New Buses Top List Of Chapel Hill Transit Budget Needs

Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield told the Chapel Hill Town Council on Wednesday it’s getting harder to maintain the agency’s aging fleet of buses.

“Back in 2007, the odds of you being on a bus that would break down while you were riding it were fairly small,” said Litchfield. “The odds today are pretty good.”

Transit officials estimate at least 42 buses need to be replaced.  Thirty-seven of those are a model that hasn’t been manufactured since 2003, meaning requires more labor hours are required to maintain those vehicles and replacement parts are increasingly difficult to locate.

In the past, Chapel Hill Transit was able to draw down grant money to buy new vehicles. But federal earmarks have disappeared and state funding has dropped $1 million since 2010, leaving the transit partners scrambling to find new funding sources.

Litchfield said proceeds from the half-cent sales tax levied to support the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan will help. Chapel Hill Transit will collect $1.1 million in revenues from the tax, $180,000 of which will go to finance new three new buses.

“We have so many vehicles that need to be replaced that we have to do something, so there is some financing in there to do that,” said Litchfield.

The proposed transit budget for the next fiscal year totals $20.5 million, of which $13.5 million are local dollars. Carrboro will spend $1.4 million, Chapel Hill will spend $4.2 million, and UNC will contribute $7.7 million.

Litchfield says the partners are still working to finalize a long-term plan for sustainable transit funding which will be presented to the town in the fall.

The Council will consider Chapel Hill Transit’s funding request as part of the larger budget negotiations. A work session on next year’s budget is scheduled for Monday.

Chapel Hill Town Council Approves Ephesus-Fordham Renewal Plan

The Chapel Hill Town Council took a series of votes Monday night to adopt a new type of zoning known as form-based code and apply it to a large swath of land surrounding the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard intersection.

Council member George Cianciolo sided with the majority in supporting the plan.

“I do believe that this will be successful for Chapel Hill,” Cianciolo told the crowd of more that one hundred who turned out for the third public hearing on the proposal. “That’s what I was elected to do, use my best judgement.”

The Council voted 8-1 to adopt the new form-based code into the town land use plan, and 6-9 to apply it to the majority of the 190 acre Ephesus-Fordham focus area. Ed Harrison, Matt Czajkowski and Jim Ward voted against the rezonings.

The plan calls for the town to reconfigure the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard, extend Elliot Road and create new mixed-use zones that allow three to seven stories of commercial and residential development.

Supporters say it will encourage new business growth in the area while also addressing long-standing flooding problems and traffic jams.

However, opponents have raised doubts about the efficacy of the stormwater management plan and questioned the cost and timing of the redevelopment proposal. Council member Czajkowski sided with critics of the plan.

“There’s no evidence that it will achieve the original goals, including stormwater, including traffic mitigation, including increasing commercial tax revenue towards the town,” said Czajkowski.

Council member Ward opposed the plan because he said switching from a Special Use Permit approval process to form-based code means the Council will lose the chance to negotiate with developers for affordable housing and energy efficient design.

“Sounds like the rest of the Council is ready to give away the store in terms of the one thing that we have, and that’s the ability to offer greater density as an incentive,” said Ward. “It baffles me.”

Using form-based code, the Council sets 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. Instead, projects will be reviewed by the Town Manager and the Community Design Commission. Council members expressed interest in reviewing the first projects that come forward under the new guidelines, but they will not be able to ask developers for concessions.

Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene proposed holding off on rezoning four parcels of land along Elliot Road from  East Franklin Street to Fordham Boulevard while staffers investigate the possibility of offering density bonuses for developers who build affordable housing.

“What I’m talking about is a proposal that would change properties 1, 2, 3 and 4 from WX 5 to WX 2, as in two stories permitted by right with a density bonus of five stories in exchange for 10 percent affordable housing,” said Greene.

The Council backed her proposal, leaving the land as-is for now.

In addition, the Council voted unanimously to rezone 8.5 acres on Legion Road so that nonprofit developer DHIC can apply for low-income tax credits to subsidize a proposed affordable rental housing project on the site. The town is partnering with DHIC on the project, but some backers worried the rezoning might not happen before Friday’s deadline to apply for tax credits.

While the zoning is now in place, the town is still in the process of figuring out how to pay for the $10 million dollars worth of infrastructure improvements. To that end, the town is asking Orange County to help pay down the town’s debt by contributing a portion of the increased tax revenues the redevelopment is expected to generate.

