Chapel Hill pushes Ephesus-Fordham talks to May 5; four council members not ready to vote

tgrubb@newsobserver.comApril 24, 2014 

  • Bargaining chip

    Town Council member Jim Ward offered his own idea Wednesday for encouraging developers to meet community needs, such as affordable housing, energy-efficient buildings and public spaces, in the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code district.

    North Carolina law does not give towns the authority to require affordable rental housing or public green space. They also can’t require energy-efficient buildings that exceed what’s required by the N.C. Building Code.

    Ward suggested setting a two-story limit on district buildings but offering density and height bonuses to developers who voluntarily include affordable housing and business space, energy-efficient buildings and other amenities.

— Council members Jim Ward, Matt Czajkowski, George Cianciolo and Ed Harrison said the plan for a “form-based code” that would remove the council from future projects’ approval process needs more work.

“What we’re talking about doing here, to me, has a much less predictable outcome and therefore deserves every bit of input and thought that we can possibly provide to it,” Czajkowski said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being ready to vote for this.”

The 190-acre Ephesus-Fordham district is one of six smaller areas identified in the town’s 2020 plan as ripe for future projects.

The town is considering a new type of zoning called form-based code to guide developers and establish predictability in how buildings are built and how they fit into the landscape. Town staff would approve most projects, instead of the council, with some Community Design Commission review.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council members Sally Greene, Donna Bell and Lee Storrow did not signal their intent Wednesday, but council member Maria Palmer said it’s time to vote.

“I ran part of my campaign on Ephesus-Fordham, and I’ve been ready to see something change in this area for 15 years,” she said.

The council continued the public hearing to its May 5 meeting, but not before hearing from more than three dozen people. Many more signed up at Monday’s public hearing, but no one got to speak and roughly a dozen did not return Wednesday. More than 100 residents attended each meeting.

There is no clear deadline for the council to make its decision. It was originally scheduled for a March vote, and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt has said the goal is to have the form-based code and related policies in place by July.

Town officials said there’s no rush, but there are reasons to act now, including an affordable housing partnership between the town and Raleigh-based nonprofit DHIC Inc. DHIC needs the project’s zoning and other permits in hand to apply for state grant money, officials said.

Town Manager Roger Stancil said Monday the council could adopt the code and rezone only the DHIC land, pending further talks. In February, Stancil said the town was moving forward now to take advantage of a limited opportunity to use Town Hall as collateral for a $10 million loan.

The financing would provide $8.8 million for Ephesus-Fordham road improvements but is only available because it’s also paying to renovate Town Hall. The window for securing the loan closes when the renovations are finished this fall, but there is no deadline for spending the money, Stancil said.

Others have suggested the town is pushing to have something to show at the 2014 Mayors Innovation Project meeting in August. The mayors will meet in Chapel Hill and hear, among other things, how the town plans its projects, promotes sustainable growth and encourages public participation.

A $20,000 grant from the Mayors Innovation Project helped fund development of the Ephesus-Fordham code district.

Resident Diane Willis said everyone wants to see improvements in stormwater and flooding, traffic and other district issues. The council should move forward cautiously by applying the code to a few initial projects, she said.

“It’s time to remove the rose-colored glasses and actually examine what would be delivered,” she said. “In its present form, the form-based code has no teeth, no incentives and no oversight by the council or the public, just the town manager, who is not elected, and a minimal amount now from the Community Design Commission.”

Residents David Schwartz and Julie McClintock advocated for a code with more reviews, similar to one the town’s consultant – Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio – is helping to write for Asheville’s 2.5-mile-long Haywood Road district. McClintock said nearly 800 residents have signed a petition asking the council to address residents’ concerns before approving the form-based code.

The Haywood Road code includes six districts, ranging from two-story, historic areas to newer, more urban areas slated for buildings up to 80 feet tall. The biggest difference with Chapel Hill is how it incorporates Asheville’s existing development approval process. Developers are being asked to consult with the city’s planning staff before submitting an application.

Asheville city staff approve Level 1 projects, which are less than 35,000 square feet or 20 housing units. Level 2 projects – 35,000 to 50,000 square feet or 20-50 apartments – are reviewed by city staff, a Technical Review Committee and the Planning and Zoning Commission. Major projects get those reviews, public hearings and are sent to the Asheville City Council for approval.

Asheville approves most projects within 45 days of receiving an application.

Chapel Hill resident Matt Bailey said most Ephesus-Fordham district supporters voice their opinions every time they drive to Durham,

“The outdated suburban sprawl and the aging strip malls on our side of town don’t offer the kind of shopping they need, the restaurants they like or the places they want to spend their time,” he said. “They make their voices heard every time they move to Chapel Hill just in time for kindergarten and move out just after high school, because our side of town doesn’t offer the kind of housing people in all stages of life desire.”

Holly Fraccaro, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties, agreed with his assessment. Chapel Hill has “a really good plan” that will do what is needed, she said.

The town learned from Ephesus-Fordham district property owners that more than half the potential projects could be residential. Bassett has said the town could expect roughly 900,000 square feet of commercial space and about 1,495 residents.

The district’s road network is the “largest detriment” to development, transportation planner David Bonk said. The needs are greater than one property owner could correct. The town plans to spend roughly $8.8 million on two phases of road improvements and another million improving stormwater issues upstream.

Cianciolo said the community will have to subsidize affordable housing, if that’s what residents want. The form-based code carries risk, but it’s also risky to do nothing, he said. Greene said one way is working with nonprofit housing partners, because market-rate developers usually aren’t interested.

Ward suggested setting a two-story limit, with bonus height for developers who include affordable home and business space, energy-efficient features and other amenities.

John Richardson, the town’s sustainability officer, said the proposed code now incentivizes rooftop solar equipment and sets stricter stormwater and residential buffer standards. A district pilot program could reward developers with fee rebates for energy-efficient features, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service