Chapel Hill News

Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment plan runs into questions, discord

The Town Council didn’t get far into its discussion of the proposed Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment plan Monday night before running into questions and discord.

The 190-acre Ephesus-Fordham district is one of six smaller areas identified in the town’s 2020 plan as ripe for future projects. The town is considering a new type of zoning called form-based code to guide developers and create predictability in how buildings are built, how they look and how they fit into the landscape. Once established, most projects could be approved by town staff, instead of the council, with some Community Design Commission review.

There would be check-ins every six months during the first two years, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.

Council member Matt Czajkowski interrupted Town Manager Roger Stancil’s description of the proposed form-based code district to ask why it has to include an affordable housing project on town land.

Raleigh-based housing nonprofit DHIC needs zoning and other issues resolved now in order to seek state funding this summer. Czajkowski has argued that handling that project separately would give the town more time to consider the Ephesus-Fordham district changes.

“I am really tired of having it be presented as part of Ephesus-Fordham and an increase in affordable housing. I think that’s basically misrepresenting,” he said.

Kleinschmidt and council member Maria Palmer defended the town. Everything in the district could be done separately, but the parts are stronger together, Kleinschmidt said. Stancil said the council could apply the form-based code initially to the housing project.

Palmer called Czajkowski’s comment an “outburst” and said it’s a fact that the town would create 160 affordable apartments in the district through the DHIC project.

“I feel very insulted when I’m trying to do my best to make a decision for the good of Chapel Hill and my motives are questioned,” Palmer said.

Kleinschmidt chided the crowd of more than 120 “to create a respectful environment.” In just over two hours, however, staff members were only able to cover the stormwater and the form-based code parts of the plan. Code Studio consultant Lee Einsweiler was cut off minutes into his presentation.

Roughly 20 people left after realizing they wouldn’t get a chance to speak. Palmer told those leaving they must not be interested in the details.

“We cannot make informed decisions and respond to your suggestions or objections if we don’t have all the information we need,” she said. “I think it’s really, really important. You might have more questions and better informed comments to share with the town after we hear all this detail.”

Full agenda

Some residents said they thought the town moved the meeting from last Thursday and deliberately planned a full agenda to keep them from speaking.

The council moved the meeting to Monday night so the county could fix audiovisual problems in the meeting room, but members spent the first two hours talking about next year’s budget and listening to 16 speakers address other topics. The public hearing on the Ephesus-Fordham plan itself proceeded as usual. Chapel Hill public hearings usually start with staff and expert presentations, then move to public and council comments.

Council members Lee Storrow and Sally Greene said they thought the meeting could have been planned better.

The Ephesus-Fordham plan has drawn vocal public opposition amid concerns about stormwater, traffic, the number of students it could bring and the costs and benefits to the community.

Czajkowski suggested applying the code to a few sites – a vacant Volvo dealership, Rams Plaza, the town’s affordable housing project site and the vacant theater lot – to avoid lasting mistakes.

Perhaps the biggest concern for critics is stormwater runoff, since parts of the district have been flooded several times over the last 20 years and residents live nearby in homes built before floodplain rules.

Stormwater engineer Chris Jensen said town staff dropped two stormwater ponds from the plan that would have improved district water quality because of timing and public concerns.

If the town built those ponds, it would have delayed the initial redevelopment projects, and the higher property and sales tax revenues from those projects wouldn’t be there to help repay $10 million in financing for the stormwater and road improvements, he said.

The new plan makes the developers responsible for stormwater on their properties, regardless of whether the changes add parking lots and other impervious surfaces. The town could use roughly $1 million in debt for stormwater improvements upstream from the district, he said.