County commissioners will consider that plan on Thursday night.

Council Readies For June Vote On Glen Lennox Plan

Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council sat down with developers from Grubb Properties on Monday to hash out the details of a plan to revitalize one of the town’s oldest commercial centers, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

The Glen Lennox redevelopment plan would add new roads and new housing at the interior of the 70 acre site and office and retail space along Fordham Boulevard and Raleigh Road.

The Town Council is negotiating a development agreement to govern the build-out of the plan during the next two decades. At Monday’s work session, Council members focused on traffic mitigation, design features and the fiscal impact of the plan.

The Council also heard a novel proposal to retain affordable rental housing during and after redevelopment.

Clay Grubb, of Grubb Properties, suggested a program aimed at keeping long-term residents. Renters who have lived in Glen Lennox for five years or more would be eligible to have future rent hikes limited to no more than the increase of the Consumer Price Index. This would apply to 15 percent of the rentals throughout the entire property.

Though there are still issues of contention, Council members voiced approval for the plan and signaled they are almost ready to put it to a vote.

And while development plans for other focus areas such as Obey Creek and Ephesus-Fordham have become mired in controversy in recent months, the members of the public who spoke at the work session seemed to embrace the Glen Lennox plan with open arms.

One current resident called it “a blessing,” telling the council the plan should be “the gold standard” for other developers.

The development agreement will undergo another review by town staffers before a public hearing and council vote in June.

Residents Roll Out To Support Chapel Hill Bike Plan

Chapel Hill leaders hope a new and improved bike plan will convince more residents to ride instead of drive.

Chapel Hill boasts one of the highest rates of bicycling commuters in the state, second only to Carrboro. But town planner Garrett Davis said there are many who want to ride, yet don’t.

“A 2013 community survey question asks 2,000-plus people in Chapel Hill, ‘do you feel safe cycling in the town limits?’ Fifty-three percent said ‘no,’” Davis told the Town Council.

On Monday more than a dozen cyclists rolled out to support the town’s draft bike plan, which calls for improved infrastructure and policy changes to promote all types of cycling throughout Chapel Hill.

Davis said the first step would be to focus on ten short-term priority areas.

“It contains some low-cost options that could make some real impacts. It’s not just widening roads in the short-term,” said Davis. “The short-term network has real safety benefits on streets downtown like Rosemary Street.”

Other priority areas include Estes Drive, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Raleigh Road, and portions of Franklin Street.

The ten project list is estimated to cost approximately $16.5 million over the next decade. Planners say that total would need to include at least $9 million in state and federal money to make the projects feasible.

Cyclists came before the council with praise for the plan, which would add bike lanes, side paths and greenways. Jason Merrill is the owner of Back Alley Bikes. He told the council that prior to moving to Chapel Hill, he had never felt welcome on his preferred mode of transit.

“I started a family here, we bought a house here, I started a business here, all because I felt welcome here,” said Merrill. “As the recommendations of this bike plan become realities in the coming years, a message to potential future residents will be painted right on the street in white lines, that there’s a place for you here, you belong here, you’re home.”

Council members were largely supportive of the plan.

“The biking community in this town is incredible, the number of hours they volunteer, the effort they are putting forth,” said Maria Palmer. “In fact, I got myself a bicycle this week.”

The town is accepting further public comment to refine the proposal. The Council will vote on the plan in June.

New And Young Leaders Learning To “Disagree Well”

CHAPEL HILL – Orange County has seen a great deal of recent political turnover, with a newer, younger generation of legislators and community leaders emerging to replace the old.

But how do those new leaders navigate the political realm? How do they make a difference, in institutions still dominated by older legislators and older ways?

“I walk in, first of all, as a student – a student of the game,” says newly appointed State House Representative Graig Meyer. “How am I going to play this game? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to align myself with? Who do I need to emulate? Who do I need to stay away from?”

First-term Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils agrees, adding that finding one’s place involves not only the need to learn how to play the game – but also the chance to elevate the discourse.

“One of the things that I found myself doing – while not intending, necessarily, to do it – was to come to the role with a kind of posture of wanting to demonstrate how to disagree well,” he says. “I think that, in itself, has value.”

Other young or first-term legislators agree that ‘being the new guy’ also offers a rare opportunity to shake things up.

