On Legion Road, Chapel Hill’s Parks Commission Wants A Park

Will the American Legion property in Chapel Hill be turned into housing – or multi-use development – or a park?

That’s been a hot topic all year – and on Wednesday, Chapel Hill’s Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Commission voted in favor of a park. Members of the commission voted 7-0 to encourage the town to purchase all or some of the 36-acre property, and use it to expand the existing Ephesus Park. In a statement, the commission says there’s no other available park space in that part of town.

This is not the first time the Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Commission has weighed in on the issue: back in May, members also voted to recommend the town buy the land and turn it into park space.

Elected officials will make a decision at a later date. The property is coming up for sale because the American Legion is planning to move to a new space. A developer, Woodfield Investments, wants to purchase the property and build 400 housing units plus office space and a civic center.

Chapel Hill has the right of first refusal on the property, but it would cost the town $9 million to buy it. Last year, Town Council members decided to pass, but this year’s Council reopened the conversation after hearing feedback from nearby residents.

The Commission’s statement is below.


TO: Mayor and Town Council

FROM: Bob Myers, Chair, Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Commission

SUBJECT: Recommendation to Purchase All or a Portion of the American Legion Property

DATE: October 19, 2016

On October 19, 2016, the Parks, Greenways, and Recreation Commission (“Commission”) noted media reports that the Town Council (“Council”) may consider purchase of some or all of the Legion property. The Commission voted unanimously (7-0) to recommend to the Council that all reasonable efforts be made to secure all or a portion of the property for a park. The property could be merged into Ephesus Park to create a true community park for the eastern portion of Chapel Hill. The Commission notes that the only parks in that portion of Town are the very small Burlington Park, which has only a small play area and Ephesus Park, which has only a Tennis court/Pickleball facility. If The Town of Chapel Hill loses the opportunity presented by the Legion property The Town will have lost any opportunity for an eastern park, since this is the last suitable piece of land in that part of town.

As a reminder, the Commission previously made recommendations related to the Legion property.

At the Commission’s February 17, 2016 meeting, the Commission provided to the Mayor and Council, a list of possible recreation amenities that might serve the community if they could be located on a portion of the American Legion property.

On May 18, 2016, the Commission considered a citizen petition requesting that the Town purchase all or a portion of the 36 acre site. The Commission recommended to the Mayor and Council that the Town should acquire all or some of the property. The Commission noted that an acquisition would meet the goals of the Comprehensive Parks Master Plan, could benefit Ephesus Park and Ephesus School, and provide a park in an area underserved by the Town’s
current recreational facilities. The Commission voted unanimously (5-0) to recommend to the Council that the Council explore options for acquiring all or a portion of the Legion Property in order to provide additional recreational opportunities to this underserved part of Chapel Hill.


Chapel Hill Says Yes To Wegmans

Monday night, the Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously said yes to Wegmans.

“I’m excited about this prospect,” said Mayor Pam Hemminger at the end of an hour-long public hearing, right before the Council voted 9-0 to approve a $4 million incentives package to bring Wegmans Supermarket to Chapel Hill. “It benefits the county as a whole, (and) it benefits us.”

Technically what the Council approved on Monday was an agreement not with Wegmans, but with Orange County. The county would give Wegmans $4 million over five years; Chapel Hill has agreed to reimburse the county for half of that incentive, $2 million.

The incentive is also tied to performance: Orange County would only pay Wegmans if the store meets target goals for new jobs and new property and sales tax revenue – and the incentive funds would come out of that revenue.

Wegmans is a high-end supermarket chain based out of Rochester, New York; Consumer Reports consistently ranks it as “America’s Best Supermarket.” It’s hoping to take over a space that’s already about to be vacated – Performance Auto Mall’s location on 15/501. (Performance is moving to Durham next year.) The chain makes it a point to support local farmers; it’s planning to add at least 185 new full-time jobs (plus about 300 more part-time employees, for a total of 350 “full-time equivalent” positions); and Hemminger says it has the potential to be the largest sales tax generator in all of Orange County.

In a joint presentation, town manager Roger Stancil and economic development director Dwight Bassett argued that Chapel Hill would come out ahead with Wegmans, particularly in sales tax revenue: the county doesn’t collect much of the sales tax from Performance’s auto sales, Bassett said, and that would change with a supermarket on the site.

For all those reasons, Council members like George Cianciolo were excited.

“For years we’ve watched as Durham built up on the other side of I-40,” he said. “This is an opportunity to allow not only Chapel Hill, but (also) Orange County, to benefit from what is well recognized as one of the best employers in the United States.”

But as Cianciolo conceded, the plan is not without risk. Several Council members worried about the traffic impact on an already busy street; others worried that some of the “additional” revenue generated by Wegmans might actually come at the expense of other nearby supermarkets.

And not everyone was eager about the idea of an incentives package. Historically, Chapel Hill has avoided that strategy, and some residents, like Kathy Trout, were not convinced this was the time to start.

“It’s a million-dollar corporation – why do we need to pay them?” she said during the public comment period.

And as resident Terry Vance pointed out, Wegmans is also opening a store in Cary – and Cary is providing no incentive at all.

That led Mayor Hemminger to question Dan Aken, Wegmans’ site development manager.

“Do you normally get incentive packages from places where you go?” she asked.

“We’ve had very mixed luck,” he replied. “Usually no.”

Following that exchange, Council members who had been excited about approving Wegmans suddenly found themselves less enthused. Under additional questioning from Jessica Anderson, Aken said Wegmans went ahead with the store in Cary because there was no alternative location – whereas there were two alternatives to the Chapel Hill site, and both of them were in Durham.

“It’s just (that) we have less leverage, because you have another option?” she asked.

“Correct,” Aken answered.

After that explanation, Council members were willing to go ahead with the vote – but they weren’t all thrilled about it.

“I don’t mind if that’s what we need to do, but I feel like that wasn’t made clear in our conversations,” said Donna Bell. “I feel like I was pushed into a corner this evening, and it’s not comfortable.”

Nevertheless, the vote in the end was unanimous. Now the onus shifts to the Board of County Commissioners, which meets on Tuesday. If commissioners approve the $4 million incentives package, then Wegmans will begin the development approval process.

Considering the store’s national reputation – and the potential economic upside – that’s a prospect that Mayor Hemminger says she welcomes.

“This is a real opportunity that Chapel Hill has not been able to bring to the table before,” she said Monday.

But don’t make your shopping list just yet. Performance Auto Mall isn’t moving until next summer – and even if everything gets approved, Wegmans likely wouldn’t open in Chapel Hill until around 2019.


Denial of the Fourth Circuit Appeal to the 2013 Reform Law Causes Concern

The denial of the Fourth Circuit appeal to the 2013 Reform Law, also known as the Voter ID Bill, has created some concerns for what voters should expect at the polls in November.

The new regulations block Voter ID and reinstates preregistration, a week of early voting, same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional voting.

The voter ID requirements that were in effect during the precinct voting will not be in place. Former Chapel Hill Town Council member & General Assembly Legislative Staff member Gerry Cohen said the biggest impact on the voting sites will be the wait times.

“I think the major effect will be to speed up voting. I think we saw in March especially that the process caused a lot of bottle-necks dealing with ID’s. In terms of the process, not having voter ID’s will greatly speed in the voter check-in,” Cohen said.

Since these requirements have been put into place since 2013, the years of planning that the Board of Elections had done for this year’s election are having to be revised.

“2013 Bill had reduced early voting from 17 days to 10 but required the same number of hours at registration. So, the Orange County Board of Elections voted unanimously a plan which now has to be reworked,” Cohen said.

Appeals for a stay to keep the provisions in place until the end of this election continue to come in. Cohen said he’s not convinced there will be any change in the decision even in the United States Supreme Court.

The voter registration deadline is in a couple of short months and Cohen said there are many things you can do to make your voting experience easier, especially when changing your address.

“If you have registered in Orange County but moved, the easiest way to report your change your address is if you have a voter registration card from Orange County, flip it over, there is a change of address form on the back. If you have moved within Orange County and have kept up with that, if not, the second best way to report a change of address is at early voting,” Cohen said.

Voter Registration ends on October 14th.

Cohen said that even though you won’t be required an ID when going to vote, he recommends bringing one if you have it to help the election clerk find your name faster.

State Board of Elections is meeting this week with county boards to discuss new guidelines.


Chapel Hill Town Council Makes Ephesus-Fordham Change

The Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously approved a change to the Ephesus-Fordham form based code that would make blocks in the district smaller and increase connectivity.

“I think this is a really important thing that we’re moving forward with,” said Travis Crayton from the town’s Planning Commission. “It could really set Ephesus-Fordham up to be a really great urban center for our town.”

The town originally planned on creating blocks that were a maximum of 500 feet, but after the council expressed a desire for small blocks, town staff recommended changing to a maximum of 400 feet.

Developers who desire larger blocks can receive approval for up to 600 feet from the Community Design Commission. A building pass-through will be required every 200 feet.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a street division,” mayor Pam Hemminger said. “That’s part of this discussion that’s evolving is that it doesn’t have to a road with two lanes a sidewalk.”

