Chapel Hill growth talks reveal divide

mschultz@newsobserver.comJune 25, 2013 

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    Have you been following the Central West discussions for the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard-Estes Drive area? Do you live or work there? Tell us what the area needs and how it should grow at editor@newsobserver.com

— An update on planning for the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard-Estes Drive area Monday night showed a split between residents who want to keep a neighborhood focus and elected leaders who want growth to serve the town’s broader needs.

The Central West Steering Committee gave a progress report to the Town Council. Central West is one of six areas targeted for more discussion in the town’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan.

The committee is scheduled to make its recommendations in November. But Monday’s discussion showed that even its members disagree on how the area along two busy thoroughfares should grow.

Neighbors want to make sure roads can handle future traffic, that development serves the immediate area instead of outsiders and that future buildings supporting UNC’s Carolina North campus happen based on what actually gets built there instead of what is projected.

Mike Albritton said he and his wife, both UNC graduates, moved back to Chapel Hill and to the MLK-Estes area so they could walk their children to good local schools. He said Estes Drive, which has two schools, already has too much traffic.

“I can say I don’t even walk my dogs on Estes Drive,” he told the council. He worries high growth projected on consultant’s maps could create a neighborhood safety hazard and force a school redistricting.

Debbie Jepson and Theresa Raphael-Grimm presented a letter supported by 200 people asking for improvements they said would make the Central West planning process more community driven. Among their recommendations:

• Do a transportation analysis of Estes Drive with regard to vehicle traffic and safe pedestrian travel in the school walk zone

• Provide a neutral facilitator to help focus steering committee discussions and better summarize differing viewpoints, and

• Encourage the committee to get more input and deliberate before refining maps showing possible new roads and development.

Michael Parker, a co-chairman of the steering committee, told the council the consultant’s maps don’t set anything in stone.

“These were not in any way intended to be final plans,” he said. “We were not looking to pick one of these but to look at various ideas.”

Messy, painful

After listening to the concerns – including a plea from property owner Katherine Butler to let owners of undeveloped property recoup their investments – council members chimed in.

“Democracy’s messy,” Jim Ward said. “It’s painful. It’s (also) the best thing out there,” he said. “I think this process is reflective of that.”

But Ward also seemed to have conflicting feelings.

“I think we need to have a reality check on Estes Drive,” he said. “That’s not a neighborhood street; I’m sorry, folks.”

Then he added, “Maybe it is. ... If it is we really are going to be tying ourselves in a knot getting from here to there. This is a street that serves the entire town of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and (the future) Carolina North. This plan needs to reflect that reality.”

‘Really sad’

Matt Czajkowski lamented the concerns, noting the council had signed off on the 17-member steering committee to involve those who live there and would be affected most.

“So it’s really sad to sit here this evening with a fairly significant number of citizens saying, ‘Our voices are not being heard,” Czajkowski said. “I really don’t understand that.”

Czajkowski made a motion to hire a facilitator for the steering committee, which failed after council members were told the steering committee had already rejected the idea.

Council member Lee Storrow assured residents the council has no high-density agenda for the MLK-Estes/Central West area. He said if all agree the area should grow, it’s the town’s job to now find the “sweet spot” between the levels of growth different groups want.

And council member Donna Bell reminded everyone that the town has few large undeveloped tracts left. Each one gives the town the chance to increase the commercial tax base, easing the burden on homeowners, as well as encourage diverse, more affordable housing, including multi-family and senior housing.

“These small areas will decide whether we have a commitment to diversity or (become) a bedroom community,” she said. “Deciding to put single-family homes on land that costs millions of dollars puts us in that direction.”

The next meeting of the Central West Steering Committee will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday, July 1, in the Tuscany Room, Siena Hotel, 1505 E. Franklin St. For more information contact town planner Megan Wooley at compplan@townofchapelhill.org or 919-968-2728. If you’d like to join the Central West email list, please email compplan@townofchapelhill.org with “Email list” in the subject line.

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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