Chapel Hill: Opinion

Del Snow: How to make the Edge work for Chapel Hill taxpayers

During the Feb. 23 public hearing for The Edge development on Eubanks Road, the mayor and Chapel Hill Town Council members asked substantive questions about affordable housing, road improvements and a process to further negotiate unresolved issues. But by the end of the evening, Councilman George Cianciolo summed it up best when he lamented that the chancy proposal was “better than nothing.”

The lure of The Edge proposal was its potential to significantly increase Chapel Hill’s commercial tax base and expand the town’s stock of affordable housing in exchange for 33 requested variances. Although council members offered differing accounts of what they actually approved that night, the meeting makes clear what the applicant wanted and what the town could have obtained.

Developer Adam Golden of Northwood Ravin wanted three major concessions. First, contrary to special use permit processes, he requested broad flexibility in what The Edge will look like and what it will actually provide. Second, he asked the town to share the cost of the $3.5 million in Eubanks/MLK road improvements. Third, Northwood Ravin wants to build in the restricted Resource Conservation District (RCD), calling that the “single biggest thing to do to enhance (the project’s) commercial viability.”

Golden proposed a deal. He offered to extend the time to obtain affordable housing grants from five years to 10, and, if unsuccessful at securing funding, to sell the land to the town for $1, provided that the town participates in sharing the cost of road improvements. He stated, unequivocally, that Northwood Ravin could not provide affordable housing without that cost sharing.

Instead of inking that deal, the council agreed that road financing would be discussed separately. The approval states that if Northwood Ravin can’t secure financing for affordable housing within five years, Northwood Ravin has three choices: request an extension to continue trying to get funding, come up with a new council-approved plan, or sell the land for the 2016 tax value.

Remember, though, that Northwood Ravin stated that the only way for them to provide affordable units is if the town helps pay for the road improvements. This suggests that the town will be forced to choose between sharing the road costs or buying the land for the inflated 2016 tax value. Unfortunately, the council neglected to discuss what the price of the land would be if Chapel Hill does contribute to the road project but Northwood Ravin does not obtain affordable housing financing.

Confused? Who isn’t?

Both the road costs and RCD development will be discussed in separate negotiations labeled a development agreement. Up until now, “development agreement” has always indicated citizen involvement in discussions. However in the Rube Goldberg process created for The Edge, only the council, town staff and the applicant will be involved.

In advance of the closed negotiations, here are some areas where the council can and should step in to salvage some small measure of benefit for Chapel Hill residents and taxpayers:

▪ Pin down the due diligence in obtaining affordable housing grants. Mayor Kleinschmidt brought this up a number of times, but as it stands now, Northwood Ravin can do nothing and choose to sell the land to the town for the 2016 tax value.

▪ Clarify restrictions for building in the RCD. If indeed the council decides to actually allow development in the RCD, stipulate that any building that occurs there only be commercial and not residential. Additionally, note that the council will adhere to recommendations made by the town’s Stormwater Advisory Board.

▪ Link the significantly increased residential percentage cap of 75 percentage to measurable goals in commercial development. The last thing Chapel Hill needs is yet another high-end apartment complex on the site best suited to retail in all of Chapel Hill.

Submitted by Del Snow for Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT).