Chapel Hill: Opinion

Too slick: Town building ahead of our infrastructure – Dale Coker

Dale Coker
Dale Coker

The Alexan Chapel Hill in Village Plaza has arrived. According to Transportation Research Board statistics, the new development could generate over 2,000 new vehicle trips per day – a daunting prospect for unprepared, existing public infrastructure.

Not coincidentally, the re-lining of the nearby Elliott Road-Fordham Boulevard culverts was completed last fall because the rusted-out existing ones could not carry existing (much less all this new) traffic weight.

On Nov. 7, The Chapel Hill News portrayed this work as overdue stormwater management linked to study(s). Liners were extended 6 inches beyond the existing Elliott roadbed headwalls to facilitate linkage of four- to five-lane Elliott widening in the Ephesus-Fordham Small Area Plan recommendations of consultant Kimley-Horn.

Recently, the (un-)related Lower Booker Creek Watershed study by WK Dickson was accepted, and new stormwater management (SWM) construction partially authorized by the Town Council for this troubled municipal floodplain.

Amid these consultations, the council approved the town manager’s access to nearly $1 million from 2016 SWM fees to prevent structural disaster at the Elliott Road culverts.

Now quite a bit stronger, the Elliott Road culverts have nonetheless become smaller due to the grouted-in size difference between the old pipes and new liners. Still, to prevent back-up flooding in Eastgate, they must pass just as much flow as the old ones did. To achieve this, the new steel liners are slicker (faster) than the previous corrugated metal pipes resulting in increased Booker Creek erosive flow, which is actually adverse to stormwater management principles.

The Town of Chapel Hill has spared Ephesus-Fordham redevelopers this ugly but necessary impact cost, but $934,000 was siphoned from 2016 Chapel Hill “Nurture our Community”/Stormwater Management fees to do it.

Plus, N.C. Department of Transportation participation will be required, not only for the added Elliott Road traffic but inevitably, for a traffic signal likely at Burger King with the Ephesus Fordham Small Area Plan’s proposed connectivity layout. None of this was budgeted, nor even debated when the council (excepting lone former Councilman Matt Czajkowski) gave the go ahead for this project and the Ephesus-Fordham density supersize.

Chapel Hill development guidelines don’t yet require developers to offset their traffic and existing stormwater impacts in re-zoned Ephesus-Fordham. Still, according to its website, “influential, elegant and always ready to go” are the words touting the Alexan experience.

Anticipated South Elliott residents and shoppers will eventually gain a new traffic light and street connection, but until then, the sizeable traffic standstills will be safely supported by the relined Elliott culverts.

Growth gamble

For tax revenues, town-growth gurus gambled on the redevelopment of Ephesus-Fordham, sparing its redevelopers essential community infrastructure costs, leaving that part to studies and anticipated new taxpayers.

Beguiled voter-taxpayers almost unanimously endorsed this deferred payment plan in the November 2015 $40.3 million municipal bond referendum.

Like other substantial growth issues (DOLRT for example), additional new bonds will inevitably fuel Ephesus-Fordham stormwater management necessities revealed in the Dickson study, like $20 million-plus for Lower Booker accommodations in the first of over $100 million eventual stormwater rehabs.

Clear infrastructure standards must be developed and established to link public needs to Chapel Hill redevelopment(s), particularly in flood- and traffic- plagued growth districts like Ephesus-Fordham.

The Dickson study and its recommendations are overdue, useful and necessary in guiding such decisions.

Sadly, traffic, pedestrian and stormwater management issues were disturbingly stiff-armed when the town manager and council inexcusably densified Ephesus-Fordham ahead of reasonable infrastructure expectations.

The now completed Elliott Road stormwater management/community nurturing project: too slick.

Dale Coker is a former member of the town of Chapel Hill Community Design Commission.