Commentary

Bruce Henschel: Town shoudn’t pay for private roads

July 11, 2014 

Barely one month after the rezoning of the Ephesus-Fordham (EF) redevelopment district, we already see an example of the questionable decision-making that many citizens feared might occur. At the Town Council’s public hearing on June 16, town staff presented the preliminary designs for the initial taxpayer-funded EF road improvements. The need to reduce traffic congestion had been presented from the outset as one of the key objectives of the EF redevelopment.

At this hearing, the public learned for the first time that one of the four priority projects to relieve the congestion around EF on Fordham and Franklin is ... a short road across the Village Plaza parking lot, extending from Elliott Road to the vacant former movie theater site and curving around the rear of that site. This road across the Village Plaza lot will primarily serve East West Partners, the developer who plans to build a parking deck on the old theater site and a high-rise mixed-use building on the current parking lot in front of it, facing Elliott. The proposed road will cross currently private property, delivering traffic to the front and rear of the developer’s parking deck, and to parking spaces beside the high-rise. The deck will serve primarily the developer’s tenants, with some spaces allotted to Whole Foods.

When, in any previous development in Chapel Hill, has the town ever paid to make improvements benefitting a developer’s private property? Historically, the opposite has been true: developers are commonly required to pay for improvements that will benefit the Town. Roads crossing private property for the benefit of the property owner have always been the developer’s responsibility. It is inappropriate and unprecedented for taxpayers to cover these costs.

We are told that the developer will donate to the town the land on which the road is built, as if that were some sort of compensation. Why would the town want that? This donation means that the town would become responsible for maintaining what should be a private road serving the developer, and that the land on which the road is built – in becoming publicly owned – would thus be taken off the tax rolls.

The mayor and town staff argue that public funding for this road is justified because we cannot expect individual developers to bear the cost of a broad public benefit, namely, converting “suburban sprawl” (which they consider Village Plaza to be) into the “connected urban grid” that they feel EF should become. That argument doesn’t hold water. The presumptive first block in the “grid” will be created, not by this road per se, but by the developer’s construction of a 7-story tower in the middle of the 1-story mall’s parking lot. The road is required by the developer to support that tower – not by the town – and is totally consistent with developer-funded site improvements for other developments of this size.

And it is unclear whether the town has the money to pay for this road. Staff say that this road has always been included in the $8.8 million that the town plans to borrow to cover EF road improvements. But the road has never been explicitly listed as town-funded in any prior publicly available document, including the engineering contractor’s report that generated the $8.8 million estimate. On the contrary, there have been at least two town presentations over the past eight months indicating that this road would be paid for “by others,” not from the $8.8 million. Adding to the uncertainty, the town staff have stated that they do not know how much this road will cost. So how can they claim that the costs of this road can be covered without impacting more important projects?

Let the developer cover the cost of his own road.

Bruce Henschel lives in Chapel Hill.

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