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.

Orange County Board of Commissioners to Hold Public Hearing About Property Revaluations

Every eight years, North Carolina requires all counties to revaluate properties. This establishes a fair market value for all homes in the state.

Orange County will conduct property revaluations for the first time since 2009 beginning in January. The Orange County Board of Commissioners held a meeting on September 6, and discussed the plan for the reappraisals.

Tonight, the Board will hold a public hearing to discuss the property revaluations in more depth.

Dwane Brinson is the director of the Orange County Tax Office. He said the primary goal of any revaluation is to equalize the tax base.

“We have properties that are appreciating or depreciating at different rates throughout the county,” he said. “And the goal is just to bring things up or down to the current market value as of that single appraisal date.”

Brinson said after all revaluations are turned in, notices of new value will most likely be mailed out in late February. The deadline for informal appeals is April 28, 2017. This is about a month later than usual.

“We feel like that’s the best process to make sure that the data is accurate,” he said. “Make sure they understand where we have come from, and hear what they have to say too.”

Brinson said the main goal of the process is to involve the community in each step of the way.

“People know their properties better than we do in most situations,” he said.

The public hearing will be tonight at 7:00 at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road.

Orange County Board of Commissioners Moving Forward with Affordable Housing Plan

Orange County hasn’t had a plan for affordable housing since 2001. Until now. The Orange County Board of Commissioners met Thursday to discuss the strategic plan that was first introduced in April.

The Board is moving forward with the plan that will allocate one million dollars to developing one thousand affordable housing units over the next five years for people below the median income level. According to the plan, this will help close the gap for those who need affordable housing, but don’t have it.

“When you talk about the gap it can be looked at from many angles and perspectives and we certainly have had discussions from many angles,” said Audrey Spencer-Horsley, Director of the Orange County Housing, Human Rights and Community Development Department.

Spencer-Horsley said there are currently community and business partnerships working to close that gap, but they aren’t working quickly enough.

“I think they’ve done a wonderful job with the resources,” she said. “But I think we have to think more creatively about how we can bring more units with the resources that we have.”

The Board also discussed how they were going to lay out the project so that there would be room for the proposed housing units. County Planning Director Craig Benedict was also at the work session. He said maybe Orange County will have to think outside the box.

“Maybe we purchase land and change the zoning to a mobile home park or a cottage home development,” he said.

District One Commissioner Penny Rich said the most important thing is that everyone who makes up Orange County works together to make the plan come to life.

“It’s not just Orange County,” Rich said. “It’s everybody in Orange County. So we need to be working with our partners.”

Some of these partners include the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program and Community Home Trust. Spencer-Horsley says she hopes to develop more partners soon, and get as many people in the community involved as possible.

“One of the things that I’m hopeful is for example, that we can engage more of our financial institutions to be a resource,” she said. “So we’ve started talking to some of the banks in the community about how they may be able to help.”

The total plan is estimated to cost 13 million dollars with 12 million coming from sources such as grants, funds and bonds.

Orange County Attempts To Raise Awareness For Upcoming Bond

Orange County has hired a marketing company to help communicate with residents before the largest bond in the history of the county comes to a vote in November.

Sheer Associates founder Joel Sheer presented his company’s plan to the Board of County Commissioners in a meeting Tuesday night.

“We were careful during this entire process not to advocate a yes or no position,” he said. “We understand our legal position here, to educate not advocate.”

If passed, the bond could be worth up to $125 million, with $120 million going towards repairing schools in Orange County and the rest going towards affordable housing.

According Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools, many of the older buildings are in desperate need of health and safety repairs.

The initial bond was only supposed to provide funding for schools, but after insistence from members of the community, the board added additional funding for affordable housing.

Passing the bond could result in a property tax increase for Orange County residents.

“We did advocate for citizen understanding,” Sheer said. “We did advocate for people to vote.”

The campaign to raise awareness will include a number of different aspects including advertising in print and radio, videos and a website dedicated to providing information about the bond.

Sheer said the campaign struggled with providing information about voting because of the recent court decision that struck down some of North Carolina’s voting laws.

“We waited and waited until about as long as we could,” he said. “And then when we felt like it was about to jeopardize the campaign we moved forward.”

Voting times and places will be posted on the county’s newly-created website.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

Orange County Evaluates Durham Tech Scholarship Program

Orange County is preparing to commit $50,000 in scholarship money to students who are looking to earn a degree from Durham Tech.

The current plan for the program is to award 50 Orange County students, who have graduated in the past year, $1,000 scholarships, but commissioner Mark Dorosin said he was in favor of expanding it to include all Orange County residents.

