Before the turn of the century, East Chapel Hill High (one of our community’s premier public education assets) put together sufficient funds to build badly needed athletic fields, a cultural arts center and related public infrastructure, and I was privileged to manage the construction of these site improvements, including widening along Weaver Dairy Road, because it was required for increased traffic. The developer (ECHHS) bore the burden of its impact on the community.
It would be naïve to suggest taxpayers should not be accountable for public improvements, but what of real public impacts caused by private developers?
In 2015 the private developers of Village Plaza Apartments in the now high-density Ephesus-Fordham district are not required to provide badly needed traffic and stormwater management measures related to their redevelopment, but the town manager is promoting a $40 million bond to shift the collective burden onto taxpayers.
Furthermore, if we knew then what we know now, Ephesus-Fordham would not have developed as it did, nor even, perhaps, where it did. It placed a major roadway (U.S. 15-501) through an environmentally sensitive area (Booker Creek), and spread streets and buildings across what is now considered by our town government to be a prime location for major economic re-development, within a floodplain no less!
If a developer invests in an abandoned gas station site because it is a great location for a new restaurant, can he shirk the responsibility of cleaning contaminated soils because underground tanks had for years leaked fuel into them? Clearly, he may not. But when a developer buys valuable land in Chapel Hill which contributes to heightened, erosive runoff because it is paved over, Chapel Hill’s Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) allows him to ignore that impact because it is an existing condition. Furthermore, re-developers of E-F will increase traffic on the local transportation system by thousands of vehicle trips per day but the cost and grief of that new burden will be passed to the ever-compliant taxpayer.
Back in 1992, the U.N. inspired Earth Summit convened in Rio De Janeiro and “Agenda 21” (21 meaning 21st century sustainability goals) emerged as a non-binding proposal to think globally and act locally. And so now Chapel Hill has decided to densify its population into growth centers like Ephesus-Fordham via the “2020 Comprehensive Plan”.
“Packing-people-in” is thus initiated, while the reasons for the underlying environmental and sustainability goals of the Earth Summit have been largely ignored, and made easier here because seven-story development is pre-approved throughout the district.
And will the $40 million bond solve the problems? In short, no. In fact, last spring when the council allowed public comments prior to adopting its current stormwater management master plan, former OWASA Chairman Alan Rimer suggested $80 million to $100 million would be required for stormwater management problems alone.
Our town manager has us thinking that he and his staff have all the answers, and if we trust them everything will work out just fine, never mind the problematic details and the long list of bonds which are sure to follow …
If the consensus of our community is in fact pro re-development, the logical starting point is to specifically define goals, stick with them, and bind them into an actual Charter, LUMO, impact manuals (e.g., stormwater, traffic) to easily inform and attract developers who will want to partner with us in what we envision as successful re-development.
And we must learn to think like developers, because that’s the role the 2020 Comprehensive Plan has placed us in. Re-development isn’t just for the new, but also includes the existing.
Dale Coker lives in Chapel Hill.