Chapel Hill Ready To Invest In New Buses

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC have agreed on a debt financing plan to add 10 to 15 new buses to start replacing a large portion of the current bus fleet which is past its useful life.

“Forty two of our 99 fixed-route buses are past their useful life,” said Chapel Hill Transit director Brian Litchfield. “The federal government puts 12 years on a fixed-route bus, 42 of our 99 are at least 14 years old, with our oldest around 21.”

The older buses require more time and money to maintain and can also be a safety concern.

Litchfield said some are so old that parts are no longer manufactured, so the town has to keep a few buses no longer in use to raid for parts.

“As our older buses have gotten older we’ve put more and more miles on our newer buses,” he said. “Some of our newest buses have miles on them for buses that are about twice their age.”

In order to help solve the problem, the Chapel Hill Town Council authorized the town manager to enter into an agreement with Gilling LLC, which enables the town to purchase up to 53 new buses, although it does not require the town to purchase any.

“These will generally be used to replace buses that are well beyond their useful life,” Litchfield said. “We’ll start replacing likely the oldest buses first. The only caveat to that would be any bus that has received a new engine or transmission would move down on that list.”

In a separate agreement, also approved by the council Monday, the town will contribute around $235,000 annually to help pay for 10-15 new buses, which Litchfield said will be determined based on the price of the buses. UNC will contribute around $444,000 and Carrboro will add around $83,000.

“We set up a cost-sharing arrangement that is based on the individual’s current contribution to the transit budget,” he said. “The university paying 58 percent, Chapel Hill paying 31 percent and Carrboro paying 11 percent.”

The council is also considering fuel efficiency for its new buses. The last group of buses purchased run on clean diesel, which Litchfield said emits just 5 percent of what the older buses did.

Councilman Ed Harrison said he wanted the town to conduct a study to look into more fuel efficient options.

Chapel Hill Leadership Criticized for Hosting Israeli Delegation

The Chapel Hill Town Council received backlash from community members after hosting Israeli delegates Monday.

The town council received 93 emails and heard four speakers in opposition to the town hosting four members of the Israeli parliament or the Knesset.

Mayor Pam Hemminger defended the decision, saying she wanted to share the town’s values with the delegation.

“We are an inclusive community,” she said. “Although you may not like what someone has to say we welcome them the opportunity to say it.”

The U.S. State Department, along with a group called International Focus, asked the town to host the newly-elected delegates, who Hemminger said wanted to get a better understanding of how American government worked.

“They were in New York City, they were in Washington, D.C., they came over to Chapel Hill,” she said. “They spent the morning with us at the school of journalism and then they spent three hours with us this afternoon having discussion with us.”

Hemminger then took the delegation to see the Botanical Gardens.

Many community members spoke out against the decision to meet with the delegates due to Israel’s treatment of Palestinian citizens.

Part of a chain email sent to council members reads: “By hosting this delegation, you send a message that the town of Chapel Hill supports Israel’s well-documented and unjust human rights abuses as well as its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The Occupation is brutal, and hinders any path to safety or peace.”

Citizens also expressed their displeasure by attending the meeting with the delegation and speaking at the town council meeting Monday night.

“You have a historical obligation to not allow this kind of greenwashing diplomacy tour to put a human face on an evil, and unhumanitarian and undemocratic regime in Israel,” said Roger Ehrlich, who spoke at the council meeting.

Councilwoman Maria Palmer said she was so upset during the meeting with the delegation that she walked out.

Palmer left after one of the delegates said something she though was inappropriate to a Chapel Hill resident.

The resident told the delegate their family farm was expropriated by the Israeli government and that the family couldn’t breathe.

“And the response was ‘you can’t breathe, but you can stab,” Palmer said. “And that I thought was such a horrible thing to say, that you all are criminals.”

Palmer said she didn’t have a problem walking out because of what was said and the fact that the council did not vote on whether or not to host the delegation.

She said she hoped in the future decisions like this would be made with the consent of the council.

“I know it was distressing to many members of the public that we had them here,” Hemminger said. “But we were asked to host and we wanted to hear what they had to say and we wanted to share our message of inclusivity with them.”

Chapel Hill Joins Fight Against House Bill 2

Following Carrboro’s lead, the Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for the repeal of House Bill 2 in an emergency meeting Monday night.

They also passed a second resolution condemning governor Pat McCrory and every representative that voted for the bill.

“We are going to be the same community we have always been,” said mayor Pam Hemminger. “We have the core values that we have. Of being supportive and inclusive and welcoming and we’re going to continue that.”

The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 2 last week, which would prevent cities from passing laws allowing transgender people to use public restrooms for the gender they identify with.

The law also has implications for local minimum wage laws and issues of discrimination.

The argument made by many voting for the bill that this was done to protect women and children from sexual predators, something councilwoman Donna Bell took issue with.

“As a woman, I do not need to be protected,” she said. “Just like I didn’t need my reproductive rights protected by the state of North Carolina. As a mother, I do not need the state to protect my child. That is the responsibility of me as a parent to make sure of the safety of my child.”

Facts And Myths (That McCrory Forgot) About House Bill 2

After passing the first resolution, the council opened the floor to public comment. Michelle Doss was one of three people who said they identified as transgender to address the council.

“This was going to be my month to come out completely, even though I’ve been a woman for two and a half years legally,” she said. “I was going to come out because things were better after Charlotte. I was like ‘this is my time to be okay and feel a citizen’ but it looks like I’m coming out now because things are getting worse.”

Doss said she is from Hillsborough and frequently visits Chapel Hill. She said she has used women’s restrooms in public and has never had an issue.

“For me to go in the men’s bathroom is not a good idea,” she said. “There’s a lot of hatred out there and anger and I think I deserve better.”

A copy of the resolution will be sent to a number of officials, including McCrory and speaker Tim Moore.

The Town will also look into the possibility of joining any lawsuit brought against the bill and will raise the rainbow flag Tuesday to show support for the LGBTQ community.

Aldermen Call For NC To Repeal House Bill 2

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen spoke out against NC House Bill 2 in an emergency meeting Saturday afternoon.

“We want to be out front as a municipality, as a county, with our outrage at House Bill 2,” said mayor Lydia Lavelle. “And lead the way for other counties and municipalities to follow.”

The aldermen unanimously approved condemning the governor and every member of the state legislature that voted for House Bill 2.

They also unanimously passed a resolution that among other things, called for the General Assembly to repeal the bill.

Alderman Sammy Slade called the bill “hate legislation.”

The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 2 Wednesday, which would prevent cities from passing laws allowing transgender people to use public restrooms for the gender they identify with.

“One of the most troubling parts of this legislation is the part that appears to make it impossible to bring civil action in North Carolina courts on the basis of racial discrimination,” alderman Damon Seils said. “And other categories, disability, age, sex, all of the ones we’re very familiar with.”

After passing both resolutions, the board opened the floor to public that wished to speak.

The crowd in the Carrboro Town Hall was brought to their feet when Amanda Ashley, a transgender woman and a former candidate for mayor of Carrboro, addressed the board.

“This Carrboro government is the best of us, it represents what North Carolina is and who we are,” she said. “As a person of color, as a U.S. veteran, as a trans-lesbian, I do not feel appreciated in this state. Much effort has gone into hate. Words, resolutions and votes are simply not enough.

A number of local politicians were also in attendance, including five members of the Chapel Hill Town Council, three members of the Board of County Commissioners, as well as state legislators Valerie Foushee, Mike Woodward and Graig Meyer.

“This is not about bathrooms,” Chapel Hill councilwoman Jessica Anderson said. “But if we are using bathrooms as a metaphor for this, I will go with you. I know there are other straight white folks who will go with you and as a soon-to-be mother of two, I’m very comfortable with my children being in the bathroom with anybody, except anybody who voted for this bill.”

Commissioner Penny Rich also said the county would be working to provide more inclusive spaces for residents.

“Before this all started (the commissioners) started looking into having gender-neutral bathrooms in all of the county buildings,” Rich said. “I know this is not about bathrooms but that’s where it started so we’re going to fix that.”

She said only two buildings in the county would need to be retrofitted to accommodate these changes.

The Chapel Hill Town Council will be meeting on Monday to pass a similar resolution.

Rich said the county would be joining in any lawsuit filed against House Bill 2.

Town Council Talks About Debt

In preparation for a possible bond issuance, Chapel Hill’s business management director Kenneth Pennoyer gave the town council an update on how the town is handling its current debt in their meeting Wednesday night.

“There are 81 overall projects that we are currently tracking,” he said. “Of those 51 are projects that are funded and are in progress.”

The 51 active projects total $36.7 million, while $94 million is expected to cover the 30 projects planned, but yet to be financed.

Voters allowed the town in 2015 to issue up to $40.3 million in bond money.

The bond is scheduled to finance many of these planned projects, but any issuance has to first go through an approval process with the town council.

“I’ve had people ask me ‘when are we going to spend that money,'” Pennoyer said. “And I told them ‘there is no money, at least we haven’t borrowed it yet.'”

He equated the bond referendum passed by the public in November as being pre-approved for a loan.

Some of the projects scheduled to be funded by bond money include bike lane improvements, park renovations and a solid waste facility.

A few of these planned projects are progressing, even without funding from the bond.

