Once upon a time, not so long ago, Chapel Hill was widely admired for its enlightened land-use planning and forward-thinking growth management. Our current leaders, however, are turning their backs on this proud legacy, and the community as a whole will suffer the consequences.
In the mid-1980s, a Town Council comprising neighborhood leaders and faculty from the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning put in place a joint land-use plan with Orange County and Carrboro that preserves farmland, minimizes sprawl and habitat-fragmentation, protects water resources and concentrates development in the right places.
In 1989, after having established the “rural buffer” to the north and west of Chapel Hill, town leaders turned their attention to the area south of town. Three years of comprehensive land use planning resulted in the Southern Small Area Plan (SSAP), which the council adopted in 1992. In order to encourage future development on the land best suited to it and to minimize deterioration of the area’s streams and creeks, town planners used a “density swap”: they increased the number of residential units allowed per acre where development would least harm the environment, and they reduced allowable density on the most sensitive parcels.
The land on which allowable density was increased became Southern Village, a neighborhood that provides housing for thousands of town residents and community amenities that include public greenspace, a school and shopping. The hydrologically more sensitive land, on which allowable density was decreased, lay to the east of U.S. 15-501 in the vicinity of Obey Creek.
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And there our story might have ended, a tale of virtue rewarded, except that a few years ago a local real estate developer asked the town to toss out the SSAP and allow higher-density development – much higher than in Southern Village – on the Obey Creek land. Our elected officials could have rebuffed this proposal and explained that the Obey Creek land needs to remain low density to offset the higher stormwater runoff that was allowed to occur on the other side of the highway, in Southern Village. But the developer dangled before council members the prospect of increased tax revenue, and they swooned.
And so, this proposal has been allowed to move forward, and speedily, such that the mayor and council are now mere months away from permitting construction of more than 600 new housing units on land that town officials less than 25 years ago deemed unsuitable for such development. The ecological landscape around Obey Creek remains much the same as it was when the town adopted the SSAP, but the political landscape has changed considerably.
If our elected officials are resigned to granting the rezoning request for Obey Creek, they should at least try to negotiate some decent community benefits in exchange. For example, the community expects to receive a donation of land within the development on which to build a new school facility. The particular parcel the developer has proposed to donate, however, is not acceptable. Will council members stand firm and insist that the developer donate land the school district can actually build on, or will they again roll over, as they did when they failed to obtain significant community benefits from the Ephesus-Fordham rezoning or from the special use permit for The Edge?
Developers, of course, are entitled to use all tools at their disposal to try to further their own and their investors’ financial interest in land-use intensification, but our elected officials are supposed to be looking out for the rest of us. Mayor Kleinschmidt and his colleagues on the council must demonstrate the will and the capacity to stand up for the public interest when private landowners or developers come seeking favors. If they can’t, or won’t, they should make way for those who will.
The public has an opportunity to comment on the Obey Creek development agreement process at a Town Council meeting to be held Monday, March 16 at 7 pm.
David Schwartz lives in Chapel Hill.