Chapel Hill council OKs new zoning, development process

tgrubb@newsobserver.comMay 13, 2014 

— The Town Council voted 8-1 Monday night to apply a “form-based code” to future projects in the Ephesus-Fordham district and voted 6-3 to rezone most parcels to allow taller, denser development.

In a unanimous vote, the council also rezoned 10 acres of town-owned land beside Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery for a public-private affordable housing project. The town will sell the land to Raleigh-based DHIC Inc., which plans to build about 150 affordable apartments for seniors and families. With the council’s decision in hand, DHIC will be able to meet a Friday deadline for seeking state grant money.

The changes to the 190-acre Ephesus-Fordham district on the eastern entrance to Chapel Hill take effect July 1.

The code gives developers an outline for designing future projects. Town staff will approve most projects, and the Community Design Commission, a town advisory board, will review architectural details. The council could preview project applications and meet to talk about them if needed.

“I can’t imagine really contemplating applying this form-based code to any other sector of town,” council member Sally Greene said. “I really think that this is a very good solution for a particular problem, which is how to develop this particular part of town.”

Council members Jim Ward, Ed Harrison and Matt Czajkowski opposed the rezoning, which excluded several parcels on the south side of Elliott Road.

“I think this product that we’ve crafted so far falls way short of what we could gain in affordable housing and energy efficiency,” Ward said.

The rationale

Monday’s decision followed packed public hearings, at which opponents said the town gave developers too much without any guarantee of achieving the town’s goals. Town officials say stormwater, traffic and the town’s complicated approval process made it hard to develop new projects.

Town officials said the form-based code could bring 1,495 new apartments and roughly 460,000 square feet of retail, 300,000 square feet of hotel space and 150,000 square feet of offices over the next 20 years.

The town will borrow $10 million to pay for roads and stormwater improvements using Town Hall as collateral. The town saw an opportunity to improve the district after summer floods damaged Town Hall, officials said. A portion of the loan will help with building repairs.

The debt could be repaid at $800,000 a year for 20 years with increased sales and property tax revenues from redeveloped parcels, town officials say. The Orange County Board of Commissioners will talk Thursday about paying up to half the debt with the county’s share of future district tax revenues.

‘No evidence’

Czajkowski said there’s no guarantee developers won’t build more apartments instead of stores and offices, putting the town and taxpayers at risk.

“My issue with this – pure and simple – is there is no evidence that it will achieve the original goals, including stormwater, including traffic mitigation, including increasing commercial tax revenue to the town,” he said.

Czajkowski, who also cast the lone vote against the form-based code, has been an outspoken critic for months, asking repeatedly to wait for details.

One unfinished detail is the town’s master stormwater plan. The town would make upstream stormwater improvements to reduce runoff and maintain improvements that the new plan requires developers to build into future projects. A stormwater service tax on district property owners – proposed as 4 cents per $100 in property value – would pay for the work.

The council’s first update will be in January and every six months after that for the first two years, with annual reviews for the next eight years.

Council member George Cianciolo said the plan addresses residents’ concerns but there are no guarantees.

“But I believe that the staff, I believe that the consultant, I believe the members of the council who are supportive of this have considered it carefully, and in their best opinion, think that this is likely to succeed,” he said. “That’s what we were elected to do, to use our best judgment.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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