Chapel Hill’s American Legion Post 6 must be wondering what they did to deserve the firestorm that has erupted after deciding to sell their land to be developed.
Founded in 1919 by returning veterans of WW1, Legion members have served us through each succeeding war, dutifully defending the rights we have enjoyed. Unfortunately, their stateside home is a town which has pared back their private property rights to a bare minimum, forcing them to fight for a special-use permit for any significant development of their land.
The Legion built their current lodge on Legion Road in the 1950s on what was then unpopulated dairy lands. Since that time, they have welcomed development after development to their area. Now that they want to have their own land developed, the neighbors they embraced have turned on them.
No good deed goes unpunished, it seems.
The Legion has a lot at stake in this controversy. One of its missions is to help recent service members transition back to civilian life and elderly ones deal with the issues of aging. Another mission is to better our community, which the Legion has done with projects large and small over their soon to be century of service here.
But the Legion is land rich and cash poor. To continue those missions it needs to convert the former to the latter. If this sale is stymied, it will be hard to keep up with its growing obligations.
Objections to the proposed Legion land development are both ideological and practical.
The broadest protest stems from a persistent belief by some who think land is a community resource, not privately owned property. That thinking drove the Town Council to hold a visioning session inviting town residents to propose public uses for the Legion’s 36 acres, such as parks, trails, and recreational facilities.
That’s all fine and dandy if the town owned the land, but it doesn’t. Or if the town had the money to buy the land, which is doesn’t. (In fact, the town officially passed on buying the land last fall.) Or if our carefully crafted Parks and Recreation plan prioritized those uses there, which it doesn’t.
Now that the Town Council has opened this conversation about public uses, it must be very careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest should it decide to deny the development’s rezoning and special-use permit. Fortunately, the developer has already promised to donate land to an adjoining park and provide walking trails. Council approval would give the town much of what it wants without having to buy the land.
Another question is how the developer will manage traffic and stormwater from the proposed use (approximately 600 apartments and an office building). That would be sorted out in the planning process.
Finally, there are some who oppose the proposal because they want to ban all new residential units in Chapel Hill, here or anywhere. They are worried about a future housing glut, since many other projects have already been approved. However, units will only be built with financing approval that depends on market conditions. If demand wanes, projects will be delayed or modified. Another concern is whether housing is a money loser for the town. It’s hard to tell, since current cost analyses rely on decades-old data, and don’t reflect the dense, high-value apartments proposed here. Regardless, cost must be weighed against benefits. If we want to attract businesses which bring a lot of new good jobs here, we have to provide places for those people to live. Having more options is not just prudent; it’s necessary.
The Legionnaires have experience fighting uphill battles. All they ask is to be treated impartially. This project should be evaluated on its merits, without an ulterior motive to expropriate the property for governmental use. There is also a memorandum of understanding on the project signed by the developer and the Town Council. While not binding, fairness dictates that it be followed in good faith by all parties. After all, isn’t that what our veterans fought so valiantly for?
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a real estate small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org