Flooding and the FLUM

At our Jan. 9 work session, Town Council took up the topic of the Future Land Use Map. Council must approve the FLUM before the Land Use Management Ordinance can be rewritten. Toward the end of the evening, Alisa Duffey Rogers, hired by the town to lead the LUMO rewrite, cajoled us into a game. She had meticulously cut out dozens of tiny pictures of buildings and asked us to stick them on maps of the six corridors of town that staff had determined were ripe for redevelopment.

Those areas are: 1) North MLK Jr. Boulevard, from Homestead Road to north of Carraway Village; 2) South MLK, from Homestead Road to Rosemary Street; 3) North 15-501, from the single-family homes south of Estes Drive to I-40; 4) Downtown, Franklin and Rosemary streets from Henderson Street to Carrboro; 5) N.C. 54 from Fordham Boulevard east to the Durham County border; and 6) two nodes on South 15-501, one just north of Fordham Boulevard and S. Columbia Street, and the other the Southern Village Park-n-Ride.

And we treated it like a game. For 20 minutes we joked and talked and wandered from map to map, sticking our little building stamps and green stars (parks) and red dots (objections) willy-nilly.

Then to my surprise, I saw photos of the completed maps in our Town Council packet as material for a presentation on the FLUM.

Rogers has done an outstanding job of reaching out to the community, collecting some 1,600 comments from residents and others who work, shop and play in town about how they want to see the town grow. To see our game elevated to the level of input as or more important than community feedback was disconcerting.

A petition that will come before us at our Jan. 16 meeting underscores why.

The petition comes from homeowners in the Briarcliff and Ridgefield neighborhoods that in recent years have regularly endured flooding from new construction upstream.

The folks in those neighborhoods are in a bind. FEMA won’t buy any home valued over $250,000. Even if a homeowner were willing to accept $250,000 for a home with a higher tax value, FEMA can’t buy it for below market rate. Homeowners must clean up after every flood to prevent mold from taking root. Flood insurance, as expensive as it is, does not cover health-care treatment for chronic mold exposure.

When we played our game, we didn’t take into consideration topography or traffic or the pressure development would put on creeks that flow through neighborhoods.

We can’t shrug off the impact of flooding and traffic on people who have invested a good portion of their wealth in our town — individual homeowners. Planning for growth is not a game.

— Nancy Oates

Plunge Into the New Year

For the first time in my life, I live in a neighborhood with a swimming pool. To celebrate the New Year, some of my neighbors and I took a polar bear plunge. That the weather was a mild 66 degrees helped, but not as much as you’d think. The water felt every bit the liquid ice it was.

Maybe it was just that getting out of the pool was such a relief by comparison, but I felt great the rest of the day.

This week we take another plunge as council meetings resume with a work session on Jan. 9 to talk about the Future Land Use Map. The idea behind the FLUM is to lay out what sort of development should go where. It is not binding, but it gives prospective investors an idea of what council might be amenable to in a given area.

For the past nine months, town staff have been reaching out to town residents, collecting input from the community about how the town should grow, the type of development we want to attract and what we’d like to discourage. Staff identified six areas that might be vulnerable to redevelopment.

A few months ago, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce asked council to add five additional areas to the study area. Council nixed considering the three areas in the Rural Buffer, but gave the nod to consider the two remaining: one that was south of Southern Village along 15-501 and the other northeast of I-40 off Erwin Road.

Unfortunately, the staff’s outreach efforts were nearly complete, so adding the new areas of study would set our schedule back by nearly a year. This matters because council and staff had wanted the FLUM done before continuing with the much-needed rewrite of the Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO).

Now council is faced with three options: 1) Stage another round of community visioning exercises, which would delay adopting the FLUM and the LUMO rewrite; 2) Move forward with the six areas originally under consideration, adopt the FLUM and amend it later, after the visioning exercises take place, thus allowing the LUMO rewrite to proceed on schedule; or 3) Defer adopting the FLUM until after the additional visioning exercises for the new areas, which would delay the LUMO rewrite.

We can’t forgo the visioning exercises. Council represents the town residents, and we can’t shut out their input on an issue as important as how the town should grow and change. Yet new development ideas are in the works for the area south of Southern Village, and without a visioning exercise and FLUM, council is left to consider projects piecemeal.

Regardless of what we decide (and we won’t vote on anything until our Jan. 16 meeting), some faction of interested parties will react icily.

This is the council version of the polar bear plunge.

— Nancy Oates

Goodbye, 2018

Everyone wants progress; no one wants change. – Soren Kierkegaard

We should unfurl that wisdom on a banner over the dais in Town Council chambers, because that sums up the theme of nearly every council meeting.

Development proposals dominate our weekly agendas. Every new development brings with it troublesome side effects.

In order to be a “vibrant” town, we need to attract new businesses, which calls for us to ensure sufficient housing in a range of prices for those employees to live in. With limited undeveloped land in town, building new housing requires uprooting trees or demolishing older housing stock to increase density. The new construction sells or rents at a higher rate than existing units, which raises the floor of rents and housing prices all over town.

The loss of trees and open space increases stormwater runoff and the risk that existing homes will flood. Greater density brings heavier traffic, which motivates us to buy more buses and recruit more drivers, who can’t afford to live in town because the new growth has made Chapel Hill too expensive for the working class.