“We will use as much internal financing as we can to get projects moving so that when we get to the point where we’re ready to issue debt, projects have reached a state of maturity that we’ll have a better idea of how much they’ll actually cost.”

Pennoyer said the town is in a good position to take on new debt because it has a Triple A rating and a debt per capita of 714 dollars, lower than other AAA rated cities such as Durham, Charlotte and Raleigh.

He said he expects the town to issue the bond sometime in December or January.

Town Council Continues To Review American Legion Possibilities

The debate over what to do with the 36-acre property soon to be the former home of the American Legion is far from over.

“We have this opportunity now,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said during the town council’s work session Wednesday night. “I wanted to hear whether the council wanted to look for other options or let it go down the development path that has been proposed at this point in time.”

American Legion entered a contract to sell the property to Woodfield Acquisitions for $10 million.

The Town of Chapel Hill had the option to buy the property for $9 million, but waived its right to first refusal in a closed-session meeting in November.

The decision was made just after the November election, when a new mayor and three new council members were elected.

Councilwoman Maria Palmer was in the closed-session and said the town did not have the money to purchase the property.

“Help me understand how, just because there was an election, all of a sudden we can come up with $10 million,” she said.

Woodfield builds multi-family homes and apartment complexes. Along with these complexes, Woodfield is also considering building office or retail spaces, but their deal is contingent on the developer receiving a special use permit from the town.

Should they not receive an SUP, Hemminger said the town could possibly use bond money to help purchase the property or enter into a partnership with a private business.

“There’s different partnerships that are available if we choose to make those kinds of things a priority,” Hemminger said. “There is a contract on this property, but it hinges on upzoning this property to be more dense and we control if that happens or not.”

Hemminger suggested moving some or all of the $8 million allocated in the recent bond for parks and recreation towards purchasing the property.

“People spent so much time coming up with a list of things on that parks and rec priorities,” said councilwoman Donna Bell. “This was not a priority. This was not listed as one of the things where we’re like ‘let’s put some money away for the American Legion project’ because there were other things that were priorities.”

While no decision was made Wednesday night, the council will continue to discuss possibilities.

Representatives from Woodfield were in attendance, but did not address the council during the meeting.

Scott Underwood, who ran a community forum about the possible development in January, said they would be meeting with council members to help figure out the best way to move forward.

Town Considers Changes to Ephesus-Fordham Code

The Chapel Hill Town Council heard opinions on Monday regarding changes to the Ephesus-Fordham Form Based Code and voted to extend the public comment period until April 18.

The council is considering eight modifications in all to the text of the code, which dictates what kind of development can happen in the area.

John Richardson, planning manager for sustainability, presented the changes to the town council, which are based on petitions the town received in January from community members. Many of the modifications deal with pedestrian access and appearance.

“What can be done from a design standpoint to encourage people to be on the street, to be talking to one another, that kind of thing,” said Richardson.

The form-based code was approved by the council in 2014. It is intended to foster mixed-use developments and pedestrian-friendly districts by specifying building characteristics for potential developers.

Council member, Michael Parker said that simplicity was important for the code.

“One of the things that Ephesus-Fordham was designed to do is to provide predictability for developers and town residents both,” said Parker.

Parker was concerned that a modification to require residential buildings to have ground floor access would affect internal building design, something the town wanted to leave up to individual businesses.

“Effectively by mandating stoops and therefore entrances on the street, in fact you are telling the developers how they have to lay out their apartments in these kinds of buildings,” said Parker, “are we really comfortable with getting that prescriptive in design?”

Kristen Smith presented a petition from the Chapel Hill- Carrboro Chamber of Commerce that proposed the town council form a technical commission with the chamber as part of the public review process for the modifications, which the mayor and town council agreed to.

The Town Council will vote on the modifications to the code at their meeting on April 18.

Proposed modifications to Ephesus-Fordham Form Based Code:

-Achieve a higher level of design aesthetic by changing Type C to Type B frontage along both sides of Fordham Boulevard. This would require residential entrances on the ground level.

-Establishing a minimum perimeter around buildings to avoid the creation of “super blocks” and allow the movement of people

-Each building must be a minimum of two floors and 35 ft.

-Require that the Community Design Commission review any parking structure based on its appearance.

-Streetscapes that provide amenities to pedestrians and bicyclist by establishing a clear zone that could not be obstructed on the sidewalk.

-Make outdoor or recreational space visible to public.

-Stormwater management facilities would also be reviewed based on appearance.

-Preventing utility and service equipment, such as a transformer, not be placed in the streetscape.

UNC to Tear Down Odum Village Apartments

Built in the 1960’s, Odum Village is comprised of 36 apartment buildings that hold nearly 500 students on the southern end of UNC’s campus.

