Mark Zimmerman: Toward a more civil community

March 9, 2014 

Imagine living through an intense family fight over an important issue that ends up hurting the very family itself. Emotions rise, things are said that shouldn’t have been said, accusations hurled, distrust grows. Eventually a decision is made, but no one is fully satisfied and relationships are never quite the same.

Then imagine reliving that feud repeatedly, like the movie “Groundhog Day,” every time an issue arises.

That’s what the Chapel Hill development process is like.

There are few issues that tear at the fabric of our community more than development. Change doesn’t come to Chapel Hill without confrontation. Business advocates, property owners and tax-base promoters align with developers. Business antagonists and neophobes align with NIMBYs. Both sides fight as if the future of the community is at stake. It’s a scarring process for the participants and the community at large.

Then we do it again. Every project seems to bring a new clash. That’s because, under our current system, any meaningful development needs its own special-use permit. To get one requires a gauntlet of approvals. Town staff, multiple advisory boards, public hearings and the Town Council all weigh in over many months or even years.

Most projects eventually survive, but only after suffering near death by a thousand cuts.

What else suffers?

The project itself suffers. The finished project is a series of compromises and concessions. It’s not a surprise most recent developments don’t elicit great pride.

The neighborhood suffers. Project by project approval is a piecemeal approach that isn’t conducive to a coherent vision. The resulting patchwork effect erodes character and connectivity.

Perhaps most important of all, our community suffers. The conflagration that attends each special-use permit application is wrenching. Community cohesion is a casualty. So is civil discourse. We even lose faith in our local government.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Hundreds of communities across the country – as diverse as Asheville and Miami – are successfully adopting a new method to regulate growth that circumvents the problems with our system. It’s called a form-based building code.

In a form-based code, an area adopts a vision for the future and expresses it by regulating how buildings relate to each other and the public areas. This ensures new development meshes with the intended character of its surroundings. Depending on the area’s needs, this could mean pedestrian-accessible mixed use, or maintenance of historic integrity, or economic rejuvenation.

Once the code is adopted, every project conforming to the specifications of the code’s vision gets approved. No special-use permit needed. Developers will know in advance what we want, so it’s more likely we will get it. The predictable, less-protracted process will bring down costs and help keep the community more affordable.

Best of all, under a form-based code, the fight over how an area should change, or not, only happens once. Of course we have to get the vision right, and it won’t satisfy everyone. But we all get to avoid having to repeat the fight again and again and again.

After a three-year visioning process, Chapel Hill is about to try form-based code in the area around Fordham Boulevard and Ephesus Church Road. This is an important commercial district that needs a lot of help. The resulting plan will allow improvement of aging infrastructure and better traffic flow. It will also encourage reinvestment to better serve our needs.

As this new code gets close to adoption, it has become contentious. The usual parties are predicting the usual calamities. But there are real benefits if it passes. Outcomes should be better if the vision is a good one. At least for that part of town, replacing the incendiary special-use permit process means we won’t have to go through this again, which will make us a more civil community.

Mark Zimmermanowns a small real estate business and lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach him at markrzim@gmail.com.

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