CHAPEL HILL — There was a silver lining in the storm clouds that flooded Town Hall last summer, Town Manager Roger Stancil says.
Using insurance money and borrowing $900,000, town leaders decided to repair the building as part of a long-planned renovation,
Then, Stancil explains, they realized putting Town Hall up as collateral would let the town get a big enough loan to build roads, sidewalks and bike lanes in the Ephesus-Fordham focus area, he said.
The town already was considering a new planning tool called “form-based code.” Here was the town’s chance to redevelop a 190-acre district and pay back $10 million in debt with extra sales and property tax revenues, Stancil said.
“This community’s got a lot of things to get done. To me, unless we do these improvements this way, they won’t ever get made and this underdeveloped area will only get worse,” Stancil said. “This is one way to pay for it that’s not only taxpayers paying for it, but the people who develop it.”
The Town Council will talk more about the proposed code Monday night. If approved, it would give developers a menu of “forms” they could choose from for designing building exteriors, parking lots and landscapes that blend into their surroundings.
Town staff members would approve or reject most projects, although the council could add public review, as some critics want.
Critics worry the town might be rushing things. The financing plan raises two issues: There are no guaranteed tax revenues, and still no data to show how intense growth in one area could affect traffic townwide. Residents and advisory boards have called for townwide traffic and stormwater studies now rather than later.
Critics also think town leaders are ignoring their concerns.
Not so, said Town Council members George Cianciolo and Maria Palmer. The council listens to everyone but then has to balance the community’s wants with its needs, they said.
Council member Matt Czajkowski said the critics have good points.
“This is a whole bunch of people in the community asking questions about some highfaluting ideas and not getting any answers,” he said.
Mary Jane Nirdlinger, the town’s director of policy and strategic initiatives, said the community talked for years about the district’s small-area plan, which council approved in 2012. The proposed changes, which are based on that plan, could take decades, she said.
But the new form-based code for the area allows more density than the small area plan and lacks the public green spaces that some expected.
The 2012 plan, for example, forecast 284 new apartments and roughly 560,000 square feet of addtional commercial space on 123 acres. The district has since grown to 190 acres with plans for roughly 1,000 new apartments and 600,000 square feet of additional commercial space.
The proposed code requires each project to have open space, but the space might be just for tenants or built into upper floors, such as a pool or deck. The largest area of public green space already exists at Booker Creek, and impervious surface, such as pavement, grows under the code from 57 percent to 63 to 68 percent.
Height is another big issue, but the 2012 plan only mentions it in a concept drawing that shows three to five stories, or 45 to 60 feet. Some parts of the district allow that now. In the district’s core, however, the code could allow buildings up to seven stories, or 90 feet.
About the details
Resident Cheryle Wicker said the town has been changing for decades, so she doesn’t understand why people oppose a plan that could raise more property taxes and bring walkable streets, shops and people to the district.
“We won’t get anything done unless we work together,” Wicker said.
Others say the plan leaves out the finer details, in particular, how to keep flooding and traffic from getting worse.
Resident Julie McClintock criticized Nirdlinger’s characterization of the district Thursday as a “non-functioning part of town.” People shop there, and the merchants add to the town’s character and economy, McClintock said.
“This area functions,” she said. “We all shop there. We like it. It does seem like we’re taking a blanket approach.”
The Planning Board shares critics’ concerns and doesn’t think the code is ready, Chairman Neal Bench said. It needs a better rezoning mix and more details about town character, stormwater and financing, review processes, car-free routes, energy-efficient buildings and other “value” elements.
Staff members says state law limts what affordable rental housing and energy-efficient buildings the town can get. Encouraging those amenities in the code might discourage some investors, they say.
The town would handle the bulk of a stormwater plan, leaving developers responsible for their own property. The town’s $1.2 million plan could use bonds and fees and impose a district tax on commercial property to build two large basins for additional runoff.
However, an initial study found the key to moving water through the area is another $4 million for two new culverts. A draft stormwater plan is due soon, said Todd St. John, with Kimley-Horn and Associates.
Meanwhile, the proposed districtwide tax has grown from two cents to four cents per $100 in property value. The owner of $2 million worth of property would pay an extra $800 a year in taxes.
That concerns some small business owners, who fear rent hikes could put them out of business if developers pass the cost of higher property taxes and the new stomwater district tax on to them.