Some residents raised objections to the change, saying that it did not take into account issues such as topography, which could prevent a development from abiding by the law.

Councilman Michael Parker said the plan was still a work-in-progress.

“There is a commitment from the manager and the staff over the summer to engage with a consultant,” he said. “To really work through all of these issues through conversations with whomever needs to be conversed with.”

Town staff will review the plan, as well as addition changes to the Ephesus-Fordham zoning district over the summer.

The council will examine these issues when they return from break in the fall.


Chapel Hill Town Council to Discuss Sign Ordinance at Final Meeting Before Break

The Chapel Hill Town Council will hold its last meeting of the season Monday night to wrap up previous plans from the year, before the two-month break for the summer.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said it’s important to finish up plans from this past year.

“We work all season to get down to these decisions and any decision that you don’t make now has to wait until the fall, so you try to finish up as many things as possible.”

Although the council takes two months off from meeting, they are encouraged to plan accordingly for the upcoming fall.

“Not having meetings gives staff the opportunity to catch up on projects, to plan ahead when they are not preparing for a meeting. So they are getting other projects done. They also take their vacations because we kind of keep them on their toes all the rest of the season long. So there is a mix and match of things going on,” Hemminger explained.

A lot is on the agenda for Monday night’s meeting. Hemminger stressed the importance on the new sign ordinance, which she said hasn’t been updated in 25 years.

“I’ve had business after business come tell me, ‘We need help, you need to be able to let us advertise.’” Hemminger said. “Yet we don’t want to become so proliferated with signs, or become so busy that people don’t pay attention anymore.”

Hemminger said they also will continue conversation about the redevelopment of Franklin Street to encourage more growth downtown.

“If we want to build more commercial space downtown or any kind of activity to change downtown at all, we are going to need more parking spaces,” Hemminger said. “We want to encourage business growth, we want to encourage citizens to come back downtown, and we want to encourage visitors to come downtown and find those parking spaces to be able to use.”

The meeting is scheduled for seven o’clock Monday night in Chapel Hill Town Hall. You can see the full agenda on the town’s website.


Budget Approval On Docket for Chapel Hill Town Council

The Chapel Hill Town Council could adopt its final operating budget at its meeting Monday night.

Town manager Roger Stancil presented the recommended budget to the Town Council in early May. There have been three subsequent work sessions to discuss budget priorities since that presentation.

Stancil’s initial proposal included no tax increases and was a balanced budget that he considered to be a conservative approach because of market volatility.

“I’ve heard from different sources, different economics that although we might have a weak recovery, it’s perfectly feasible to think that within another year we could have the beginning of another recession,” Stancil told the council on May 9.

The Town Council will also consider the installation of a pedestrian bridge over Morgan Creek using 2015 bond funds and the council will hear presentations on the status of two public-private partnerships that include developments that will house fire facilities in Chapel Hill.

The meeting is scheduled to be held at Town Hall at seven o’clock Monday night.


Local Governments Meet To Discuss Economic Development

The Town of Chapel Hill has a space problem.

“Companies are trying to grow and expand,” said mayor Pam Hemminger. “There’s no place for them to go. There’s  not enough office space to go to.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners and the Chapel Hill Town Council tried to tackle the issue in a joint meeting Thursday evening.

Both sides acknowledged the lack of space, saying that businesses have either turned away or been turned down because of it.

“We have a nine percent vacancy,” said Economic Development officer Dwight Bassett said. “We’ve approved just about 1 million square feet of office space that could be built in the future, but the market is just not driving office space for all of it to come out of the ground right now.”

Bassett said nine percent vacancy of office space means the town needs to add more.

But the town could also be losing out on potential development because of state incentives.

Currently the state offers money to certain businesses that bring job growth to an area. This could be $1,000 per job created or more depending on the project.

Orange County Economic Development director Steve Brantley said that money is only given if the local municipality decides to at least match the state funding.

“It creates a dilemma for the business because if they still pick that community, they would not get the state grant,” he said. “There could be examples of projects wanting to come to Chapel Hill that are incentivized at the state level.”

But commissioner Penny Rich said the county needs to be careful when thinking about development.

“You have people that want to have the amenities nearby,” she said. “If we start thinking about putting spaces out in the county, we need to be careful that we’re also putting amenities out there.”

Both Hemminger and board chairman Earl McKee said they wanted to move past a point of just talking.

“A lot of times we have these meetings and we get information but we really don’t interact,” McKee said. “I was hoping tonight on a couple of these items we might be able to frame at least how we move forward.”

