Editorial: Ephesus-Fordham a good plan that can get better

May 6, 2014 

The Ephesus-Fordham plan is an ambitious attempt to tackle multiple problems at the town’s eastern gateway and better position Chapel Hill for a vibrant future.

It is not a perfect plan, but it is getting better. We think it will get better still when the Town Council resumes talking about it next week. We especially like council member Jim Ward’s suggestion of lowering building heights, with additional height offered as an incentive to get some of those amenities – affordable housing, energy efficiency – the town loses under form-based code.

But first, some plain speak we think has been missing from the debate.

The principal reason most supporters give for rezoning the Ephesus-Fordham district (Elliott Road to just shy of Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery) is to diversify the tax base. The town’s commercial tax base is 18 percent. By comparison, Durham’s is 40 percent. That means homeowners pay most of the costs of town (and by extension, county) government.

But, with Chapel Hill’s largest land owner tax exempt and little vacant land to build on, that percentage is never going to change very much. A redeveloped Ephesus-Fordham district may nudge the commercial tax base a few percentage points. It will not lower town taxes. It may, at best, slow the need for future tax increases.

Or if enough families with children move in, accelerating the need for new schools, it may not. This is one reason the Orange County commissioners, we think reasonably, are taking time to study the town’s request that they contribute a share of the county’s increased tax revenue from the project back into paying for it.

So if lower taxes are not the reason to support the rezoning, why support it at all?

We think the town’s other stated reasons – an improved road network and stronger stormwater (flood-prevention) measures – make a compelling case. The project includes roughly $10 million in improvements that will bring a district already designated for commercial activity into the modern era. It will improve east-west congestion by offering people more ways to get around and hold developers to strong runoff controls.

Is it a risk? Of course. If projects don’t get built on the town’s timeline, the town will have to rob its savings, what the town calls its debt management fund, to make the payments. Other town needs might be put on hold, or taxes might have to go up after all.

But as for critics’ biggest concern – that the form-based code removes the community and Town Council from the development review process – well, think about it.

The community’s values helped form the form-based code, which spells out how buildings should look and fit in with one another. The plan has reviews built in every six months for two years to see how it’s going. And the town can always get rid of it.

More to the point, perhaps removing the council from the nuts and bolts is a good thing. It was the council, not the developer, that pushed the buildings at East 54 up against the roadway. It was the council that allowed 10-story luxury condominiums in downtown’s west end, overshadowing everything and everyone around it.

So let’s tone down the rhetoric and start answering more questions next week:.

• Can we get more commercial development in the early stages of the project?

• What’s on the table if the additional tax revenue doesn’t come in as expected?

• How can the town take advantage of the district’s Booker Creek to make this a destination for people who want to do more than shop?

• And exactly how does more paved surfaces and rooftops not translate into more flooding risk, not just for the Ephesus-Fordham district but its downstream neighbors?

Once these and other questions have been answered to the best of most people’s satisfaction, we’ll have a plan worth supporting.

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