Commentary

Linda Haac: What exactly is town selling?

May 2, 2014 

The latest public hearing on the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment plan goes to the heart of Chapel Hill’s current troubles: Are citizens being sold a questionable bill of goods, and if so, who’s responsible?

It was a full house last week, demonstrating a commitment by those who came to speak, against or for the proposal, given the debacle of the previous night of the public hearing at which no members of the public got to speak, interestingly enough.

This time the public waited for an hour and a half. The first speaker was cut off at the sound of the three-minute buzzer.

What struck me during town staff members’ presentations earlier was how much confusion still surrounds the new form-based code proposed for the area from Elliott Road to Rams Plaza and the edge of the town cemetery along Fordham Boulevard.

The code would give Town Manager Roger Stancil and the Town Hall staff sole authority over all future development, with little citizen involvement or Town Council approval. Form-based codes, which exist in cities across the country, are not all as broad as this one currently is.

The Town Council was set to vote on the Ephesus Fordham plan in March, but now a full month later four council members say they’re not ready. Given the information presented by town staff last week, that’s not surprising. The maps shown in the slides, along with the charts, were difficult to read and even harder to understand.

I came away feeling the staff, under the leadership of Stancil and economic development director Dwight Bassett, was either doing a poor job explaining things or was engaged in a hard-nosed sales pitch, not a straight-forward analysis of costs and benefits.

At one point Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said, “You have to understand this in context.”

At issue is the lack of context.

A great deal of information is lacking. Staff has yet to deal with the effects of stormwater runoff and flooding on areas downstream of the new development. Bassett said he didn’t believe a re-engineered Elliott Road would pass through a flood plain. Yet, a county map shows it does. Potentially slated for redevelopment is Eastgate shopping center. Everyone knows it floods.

According to the town website, planning for the Ephesus-Fordham district has gone on for seven years.

For the plan to work financially, the town is now hoping the county will contribute its share of projected additional tax revenue.

Plan critic Ken Larsen and others have suggested the town’s revenue problems stem not from a loss of retail to Durham but rather from the fact that the town’s biggest landowner, the University of North Carolina, pays no taxes. This landowner is expanding in all directions.

Newly elected Town Council member Maria Palmer berated citizens opposed to the plan who exercised their right to contact their Orange County Commissioners and ask them to refuse to subsidize the plan. “I think it’s very spiteful.”

Not a good way to build consensus. No wonder so many of our citizens are losing faith in their beloved town.

The town and its citizens need clear answers before this plan goes any further.

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