“I don’t know if it’s too late now, but I would certainly be interested in saying ‘if you’ve lived in Orange County for some amount of time and you want to go,” he said.

The scholarship was based on a similar type of program set up Durham County and is meant to give students a means to create economic opportunity.

“It would look at young people,” said commissioner Renee Price. “Target them, so they’re not out on the street with nothing to do or working at Hardee’s or Burger King or whatever it is.”

But an expansion of the program can be an opportunity for more widespread economic development.

“We’re trying to build up an Orange County work force,” said commissioner Barry Jacobs. “And encouraging people to go to Durham Tech to get those skills, we will be that much more attractive.”

Any change to the program would have to be done before the formal budget is approved at the end of the month.

County manager Bonnie Hammersley said the commissioners do have the power to change any aspects of the program they choose before the budget is approved.

“Because of the timing, the recommendation was based on the (Durham County) model,” she said. “But we can bring that back and we can tweak it and make that determination. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

According to the Durham Tech website, estimated tuition cost for a semester of 12 credit hours is nearly $1,500.

The scholarship is currently set up to award students on a first come, first served basis, which was done to promote inclusivity.

“Durham Tech is not doing need-based because that requires an application,” Price said. “If you’re under 21, your parents would have to fill out an application form and they may not want to because they’re immigrants.”

The county manager has been directed to reach out to Durham Tech to discuss the possible changes to the program.

The county commissioners will formally approved the budget June 21.

Orange County Establishes Rules for Food Trucks

The Orange County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance establishing rules for food trucks in the county Tuesday.

The ordinance applies to unincorporated land in Orange County outside of town limits.

Commissioner Penny Rich wanted to extend the time those businesses can operate until midnight, opposed to nine, which was originally proposed.

“If you really want to let food trucks make some money with their business it should be later,” said Rich.

After some discussion, the board decided on 10 o’clock as the latest time they can operate. That applies to trucks operating within 200 feet of a residence.

Food trucks in Chapel Hill and Carrboro proper can operate much later, with many staying open past two o’clock in the morning.

“I think the county is going to be a different animal anyway, I don’t see that it’s hanging out waiting for the bars to close so everyone can get their last bite before they go home,” said Rich.

The ordinance prohibits food trucks from setting up on residential zoned or undeveloped land, unless it’s a private event. Those parked in commercial properties must also leave parking spaces for customers to that respective business.

State law sets some basic health requirements for food trucks but doesn’t mention location or time restrictions.

Commissioner Barry Jacobs said the time restriction would be difficult to enforce.

“Unless we vigorously publicize the details of this ordinance, when 10 o’clock comes and somebody doesn’t shut down, nothings going to happen,” said Jacobs.

The ordinance doesn’t require food trucks to get any additional permits, outside of what is required to comply with the health department.

County Commissioners Discuss Funding Projects

As part of its budget process, last week the Orange County Board of Commissioners discussed current and upcoming projects to get a sense of where the county is and how each projects fits in the 2016-2017 fiscal budget.

One of the biggest projects discussed is the Southern Branch Library. County manager Bonnie Hammersley said the county is working with Carrboro to prepare to begin building the library in 2017.

“(Carrboro’s town manager)  has informed us that they will be getting their parking study and space study completed by the fall of this year,” she said.

The studies are a step towards the two governing bodies coming to an interlocal agreement, which must be completed before the county can officially name the location of the site and begin construction.

The county is also investigating the possibility of creating heating, cooling and recharging stations at five different locations to help the community during extreme weather events.

Orange County emergency management coordinator Kirby Saunders said in order to move towards creating these stations the county would have to invest in generators, which it is planning on doing.

“Those centers are not intended to be overnight stays,” he said. “They don’t provide meals, it’s really just a facility that has power, that people can get in during extreme cold events or extreme heat events, all assuming the heat and air condition works, which is where the generator helps.”

Another major project the county is undertaking is the addition of sewer infrastructure to the Historic Rogers Road Community.

Depute county manager Travis Myren said there were no updates on the project and it is currently on schedule as the county attempts to acquire easements to use resident’s land for construction purposes.

“I don’t think there’s any opposition or reluctance,” he said. “I think in some cases people aren’t familiar with what an easement is or can’t find old documents.  So we’ve engaged with the Jackson Center and they’re helping us through those individual contacts.”

Discussion of additional funding projects will continue during budget work sessions June 9 and 14. The budget will be approved June 21.

CHCCS Teachers Upset With Project Advance

Project Advance is a new payment method Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will implement during the 2016-2017 school year.

