Form-based code is perhaps the most impactful zoning change we’ve ever enacted in Chapel Hill. Soon, some seemingly inconsequential proposed changes may undermine its effectiveness.
The typical development in Chapel Hill needs Town Council approval for a Special Use Permit (SUP). Regulations are intentionally restrictive, forcing developers of major projects to negotiate with town staff, a gauntlet of advisory boards and an often politicized public hearing procedure. The process is so long, contentious, and uncertain that it dissuades many from investing in our community and adds significant costs to those who do.
In Form Based Code (FBC), the town sets standards for an area’s building forms, designs and relationships up front. Developments meeting those standards are certified in a few months by the Community Design Commission (a citizen advisory board) and the town manager.
With the SUP, only discrete projects are considered, and we aren’t sure what we will end up with. With FBC, we codify a vision for an area, and let the market build it over time.
Chapel Hill’s first use of FBC is in the Ephesus-Fordham district, about 190 acres from the Town Cemetery through Ram’s Plaza, Eastgate and Village Plaza on Elliott Road. This largely commercial area is badly in need of redevelopment. It has been aging, without major new projects, for decades.
Town Council enacted FBC in Ephesus-Fordham in July 2014. Over the next 13 months, four separate commercial projects were proposed and certified, adding at least a projected $63 million of value to the area. New tax revenue allows the town to finance much needed road improvements along Ephesus Church and Legion Roads.
Despite this success, the Community Design Commission has petitioned the Town Council for changes to the FBC. The council would be wise to cautiously evaluate if any of these new regulations will impede the progress seen in the area. Some may.
Here’s what must be avoided: Design changes that interfere with successful development or required return on investment. Process changes that reintroduce the SUP’s uncertainty.
The commission requested 18 code changes. Subsequent discussions with staff, identified seven potential near-term modifications.
Most changes are rather innocuous. They include: backs of buildings facing Fordham Boulevard should meet similar design requirements as fronts of buildings, street-facing parking structures and water-retention ponds must meet appearance guidelines, green spaces must be visible to the public, and sidewalks should be enhanced.
These proposals fit the idea of FBC – stipulating how development should look in the district. As long as the new design and appearance guidelines are reasonable and clearly spelled out, these kinds of changes will make the code better.
Two of the near-term modifications, dealing with size of buildings, need more scrutiny. One would set a maximum block length and width. The other would set a minimum building height.
Block size is driven by a desire for a connected, pedestrian-friendly area. That’s a worthy goal. We just need to ensure the scale works for future projects and doesn’t unduly limit the investment we want to attract to the area. This can be handled when the specific requirements are set.
The minimum two-story height is driven by a desire to increase the area’s tax value so future road improvements can be financed. Again, a worthy goal. However, some areas or uses only work with one story. For instance, the new building coming to Eastgate had to fit with the rest of that one story center. The new CVS in Ram’s Plaza is a one story concept. If two stories had been required, we might have lost those two projects, leaving us further from our tax revenue goal.
Both these issues can be managed with input from current property owners and developers during planning. Since, according to the town, a key purpose of FBC is to “stimulate new interest in development and investing here,” we must ensure unintended consequences of code changes don’t stymie that goal.
Finally, all changes must stay true to the FBC process. FBC’s transparency and predictability are necessary to its success. Change the guidelines, but not the way they are judged. No discretionary approvals should be allowed so that projects meeting requirements are promptly certified.
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at email@example.com