“I think all of us who are new elected officials have one opportunity, which is to really see how things have been done and to ask questions about why,” says first-term County Commissioner Mark Dorosin. “Why do you do something like this? Why is it like this? And maybe that’s the right way to do it, but you have the opportunity to say, ‘Explain it to me – and in doing so, explain it to the constituents.’”

Fellow first-termer Renee Price agrees. “If I have to say something that’s going to ruffle somebody’s feathers, I’m sorry,” she says. “Well, no, I’m not sorry, really.”

And first-term Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer says she can also take advantage of her status as a demographic outsider as well.

“I’m an immigrant,” she says, “so sometimes I can say things that other people are too embarrassed or have been told all their lives you can’t say in polite company.”

Palmer, Price, Dorosin and Seils all occupy seats on elected boards that serve Orange County alone – so all four can say their own values adhere fairly closely to those of their fellow board members.

Not so Meyer, a Democrat in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. “I just drove back from Raleigh,” he says, “and I was in an education policy hearing…(and) most of the people in the General Assembly don’t know a darn thing about education. And I cannot believe they’re making some of the decisions that they’re making.”

Among other things, he says, those decisions include a continued reluctance to raise teacher pay – and, on Thursday, a task force recommendation to eliminate the Common Core standards.

Those moves and others have left him frustrated, Meyer says – and it can be no less frustrating for new and young officials seeking to make change in Chapel Hill. But despite the frustration, Meyer says it’s possible to be hopeful for the future, simply by looking back to the recent past.

“On the days that I’m mad and angry – and today sitting in chambers was one of the worst days that I’ve had – I tend to think about Terry Sanford and Bill Friday,” he says. “Those gentlemen came out of World War II together…and they decided that they were going to fight racial segregation and build the prosperity of this state based on having a strong public education system.

“And there is no reason why today’s leaders shouldn’t be able to come together around the same goal of building our long-term prosperity on a well-educated populace and the ability to stand up against the continued existence of institutionalized racism and other forms of inequity.”

And it’s that hope that sustains local leaders – young and old and newcomer and veteran alike – as they continue to push for change.

“Change is hard,” says Dorosin. “It’s very frustrating. But, you know, every day you start to push the rock up the hill – and you hope that today, it gets all the way to the top.”

And in the end, Renee Price says, that activism pays off in its impact on people.

“There’s something very interesting that happens, I think every single time I’ve had a meeting (where) I’ve been frustrated,” she says. “The next day someone will call me up, or they’ll see me in the grocery store, and they’ll just say ‘thank you.’

“And you know…it makes it worth it.”

Dorosin, Price, Meyer, Seils and Palmer made those comments in the “Tomorrow’s Newsmakers” panel of the 2014 WCHL Community Forum.

It Is Time For A Pay-As-You-Throw Trash Plan?

With town and county officials looking to collaborate on solid waste disposal and recycling, there’s increasing interest in changing the way individuals and institutions handle trash in Orange County.

County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier says it’s time to seriously consider a pay-as-you-throw system that charges households based on how much waste each generates.

“We know, from a psychological point of view, that paying for something makes people think about it,” says Pelissier. “Just like we got increased water conservation by having the tiered rates. People are now conscious that it’s a precious resource. What we have in our trash cans or recycling bins, that’s a precious resource as well, so we have to frame it very differently.”

Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade agrees. He says Carrboro is already investigating the feasibility of such a system, with an eye to rewarding residents who reduce their trash output.

“Personally, I’m interested in not just an individual, per-household pay-as-you-throw system- there’s some concern in the Town of Carrboro about the regressive quality of that,” says Slade. “There’s an opportunity, I feel, at the neighborhood level to incentivize the neighborhood to reduce its trash, then credit the neighborhood for it to use through participatory budgeting at the neighborhood scale.”

Though critics of pay-as-you-throw argue it can disproportionally impact low-income households, Orange County Solid Waste Planner Blair Pollock says some elderly residents might actually benefit from the change.

“The predominant low-income family in our county is elderly and lives alone or has a small household,” says Pollock. “So people, like my mom, who live in this county benefit from pay-as-you throw. One could easily flip that argument on its head.”

Switching to a pay-as-you-throw system is part of a larger question of how the local governments can handle solid waste in a socially and environmentally just manner.

Now that the Eubanks Road landfill has closed, the towns and county are trucking trash to a waste transfer station in Durham. That trash ultimately ends up at a landfill in Sampson County.

