CHAPEL HILL- At Wednesday’s forum hosted by Friends of Bolin Creek and Neighbors for Responsible Growth, the nine candidates vying for four seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council reflected on the ways the town is looking to implement the new comprehensive plan.
One approach is through the introduction of form-based coding. It’s a new planning tool that supporters say will make the development process more predictable, though opponents worry it will move the approval process out of the public’s view.
Planning Board member Amy Ryan said if elected she would aim to make sure citizen input remains part of the process.
“As we talk about the form-based coding, that actually implies changes to the development review process, and I hope that as we go forward we work out some mechanism for public input at the end of that process,” said Ryan.
The council is currently considering applying form-based code to the Ephesus/Fordham Boulevard area in a bid to spur redevelopment. It could be considered for other areas in town as well.
Former Transportation Board Chair Loren Hintz said citizens need to decide how widespread that type of rezoning should be.
“I do think what everyone needs to decide is whether we want to apply form-based code to one neighborhood, which personally I think makes sense for the Ephesus/Fordham Boulevard, or apply it to other places,” said Hintz.
Incumbent Sally Greene said there are there are drawbacks, as form-based code does not allow the council to negotiate with developers for trade-offs like affordable housing.
“Once you have set form-based code in place and you ask someone to build, you have given away the store when it comes to affordable housing,” said Greene.
She said the council is looking to partner with a developer to use low-income tax credits to bring affordable rentals to the area instead.
George Cianciolo, co-chair of the Chapel Hill 2020 process, said these types of public-private partnerships will be key to increasing the supply of affordable housing in town, as the current system isn’t working.
“I don’t think dictating to developers that they have to do affordable housing is working now,” said Cianciolo. “What they do is they build their affordable housing then they jack up the price of the market rate housing. In Chapel Hill it’s driving the affordability rate higher not lower.”
In keeping with the theme of partnership, pastor and educator Maria Palmer said she’d like to see major employers like UNC develop local workforce housing options.
“I think we need to push the university to build more workforce housing, maybe at Carolina North,” said Palmer.
Town Council candidates also weighed in on the future of the Orange County Transit Plan.
Although voters last year approved the half-cent transit tax that funds the bus and rail plan, challenger D.C. Swinton said he’s skeptical about the idea of a light rail route from Chapel Hill to Durham.
“Rather than putting any money towards that, which is like putting the cart before the horse, we’d be better putting funds into expanding our (bus) system,” said Swinton.
Incumbent Ed Harrison argued that the addition of light rail would free up buses for use in other parts of town.
“What the light rail is intended to do as it comes into Chapel Hill is to replace all the buses on the N.C. 54 corridor, which are then available to go somewhere else,” said Harrison.
Southern Village resident Gary Kahn suggested there’s no need for light rail in a town this size.
“Until we get like six million people, that is when we should seriously start talking about light rail,” said Kahn. “Up until that point I don’t think it should even be an issue.”
But real estate broker Paul Neebe said the time to plan is now.
“I think if you don’t plan enough in advance for light rail, by the time you get too many people, there won’t be a place to put it,” said Neebe.
The candidates will face off again Thursday at a forum co-hosted by the Sierra Club and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Chapel Hill Public Library.http://chapelboro.com/news/election/chtc-candidates-debate-transit-growth-and-affordable-housing/
CHAPEL HILL- Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt made it clear at a work session on Wednesday that he wants to see big changes to the area around the Ephesus-Fordham Boulevard intersection.
“We have an under-performing strip mall there. We have intersections that are impossible to navigate,” said Kleinschmidt. “We have these dysfunctions there and that distinguishes it from about everywhere else. You know, other parts of town have their problems, but this has got all of them at once.”
Lee Einsweiler is a consultant hired to update the town’s land use management ordinance. He says if applied correctly, form-based code has the power to transform parts of town that are currently underutilized.
“We’re talking about going from an auto-dominated portion of the community to a mixed-use walkable portion of the community with a much more intense development pattern than is there today,” said Einsweiler.
The Ephesus-Fordham area is under consideration for Chapel Hill’s first experiment with form-based coding.
Using a community-generated small area plan as its base, the council would designate certain development parameters like building height, setback from the road and parking, but beyond that, Einsweiler says approving new development in the 150 acre area would be an administrative function.
“In an ideal world, a form-based code is the result of great small area planning, great, tight coding to that small area plan, and therefore, with very proscriptive standards you can simply have a checklist for approving development,” Einsweiler told the council.
This would be markedly different from the current rezoning and Special Use Permit approval process, in which the council often bargains with developers to add affordable housing, transit infrastructure and a host of other concessions. Einswieler called this the “Mother-May-I” approach.
But some on the council worry the new method would come at a cost, as the form-based code does not allow the council to specify density within a development.
There is also no mechanism for requiring a developer to provide affordable housing, traffic impact analysis or energy efficient technologies. Council member Jim Ward said that would be a loss for the community.
“To me this seems like a loss from what we have now, the exactions that we have now,”said Ward. “This process doesn’t allow us to get an exaction on energy efficiency and public art and those are important to this community. They’re important to me.”
But Einswieler suggested that the code could provide the predictability developers are looking for. He said it might be enough to change Chapel Hill’s reputation for being a tough place to do business.
He stressed that the code would not be town-wide, as it would be tailored to only apply to certain areas designated by the council for redevelopment. Further, he said the council could allow the public to give input on design, landscaping and building materials by participating in project reviews by the Community Design Commission.
Though Kleinschmidt said there are some specifics to be ironed out, he welcomed the concept as a way to revitalize a major entrance-way to Chapel Hill.
“There is regulation here, this is not, you know, Wild West,” said Kleinschmidt. “That’s not what’s going on with this form-based code idea. There’s a lot of code, read rules, that have to be followed if you want to build in this district. We’re going to be writing them into it; we’re not going to be having three-year conversations about what the abandoned Volvo dealership should be. What we know it shouldn’t be is an abandoned Volvo dealership. I mean it’s ridiculous.”
The plan to create a form based code is still in its early stages, with no action from the council planned until next spring. Town officials are seeking public comment on the proposal by September 17.
In addition, town planners are preparing to launch a process to update the land use management ordinance. Staffers will be accepting public comment and answering questions at a series of events later this month.http://chapelboro.com/news/development/chtc-eyes-new-zoning-tool-for-ephesus-fordham-area/