotiate, often for over a year or two, for affordable housing and other community values. If approved, the form-based code would leave most decisions to town staff, although additional reviews are being considered.

Staff said a draft plan for districtwide stormwater improvements should be ready in March. The town could use a bond, levy a stormwater tax on commercial property and use increased property and sales tax revenues to pay debt on roughly $10 million in stormwater and road improvements.

Property owner Johnny Mariakakis predicted developers will recoup those costs by raising rents and pushing out small businesses. Other residents worry the plans lack important data about cost, benefits, traffic, stormwater and schools. More than 365 have signed a petition asking the council to delay a scheduled March vote ( bit.ly/1obETa3).

Residents also have pushed for the town to add environmentally sustainable building requirements to the code, preserve more green spaces and include a provision for changes if the plan runs into trouble.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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