The Chapel Hill Town Council indicated that it would likely delay a vote scheduled for March 24 on the controversial Ephesus-Fordham proposed renewal plan during a special work session Thursday night. Council members agreed that there were still many questions that needed to be answered, and more time should be taken to factor in the public’s growing concerns.
In an unusual move, the Council hosted a work session during which public comment was taken twice during the meeting. Residents who oppose the proposed redevelopment sounded off, and some Council members were apprehensive about the plan to redevelop the area surrounding the Ephesus-Fordham Boulevard intersection.
The plan calls for the rezoning of 190 acres to encourage new commercial and residential development, as well as $10 million worth of roadway improvements to one of Chapel Hill’s most congested and confusing intersections.Town staffers said the plan would improve the area’s traffic flow and stormwater problems while increasing the town’s commercial tax base.
However, some residents are concerned that a zoning tool new to the Town, called form-based code, will limit the Council and the public’s say in the development review process.
Area resident Karen Trout told the Council that she shopped in Rams Plaza often and was worried that the redevelopment would hurt local businesses and allow developers to retain too much power.
“With any development, there will be problems that cannot be foreseen from the original plan. The developers and subcontractors are naturally going to take care of their needs before they take care of the Town or individual citizens,” Trout said.
Using form-based code, the Council will set parameters for development, including building height, setbacks and parking guidelines for each zone, but once these are in place, individual developers will not need to bring their projects before the council if they meet the established criteria.
Landscape architect Scott Murray was one of a few residents who shared that he was in favor of the form-based code. He said he had studied the code and what it would entail for his clients.
“Is it a good code? Yes. Is it a great code? I think it is. Is it perfect? Well, it doesn’t have to be, but it does work in the real world, and I think it is time to get on with it,” Murray said.
Former council member Julie McClintock echoed other residents’ anxieties, stating that the process was moving much too fast. She asked the council to delay the vote so the issues surrounding the plan could be fully discussed.
“Once this has been granted, there is kind of no turning back. Once the permit ability for the right to do these things [has been issued], and we, in fact, find that it is not working, that it is washed away, or attracting gridlock, there isn’t much we can do,” McClintock said.
Consultant Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio, the firm brought on board to write coding for the area, explained the benefits of the zoning tool. He said it offered developers “certainty” in challenging circumstances.
As to the approval process, he said it was a more “streamlined” and efficient process.
Einsweiler also pointed out that revisions had been made to the code, and that those changes reflected feedback from the council and residents. He said modifications could still be made.
An area of concern voiced by council member Donna Bell was that under the current plan, affordable housing would have to be a public project. Steps should be taken to find partners to provide affordable housing in the area, she said.
Council member Matt Czajkowski said he feared that residential buildings would overrun the area and retail businesses wouldn’t come until years later, if at all.
“This conceptually seems wonderful, but if the implementation doesn’t work out the way you say it will, then we end up with a mammoth apartment complex,” Czajkowski said. “We end up with a retail plaza that doesn’t really change very much, and what have we actually accomplished?”
Einsweiler responded to Czajkowski, explaining that residential developers would likely come first, but retail and others would follow.
“I think you are setting the tone. You are setting the quality. Admittedly, you are taking on some of the developer’s risk by putting in infrastructure yourselves, but that is attractive in its own right,” Einsweiler said. “If we look at examples around the country, I think we see the response to that.”
The Ephesus-Fordham plan is projected to be a revenue-positive venture for the Town. Council member George Cianciolo said he wanted to understand how this projection was calculated, but noted his support for the project was not dependent on the immediate return results. He said he saw it as “an investment in the future.”
Council member Lee Storrow said that he wanted the community to be aware that a vote on the plan would not be taken on the originally schedule date due to the remaining items still to be discussed.
Council member Jim Ward also asked to delay the vote for several reasons. He said the financial pressures and demands currently being placed on Chapel Hill Transit should be attended to first. He requested that staff investigate ways to incentivize developers to build energy-efficient structures. He also wished to wait until the Ephesus-Fordham stormwater report was presented to the Council later this month.
Ward and Czajkowski agreed that the strain that would likely be placed on the school district with the addition of a a large number of new residential buildings should be considered as well. Town staff said the Chapel Hill Hill Carrboro City Schools will make a presentation regarding Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (SAPFO) in April.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the Council needed time to “stew” on the worries raised by the residents and for members to have their own questions answered. He asked for more feedback from the public and welcomed emails to the Council.