Board of Commissioners candidate Mark Marcoplos visited the landfill to see firsthand the impact that has on the surrounding neighborhood. He says the largely low-income African-American community is suffering from the burden of Orange County’s trash.

“We’re in this situation where we’re patting ourselves on the back for finally providing social justice to the Rogers Road community and we’re actually affecting a community even worse over the horizon in Sampson County, so this is an issue we have to address,” says Marcoplos.

While some are pushing for the construction of a waste transfer station near Chapel Hill, Town Council member Jim Ward says ultimately, local governments will need to find a more permanent solution.

“I do think that if we go forward and see the need for a landfill, and I think there is one, I think it’s incumbent on us to put it in our own backyard and not be oblivious to it being transported to some impoverished neighborhood in Eastern North Carolina or Southern Virginia or wherever this stuff goes,” says Ward.

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee says all stakeholders need to get together to come up with short and long-term solutions.

“I think that we’re going to need to look at this entire discussion of what we’re going to do with our trash, how we’re going to handle recycling, and we need to look at it in a comprehensive manner along with the towns.”

But once local governments work out a plan, McKee says they’ll need the political will to stick to it.

“I think its finally going to break down to having to devise a plan, then have the backbone to stand by that plan and put it into effect.”

The towns and county are in the process of hashing out a new interlocal agreement on solid waste. County commissioners will get their first look at the draft agreement on May 13.

Pelissier, Slade, Pollock, Ward, Marcoplos and McKee made those comments during the “Environment” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum. You can listen to the full forum here.

CHTC Continues Public Hearing, Could Vote on Ephesus-Fordham Plan

Wednesday night, the Chapel Hill Town Council will continue what turned out to be an angry public hearing this past Monday.

That’s because people who showed up to voice their opinions about the Ephesus-Fordham Renewal Plan didn’t actually get to speak.

The four-hour meeting was taken up with detailed staff presentations, and there was no time left for public comment.

That caused some people to storm out of the packed room after about three hours.

Council members still have a few left-over agenda items to consider, so tonight’s meeting at Southern Human Services Center Complex on Homestead Road will start an hour earlier than usual, at 6 p.m.

Items on the agenda include a public hearing on a Stormwater Management Master Plan, and requests for construction of 109 residential units at the site of Timber Hollow Apartments.

Wednesday night could also be the night that the Council votes on the Ephesus-Fordham plan, which is to rezone 190 acres near the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard, in hopes of encouraging economic development in the area.

So, expect another standing-room-only crowd.

Ephesus-Fordham Vote Delayed Again

Despite a four-hour meeting and a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100, the Chapel Hill Town Council had no time for public comment at Monday night’s public hearing on the Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment plan.

The meeting ran long, forcing the Council to delay public comment on the plan until later this week. Though Council member Maria Palmer urged the crowd to stay for the remainder of the lengthy staff presentation on the topic, some audience members reacted with angry shouts and many walked out after waiting more than three hours to have their say.

“You might get really, really important information,” Palmer said to the crowd. “You’re saying you’re not interested. If you leave you are saying you’re not interested in the details. I know we need to hear from the public, but there’s also the purpose of informing the public and ourselves.”

The Ephesus-Fordham renewal plan proposes rezoning 190 acres near the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard in a bid to spur development.

If approved, the plan would be the town’s first experiment in form-based code, in which the Council sets parameters for development, then individual projects are approved at a staff level with the input of the Community Design Commission.

Council member Matt Czajkowski is a vocal skeptic of the plan. He protested what he said was bias on the part of Lee Einswieler, a consultant hired by the town to create the form-based code.

“To a lot of us, it feels like we’re being sort of sold,” said Czajkowski. “We didn’t hire you to sell us, we hired you to give us the alternatives in an objective manner.”

Czajkowski called for scaling back the plan to include just a handful of commercial properties, a concept Einsweiler rejected.

“Objectively, I personally believe you’ll lose planning objectives of consistency throughout the district,” replied Einsweiler. “Unless you include some of the smaller properties in here, you’ll lose the leveling benefit of the form-based code, which allow the smallest guy to do just as much with his property as the biggest guy.”

The Ephesus-Fordham renewal plan would use Chapel Hill Town Hall as collateral for $10 million dollars worth of storm water and roadway improvements to try to address the longstanding flooding and traffic issues in the area.