McKee suggested that the county and town managers and staff work together to learn about the barriers to economic development and discover possible solutions.


Chapel Hill To Begin Road Improvements For Ephesus-Fordham

The Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously approved the beginning of the next phase in a plan to improve roads in the Ephesus-Fordham district of Chapel Hill in its meeting Monday night.

The plan includes intersection improvements at Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard.

“There were other improvements in the network that include extension of some streets, Elliott Road, Legion Road,” said Earl Lewellyn, a traffic engineer at Kimley-Horn and Associates. “There were internal improvements within Eastgate Shopping Center.”

The initial estimates for the plan were around $4.3 million, but that number does not include the cost of land acquisition or right of way acquisition, something mayor Pam Hemminger said she wanted to learn.

“We just need to know what kind of money we’re looking at,” she said. “That’s a huge chunk of land through somebody’s property. It’s an estimate, I get that, but that needs to be part of this process as well.”

The updates to the roads are part of a larger plan for the Ephesus-Fordham area to make it more attractive for development.

An improvement to the surrounding infrastructure would make it better suited to handle higher-density traffic that could come from a potential development.

“This is us continuing a process that we’d already started with the projects that we have going on at Ephesus Church and Fordham,” she said. “What we need to know is that if this is not the final piece in the holistic picture, we need to know what is.”


Chapel Hill Town Council Discusses Rosemary Street Development

Jared Martinson from MHAworks Architecture presented his company’s plan for a new development on 322 West Rosemary Street, the current location of Breadmen’s.

“Where we are today is with a multi-generational and mixed-use building,” he said. “That included affordable housing that targets 50 percent AMI, as well as market rate apartments. It also includes community use, mercantile and business opportunities, specifically fronting Rosemary Street.”

The developer has not officially submitted an application.

The presentation given in the Chapel Hill Town Council meeting Monday evening was for the council to give suggestions on the project.

“As we look at Rosemary Street, while it may not be Franklin Street, it should be the second most important street in town,” said councilman Michael Parker. “We have to start working at that proactively so my major concern is probably the lack of street activation.”

Under the plan presented to the council, the developer would not build the affordable housing units, but would donate the land to an organization that would.

Parker, along with other council members, said the developer would have to have an agreement before they would approve the building permit.

“I would have a very hard time approving a project such as this, absent some firm commitment from somebody to actually fund it,” Parker said. “Rather than hope you’ll fund it and two years go by and the project either fizzles or you come back with a modification.”

Community input at the meeting was mixed, with some residents supporting the expansion of affordable housing, while others expressed concerns over the impact on the Northside Community.

Councilman George Cianciolo said his vote for the project hinged on the acceptance of the community.

“This really needs to be project where the community comes forward and says ‘we want this,'” he said. “That they feel they’re getting what they need out of it while (the developer) is getting what (the developer) needs.”

The developer will host 5 focus meetings throughout June and July to try to work with residents and alleviate their concerns.


American Legion Members Growing Restless

American Legion Post 6 commander William Munsee expressed his frustration with the town of Chapel Hill in a letter sent to the town manager.

Munsee said he read a report on a meeting held March 16, during which the Chapel Hill Town Council discussed the possible future of the American Legion property.

“In the report were heartfelt desires from community residents outlining the needs of the community and the town,” he said. “And after all was said and done, there was not one word that had to do with the needs of American Legion members.”

American Legion Post 6

American Legion Post 6 (Photo by Blake Hodge)

After two and a half years of debate, the legion decided to sell the 36-acre property and entered into an agreement with Woodfield Acquisitions for $10 million.

Chapel Hill was given the right of first refusal and waived that right in a closed-session meeting in November.

When the decision was announced publicly, there was public outcry by neighboring residents and other community members for the town to buy the property and turn it into a park.

“I must confess I think it was a discussion that should have taken place after the town purchased the property, which it declined to do when given the opportunity,” Munsee said.

The decision to waive the right of first refusal was made just after the November election, when a new mayor and three new council members were elected, but not yet sworn in.

“When development started around us, the Legion was silent and didn’t protest any of the developments,” Munsee said. “It was the ‘right thing to do.'”

The contract between Woodfield and American Legion is contingent on the developer receiving a Special Use Permit from the town.

“Now that it is our turn to sell our land and move, we expect the same courtesies we extended to our neighbors,” Munsee said. “We do anticipate town oversite, but hope it does not turn into ‘analysis paralysis.'”

He said the American Legion needs to move as soon as they can because the current building is too old to continue serving their needs into the future and he hopes Woodfield will be in a position to submit a proposal within the next two months.