Council And Residents Wrangle With Ephesus-Fordham Questions

By Elizabeth Friend Posted March 25, 2014 at 2:42 am

More than 100 people came out for Monday’s public hearing on the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment plan and nearly a third of the crowd shared their thoughts with the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Brett Bushnell was one of fifteen to speak in favor of the plan to spend $10 million on road and infrastructure improvements in the area.

“The Ephesus-Fordham plan has the ability to fix the broken infrastructure in this area. The road network in this area is extremely dated and not functioning well,” said Bushnell. “It should also reduce the need to drive to Durham, Chatham or even Wake County for shopping, dining and working. It will broaden the tax base and take the burden off of residential property owners.”

The project would reconfigure the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard, extend Elliot Road and create new mixed-use zones to allow three to seven stories of commercial and residential development on 190 acres in a bid to spur economic development.

But opponents worry the proposed new zoning tool known as form-based code will take public input and Council control out of the approval process.

“Once the form-based code is passed, you’ve lost control,” Bruce Henschel told the Council. “You might assume developers won’t build 190 acres of seven story buildings and parking lots cheek-by-jowl, but the code would allow them to do it. You couldn’t stop them as long as they met everything on the checklist.”

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.

This kind of zoning and approval process would be new to Chapel Hill. Supporters and critics alike raised questions on Monday about how the zoning would work. In the three hour discussion that followed, Council members tried to address some of the limitations of form-based code, including the town’s inability to mandate affordable housing.

The Council is looking to partner with a nonprofit to build low-income housing on town land in the Ephesus Road area, but beyond that, Council members say there’s little incentive for developers to provide workforce housing.

The Council also received a cost benefit analysis of the project by Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer. He offered two scenarios. In the more fiscally conservative estimate, the project would cost about $26.4 million and the town would likely break even after 20 years. But if Orange County leaders agree to pledge a portion of the additional revenue the project is expected to generate, Pennoyer said the project would bring in $46.9 million dollars for the town over the next two decades.

“Obviously their participation helps our financial numbers and therefore makes the project more viable,” said Pennoyer. “If the project isn’t viable and doesn’t go forward, then [Orange County] doesn’t benefit at all.”

The Council will discuss the funding partnership with Orange County Commissioners at a joint meeting on Thursday. The Ephesus-Fordham plan will come back before the council for a vote in mid-April.

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