While town staffers provided detailed presentations on revised storm water proposals and the criteria for project approval, the Council ran out of time before reviewing the transportation improvements, affordable housing and the financing of the plan.

The Council will reconvene at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, an hour earlier than usual, in an effort to get through a full agenda. The remainder of the staff presentation on Ephesus-Fordham plan will begin at 7:00 p.m., with public comment scheduled after that.

Looking ahead to Wednesday’s meeting, Council members pleaded with the public to have patience as they sort through the plan.

“There’s just a lot of stuff here to work through, and I think we all have to be patient with each other while we do that,” said Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene. “You know, can’t go over it, can’t go under it; we’ve just got to go through it.”

The Council could choose to vote on the rezoning on Wednesday, or decide to wait until April 28.

CHTC Postpones Vote on Ephesus-Fordham Plan

The Chapel Hill Town Council’s vote on a controversial plan to rezone 190 acres surrounding the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard intersection has been postponed.

The Council was scheduled to meet Thursday, but a malfunction of the television broadcast equipment at the Southern Human Services Center led town leaders to reschedule.

The entire agenda from Thursday’s meeting will be moved to Monday, April 21, at which time the council will hold a public hearing on the budget and consider approving the Ephesus-Fordham plan. A public hearing previously planned for Monday will be moved to Wednesday, April 23.

You can find out more at the Town of Chapel Hill’s website here.

CHCCS Officials Ask Town Council To Save Room For Schools

As the Chapel Hill Town Council eyes new residential development at Obey Creek, Glen Lennox and in the Ephesus-Fordham area, officials from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system want to be sure there’s space available if new students move in.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told the Town Council on Wednesday that district schools are nearing full capacity.

“We currently have about 12,100 students in the district,” said LoFrese. “You can see that we’re close to full.”

He added school officials are projecting enrollment numbers will continue to rise.

“While we do have some breathing room at the elementary level that was created when Northside opened earlier this year, our projected growth rate shows that we’re growing at about 1.5 percent annually at all three of the levels, so in the next few years, all school levels will be at or above 100 percent capacity.”

Using the current projections, LoFrese said a new elementary and new middle school will be necessary by 2020 and Carrboro High School will need to expand in 2023.

Compounding the problem, LoFrese told the council there are few sites left in the district that are suitable for new schools. A site near Morris Grove could be the home of the next middle school, and the next elementary might be built at Carolina North or on the Greene tract north of Homestead Road.

Land across from Southern Village is earmarked as a potential school site, but that’s also where East West Partners is looking to build the 120 acre Obey Creek mixed-use project.

Currently, potential school sites are designated within the town’s comprehensive plan and any developer seeking a special use permit or SUP for one of those locations must ask the school board to release that site. But with the Town Council considering a variety of new development approval methods that sidestep the SUP process, administrators worry the school board might lose that power.

“I know that there are various development processes that are being considered, whether it is a negotiated agreement or a form-based code process,” said LoFrese. “The [school] board is going to be considering a resolution that requests the Town Council to honor the spirit of the potential school site process, regardless of the type of development process used.”

The school board also wants to make sure developers using form-based code or a development agreement are required to seek a Certificate of Adequate Public Schools from the district to ensure there’s room in the school system to accommodate residential growth.

There’s some controversy, however, about how the student generation rates are determined for new developments in the post-recession economy. Apartments and condos are projected to bring fewer students to the district, but lately, LoFrese said the results have been unpredictable.

“The East 54 project has 254 units. Generation rates expected 37 students out of that project. We actually only have two,” said LoFrese. “However, look at Chapel Watch Village. Chapel Watch Village, off of Eubanks, has a total of 120 units. We expected 21 students and in reality we got 46.”

LoFrese told the Council the school district is working on a two-pronged approach to address the question of future school capacity. In the short-term, the board has asked Orange County to commission a new study to update the data on student generation rates for new residential development.

A larger, more expensive plan is to renovate the district’s oldest schools to add capacity. While that would cost upwards of $100 million dollars, it would delay the need for $57 million worth of new school construction. Orange County leaders are discussing a possible bond package to cover the cost of some school renovations, but that might not make it to the ballot until 2016.

In the meantime, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board will consider a resolution on Thursday night asking the Town Council to keep school sites, and school capacity, on the table during upcoming development negotiations.