Monday night was the chance to glimpse the future that may guide the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard and properties along it.  The Town of Chapel Hill released the draft of the new zoning code being proposed for that area.

I sort of explained this in June (to the best of my ability) along with my critique of the less-than-inviting current state of the area.

The pretty drawings you’ll find with the draft code depict new side streets and wide sidewalks that beg for strolling or sitting at a cafe.  Those drawings are a far cry from the wide cracked asphalt in the vista that’s today’s reality.

I live in an adjacent neighborhood and I relish the idea that I could one day enjoy my part of town without being surrounded by sad, somewhat dilapidated suburban sprawl.

The draft code wouldn’t force any existing buildings to change, as I understand it but, over time, as new tenants or refurbishment arrived, this new code would require changes and regulate elements including building heights, windows, setbacks, signs and even lighting. As shown in the draft code, the proposed regulations will make a welcoming difference. The changes would occur piecemeal but the overall look of the area would be already decided, thereby eventually giving a unified look to the area.

What’s different about this proposal from others that have gone before is that this code offers specific zoning regulations for the area before anyone applies to change anything.  This allows property owners to know what’s required before the 11th hour and to plan and budget accordingly.  Some uses would still require special permits, such as gas stations, but most commercial and residential requirements are spelled out for this area before anyone even asks.  This would allow town staff to approve or deny permits based on clearly written rules.  We have some smart folks in the planning department; I feel sure we can count on them to implement this code.  They will probably use a lot less of their (our!) time when the rules are clear and set out, rather than arbitrarily argued as happens now throughout town.

I’ve been following this process and discussion since a small area plan was developed a few years back.  Monday’s presentation included a small surprise, however, with a new section included, off Legion Road, north of Europa Drive of town-owned land potentially available for affordable and/or workforce housing.  The land is currently an unused portion of Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.  That would be a fortunate by-product of this code change for many, many families and to maintain the diversity of our town.

If adopted, this code will turn the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard into a test case for how this sort of pre-set zoning rules affects an area.  What a perfect test case!  It’s ugly, busy, already commercial and sports no special character. Hey Chapel Hill, the University shouldn’t have a monopoly on innovation!