The program would base teacher raises not on number of years in the district, but instead on professional development.

Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich said the commissioners have been receiving emails from teachers who don’t think the program is a good idea.

“These emails are disturbing to me,” she said. “You have veteran teachers that don’t feel comfortable with this program. They feel they were forced to go into the program because it was the only way they can get a raise.”

Rich said she received emails from 7 different teachers before beginning to communicate with teachers and representatives from the NC Association of Educators over the phone.

“One of the people who sent an email felt like there was retribution taken out on them,” she said. “They felt they could no longer send emails because someone was clocking the emails and they felt they were not in a safe place by sending emails anymore.”

Rich said she spoke with around 20 people over the phone after that.

Current CHCCS staff had the option of opting out of the project, but according to the Project Advance website, depending on years of service, a teacher’s supplements would stagnate and not reach the levels they could have under the previous system.

East Chapel Hill High School teacher Keith Gerdes said in an email to the commissioners that many of his colleagues chose to opt in “under duress.”

Superintendent Tom Forcella said nearly 1,000 people chose to opt in and that the district attracted new teachers because of Project Advance.

“We have done nothing to close the achievement gap, so if you keep doing what you always have done, you’ll keep getting the same thing,” he said. “And through intentional planning to reach all of the students, we will close the achievement gap.”

No teachers will receive a pay cut with the implementation of Project Advance, but those who opt in will go through a level of benchmarking that could cause them to show things such as lesson plans.

“Change is difficult,” Forcella said. “There are teachers that will tell me ‘I have 25 years of experience you mean you’re telling me I have to write a lesson plan?’ Well I’d say ‘yes, you do.'”

It is unclear what, if anything, the county commissioners can do if they have a problem with the direction of Project Advance.

Commissioners give funding to the schools and part of that funding goes towards paying the supplement provided to teachers.

Forcella said Project Advance would be cost-neutral to the district and the commissioners do not control how money is distributed.

That decision falls to the Board of Education, which has planned the project for nearly five years and multiple boards have unanimously approved it.

Project Advance is scheduled to be implemented during the next school year.

Orange County Schools Unhappy With Budget Proposal

Addressing the Orange County Board of Commissioners for the first time since the 2016-2017 fiscal budget was proposed, chair of the Orange County Schools Board of Education Donna Coffee expressed her displeasure with the current plan for school funding.

“I liken the recommended budget to things going on in Raleigh these days,” she said. “It’s as complicated as it can be, it gives folks as little time as possible to  understand it and analyze it and very little time for discussion. With the drop of a gavel we’re afraid it’s going to be approved.”

Both Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have asked the county for additional funding to increase teacher pay.

The proposed budget leaves Orange County Schools an additional $1 million, which is $700,000 short of what was requested.

CHCCS would get an additional $1.6 million, nearly $3 million short of what it asked for.

While the commissioners have also relieved schools of other costs in an attempt to ease the burden on the districts, CHCCS Board of Education chairman James Barrett said his district needed to raise the supplement to remain competitive during the recruiting season.

“If we’re not competitive, it’s a nonstarter for the teachers,” he said. “There may not be an impact today, but it’s going to be an impact next year if we don’t have the best quality teachers.”

No matter the outcome of next year’s fiscal budget, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has already committed to paying an additional $4.5 million to increase pay for its teachers.

Over the course of two public hearings on the issue, a number of teachers, parents and students have advocated for full funding.

“We could do it this year,” commissioner Mia Burroughs said. “There’s ways and it isn’t even five cents on the tax rate. So we don’t have to leave the parents disappointed and it isn’t really about the parents and their disappointment anyway. It’s about the teachers with the second jobs. It’s about the kids.”

Multiple commissioners called for a change in the way the budget process is done.

Commissioner Barry Jacobs said in his 20 years on the board he rarely sees a budget that doesn’t become hostile.

“I also think it’s set up, though no fault of anybody’s to be way too confrontational,” Jacobs said. “And way too stilted and way too inflexible.”

The commissioners will continue to work on the budget until their meeting June 21, when it will be approved.

County Commissioners To Hold Budget Work Session

The Orange County Board of Commissioners will be holding a work session Thursday evening to discuss the proposed budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

The commissioners have already held two public hearings in preparation for the upcoming work sessions dedicated to finalizing the budget.

They are set to tackle a number of issues including school funding, Southern Branch Library and the infrastructure changes to the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood.

The meeting will begin at 7:00 p.m. and will take place at the Southern Human Services Building in Chapel Hill.