Robert Dowling, the Community Home Trust’s executive director, arrived at the Oct. 20 Town Council meeting after the public comment period technically had closed.
As part of amending the Land Use Management Ordinance and Zoning Atlas, the council had taken up the topic of crafting incentives to entice developers to build affordable housing in the Ephesus-Fordham district ruled by form-based code. Dowling had come to share his expertise. He had taken his time getting there that evening because he expected dozens of others would be lined up to have their say.
But only one other person had come to speak.
A similar scenario played out the following week. The council held a work session on the staff review of Village Plaza Apartments, the first project going up under form-based code regulations (and I use that word loosely) in Ephesus-Fordham. Only three people signed up to speak, and one went home before the work session started around 10:30 p.m.
The empty seats were in stark contrast to community participation during the public hearings to shape form-based code. Then, so many people signed up to speak that they had to wait in overflow rooms and watch the proceedings on a TV with barely audible volume. Some community members with expertise in stormwater management, green building and affordable housing devoted considerable time to making presentations, often using can’t-escape-’em PowerPoint slides, to educate council members and staff about what to pay attention to and how to ameliorate potential problems with the proposed code. Hundreds of others sent emails or signed petitions. All to no avail. In the end, six council members, constituting a majority, voted to follow staff recommendations only, which catered to developers.
I did a quick survey last week of people who care about development issues. I learned they still care. But to a one they feel reaching out to the council again would be wasted effort.
During the hearings on form-based code, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt argued fiercely that the code could be changed after the fact, and town attorney Ralph Karpinos backed him, according to a March 20, 2014, memo from form-based code designer Lee Einsweiler to John Richardson, the town’s sustainability officer. The memo specifically cites “to reduce (building) heights” and “if there are unintended consequences that come to light during development of early projects” as reasons to change the code.
But at the form-based code review last week, a slim majority – but a majority nonetheless – of an emaciated council (three members were absent) showed no signs of wanting to make changes.
That Oct. 27 council meeting showed a stark contrast of results from a special-use permit process versus form-based code. Council members spent nearly an hour deciding how to obtain affordable housing from a 63-unit senior living development that could not take advantage of a density bonus used to offset the ordinance that 15 percent of the units be sold at a below-market price. No bank would lend the developer money on any unit that could not be sold to cover the amount loaned for it. The developer proposed payment-in-lieu for all nine units, an unprecedented $803,250. The council ultimately agreed to accept the cash instead of a combination of cash and affordable units.
Then came the presentation on Village Plaza Apartments: 266 units, none below market rate; no green-building techniques; and the possible loss of a section of greenway the town had built but neglected to obtain an easement for.
Matt Czajkowski pointed out that form-based code does not reflect Chapel Hill’s values. His comments, and those in a similar vein by Jim Ward, echoed in the nearly empty auditorium.
If values fall in an empty council chamber, do they make a sound?
Nancy Oates writes the blog chapelhillwatch.com