The UNC General Administration required that all residences halls have sprinkler systems installed by 2015, which Odum does not have. Odum Village was granted a one year extension but now the time has come where students can no longer live there.

Anna Wu, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services, said the cost of the renovation did not add up.

“It just didn’t make financial sense for us to provide the utility infrastructure and the building infrastructure to upgrade to provide those fire sprinklers,” said Wu.

The demolition of Odum Village had been planned since 2001, according to Wu, for several different reasons.

“Because of a couple of things, one we intended to demolish those buildings to free up the development of open space, the development of future projects and the development of the light rail transit we knew that Odum was going to be impacted by those three,” said Wu.

Wu discussed the demolition with the Chapel Hill Town Council at their meeting on March 7.

Wu told the council that there is enough vacancy in other residence halls to accommodate Odum Village’s demolition and they would encourage students to stay on campus. But Council Member Maria Palmer said that cost was an issue for students to continue to live on campus.

“That’s a lot of money for students who are struggling with the tuition and the economic situation,” Palmer said. “Kids are going in debt. Parents are going in debt. When your child tells you ‘I can save $200 a month by moving off campus’ how many of us are going to say ‘you’re going to stay on campus’ when money is a concern?”

First year students are required to live on campus at UNC but after that many move off campus. For the 2016- 2017 school year, a standard two person dorm room at UNC cost $3,136.

Odum Village historically housed student families but that population of students has since moved to Baity Hill Student Family Housing off Mason Farm Road.

“The campus is a mature campus but there are buildings that reach the end of their useful life,” said Wu.

About half a dozen Odum Village apartments buildings have already been removed in the last few years to make room for new projects.

Several of the old apartment buildings will be repurposed into office space.

Town Council To Review Ephesus-Fordham Changes

The town council unanimously approved opening public comment on possible changes to the Ephesus-Fordham zoning district in their meeting Monday night.

Planning manager for sustainability John Richardson said these changes were introduced after the town received petitions from multiple advisory boards.

“The eight changes are being described as ‘potential short term modifications,” he said. “These are things that we the staff have developed in hearing from these boards.”

Some of the eight possible changes include enforcing a maximum building-block length and width, a minimum building height and requiring green spaces to be visible to the public.

“There’s a lot of things in the code that are unclear,” mayor Pam Hemminger said. “Some of these points were made to help make it more clear so we didn’t have confusion, which is what we’re hearing from the development world.”

The form-based code was approved by the council in 2014. It is intended to foster mixed-use developments and pedestrian-friendly districts by specifying building characteristics for potential developers. The form-based code is meant to attract certain types of development in a predictable way.

“This was an effort to move some smaller items that would yield us some better feeling results without compromising the form-based code,” Hemminger said. “I’m a big proponent of the form-based code, I think it’s great.”

The public hearing is scheduled for the next council meeting, which will be on March 14. The council will not make any decisions regarding these changes to the code until the following business meeting March 21.

The public will have a chance to speak at both meetings.

UNC, Town Council Discuss Student Housing

UNC officials and members of the town council discussed the issue of student housing Monday.

Council members expressed concern over the upcoming closure of Odum Village Apartments, a student housing complex that can hold nearly 500 residents.

UNC representative Anna Wu said if they wanted to keep Odum Village open, the university would have to install sprinkler systems in the buildings.

“However, since it’s not cost effective for us to provide the additional infrastructure and sprinkler the buildings, we have decided that these buildings are really at the end of their useful life,” she said. “We’ll be soliciting for a designer to work with us on the demolition.”

Once the buildings close, the students who might have chosen to live there will have to live somewhere.

Wu said the university has a high vacancy rate for other on-campus residence halls and will try to encourage students to stay on campus.

“We can encourage a certain behavior but our students still have that opportunity to make their own choice,” she said. “But we will be trying to work on our assignments and encourage them to stay on campus.”

In recent years UNC has closed two of its residence halls due to lack of occupancy.

Wu said it was their hope to open them again after the closure of Odum Village, but councilwoman Maria Palmer said UNC might have to consider lowering prices as a way to keep students on campus.

“That’s a lot of money for students who are struggling with the tuition and the economic situation,” Palmer said. “Kids are going in debt. Parents are going in debt. When your child tells you ‘I can save $200 a month by moving off campus’ how many of us are going to say ‘you’re going to stay on campus’ when money is a concern?”

Freshmen students are required to live on campus, but all other students have the option of living in an apartment or a house off-campus.

Mayor Pam Hemminger said the town currently has a petition to analyze how much space is available for off-campus living.

“We’re very conscious of the student population we have in town,” she said. “While we welcome them we want to make sure we’re being good partners with making sure students have that opportunity to be on campus.”