Form-based code a historic opportunity
Chapel Hill is on the brink of a historic opportunity. The chance to transform a large obsolete, car-dominated, and inefficient part of the community into an attractive, walkable, and accessible new mixed-use district does not come often. This is exactly the type of positive place-making envisioned by my Good Places, New Spaces theme group during the 2020 Comprehensive Plan preparation process.
The Ephesus-Fordham Plan, as implemented through the proposed form-based code, will not only make such a transformation possible but will also help to solve infrastructure, economic-base, and property-tax problems. In addition, it will increase the feasibility of attracting future high-quality development by setting aside the multi-year delays involved with the cumbersome special-use permit process.
This is a rare instance where integrated design, development, and regulation can contribute to long-range sustainability. As an urban planner and former Town Council member, I have seen several instances where our regulations and approval system, as applied, were out of sync with good design and financially feasible development, leading to problematic projects. Unfortunately, the community must live with these mistakes for a long time.
I urge the council to adopt the form-base code proposal and move ahead with implementing the Ephesus-Fordham Small Area Plan. You will not please all of the critics, but you will take a giant step toward increasing the sustainability of Chapel Hill. That is an important legacy for future generations.
David R. Godschalk
What unintended consequences?
A lot of us read about issues like the current proposal for the Ephesus-Fordham district, and file the information away, perhaps thinking how glad we are that we live in a neighborhood that’s immune from that kind of problem. What’s special about the Ephesus-Fordham issue, though, is that it begins with a proposal for a fundamental change to the way development decisions are made in this town we all love.
The town staff want to introduce “form-based codes” to Chapel Hill, and there is a lot of surface appeal to the idea. A form-based code “would give developers a menu of ‘forms’ they could choose from for designing building exteriors, parking lots and landscapes that blend into their surroundings,” which is intended to “simplify” development for the developers. The codes would outline allowable building size, heights and uses, plus how buildings relate to parking, streets and other buildings in the district.
In these pages and in recent public meetings, our neighbors have expressed serious concerns about the costs, benefits, and potential impact of the current proposal on traffic, storm water, and schools. I agree with their concerns, and wonder what other unintended consequences might arise with a form-based code.
The most profound change, though, appears to be entirely intentional. The Town Council currently has leverage to negotiate with developers before a project is approved, and citizens have opportunities to contribute to these decisions about their town. However, as CHN staff writer Tammy Grubb noted in these pages (Feb. 25), the current form-based code plan would leave most decisions about future development to town staff. I think that would be a huge mistake. Why would we give up the right to stay involved in decisions that affect the quality of our lives? And why would our elected representatives want to relinquish that mechanism for protecting our interests?
I am not opposed to some version of form-based codes. Change might be good. But let’s not “throw the baby out …” while we are at it.
Although town staff apparently insist this new approach would not apply to the rest of Chapel Hill, you have to wonder why not. If it’s that great, wouldn’t we want to use it throughout the town? Most of us suspect this proposal is a test case, the proverbial foot in the door, and the intent is to extend the concept to the many pending projects elsewhere in town. In fact, the proposed new LUMO language permits this wider application. If the Town Council approves form-based codes, the rules would be in place for other areas of town. We all need to pay attention.
An immediate need
We, the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) and the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, are acutely aware of the need and immediacy of a water and sewer extension project. It affects the lives of our friends and neighbors and has for forty years.
The proposed partnership between the RENA and the Jackson Center is also vital and necessary. Our approach to organizing is broad-based and comprehensive. The proposed contract provides for an extensive engagement strategy that involves over 1,000 hours of collaborative organizing, outreach, data analysis, mapping, and groundwork for continued action.
Carrboro and Chapel Hill have approved $130,000 for preliminary engineering efforts. We are excited that jurisdictions also have been supportive of community-based discussion and planning. We do not repeat past efforts or resurvey folks. This contract will enable RENA and the Jackson Center to design, cogently map, and synthesize over 40 years of work that has been done in this neighborhood. It will also allow us to inform the community of the engineering survey implications and to prudently plan for the rapid development that would occur with line installation. We hope to move forward soon with the support from all jurisdictions.
March 16-22 is Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide discussion about the importance of access to public information and what it means to each of us and to our community. It is a time to remember the important role that the public has in keeping our town healthy, vibrant and strong.
We all have the right to know what our government is doing – both its successes and failures. Exercising our right to know gives us – the public – power. It allows us to hold elected officials accountable on Election Day and beyond.
For decades, members of the League of Women voters have acted as government watchdogs at the federal, state and local levels. Currently the League of Women Voters of North Carolina is seeking from the N.C. General Assembly disclosure of communications and justifications surrounding the enactment of last year’s voter suppression bill. North Carolinians have a right to know the decision-making process used when laws are passed that make it more difficult for citizens to vote.
The league works to ensure that all voices are heard as decisions are made about our state’s and community’s future. We invite all of you to join us by making your voice heard on Election Day and throughout the year.
Brenda Hyde Rogers