While it may feel as if all council has done in recent years is approve new luxury apartments — 400 in Carraway Village; 272 where the Days Inn used to be; 234 on the Hampton Inn property; 328 at the Honda dealership site; about 800 more where Park Apartments are currently — we have had some success in the commercial space. The Station at 54, an office building next to the new Hamilton Road fire station, opened this year and is fully rented. We approved new medical office and clinic space for UNC Hospitals in Eastowne, along with a large parking deck for some 1,100 spaces.

We’re nowhere near done. If federal and state money comes through for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit, we will have to plan density and land uses around stations. UNC Health Care was clear that the building council approved at Eastowne would be only one of several it expects to build in coming years. Several concept plans for other developments, almost all of it luxury rentals, are in the queue already.

Because any progress we make will involve change, let’s be strategic about our growth. Let’s think about what we want, what we need to support what we want, and how to make all of this happen without raising taxes dramatically or otherwise reducing the quality of life for residents.

— Nancy Oates

Touchstones

The holidays seem to be more hectic this year, perhaps because I had this idea that after we finished our Dec. 5 Town Council meeting and wouldn’t resume meeting until our work session on Jan. 9, I would have a month’s vacation. It didn’t work out that way.

Deadlines continued, as did advisory board meetings. Then there was Christmas shopping, baking, decorating, card-writing, and cleaning for guests. One night as I was making my way through a checklist of things I had to complete before I went to bed, I realized I had lost the joy of the season somewhere along the way.

So I put my list aside and drove over to Chandler’s Green. From Weaver Dairy Road, I turned onto Sunrise, then made a right onto Sweeten Creek. Two houses in on the right, there it was. The tree slathered in red lights. To me, that tree is visible joy. I parked in front of the house for a few minutes and refueled.

Every year on Christmas Eve, after the candlelight service, my family joins me on a holiday lights tour. We drive through various neighborhoods looking for the prettiest and most unusual lights. We’ve made a list of favorites over the years: Old Forest Creek never disappoints; Southern Village has lots to see as you get lost on its winding, intersecting roads; and Chandler’s Green homes seem to be on the cutting edge of holiday lights trends.

But there is something about that red tree that rejuvenates me. I’ve written about that tree before. The homeowner emailed me and said it takes two days to wrap the tree, certainly a tedious task. Maybe the fact that the homeowner goes to all that trouble to share a thing of beauty with the rest of the world is part of why the red tree restores my spirit.

This holiday season, I hope all of you find that restorative touchstone, something that resets your mood, your priorities, your energy and your resolve. Much awaits us in the year ahead. Let’s first find sanctuary in a respite of peace.

— Nancy Oates

Learn the History

When I heard Chancellor Folt blithely announce the plans to spend $5.3 million to build a home for a Confederate monument that glorifies the South’s willingness to go to war to preserve slavery, I wondered whether anyone had briefed her on the battle to build the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black History and Culture.

UNC gave permission in 1993 for the Stone Center to be built after students, faculty and alumni lobbied and staged demonstrations for at least two years to get UNC administrators to understand the importance of having a free-standing black history center. But the building didn’t open until 2004, because the university didn’t include any funding for it. The entire $9 million price was paid for by private donors. Once the building was built, UNC paid for technology for its classrooms.

Read the story here: http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/sonja-haynes-stone-center-black-culture-history/. It’s long, but goes a long way toward understanding why so many people object to UNC’s decision to allocate so much money so readily for a white history building.

Fortunately, the Board of Governors agreed that constructing a separate building to commemorate a past that most of us are ashamed of would not be a wise use of funds. Board chair Harry Smith said the board needs to “go back to the drawing board … and try to get it right.”

No need for the drawing board, really. UNC and its Board of Governors need to understand that while Silent Sam was installed at a time when the majority on campus believed that black citizens should not have the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities that their white counterparts have, that belief no longer prevails.

The Confederate statue had its day, and that day is now past. Pack it in storage, or ship it to the state history museum in Raleigh, or auction it off and use the money for scholarships for students who have had to overcome obstacles the rest of us have not. But do not display it anywhere on campus.

— Nancy Oates

Shelter From the Storm

            I had intended to write about the Silent Sam decision, after first going to the holiday reception Sunday afternoon at the home of UNC Chancellor  Carol Folt and collecting opinions of some of the top brass at the university who have attended in the past.

             But then it snowed, and the party was postponed until Monday evening, then canceled altogether, with the possibility of it being rescheduled for January. And having a true day off, with everything on my calendar wiped clean, drained the bile from my muse.

             My home was one of the lucky ones that didn’t lose power, so I was warm. I could make coffee and cook meals, and I had access to my computer and telephone to stay connected to the rest of the world and other entertainment. I watched some of my more intrepid neighbors head out for walks. Cabin fever set in early for others, and I read posts on the listserv about borrowing snow shovels. When I saw one neighbor slip and slide his car up the street and return later with a Harris Teeter bag, I wished I’d asked him to pick up the makings of hot chocolate for me. 

             Having a day off was restorative. It underscored the wisdom of the Jewish and Christian faiths designating the Sabbath as a day of rest. By the end of the day, I felt I had a different perspective on the feasibility of compassion and common sense chipping away at the vindictive and power-grabbing tactics of so many of our leaders today. Not to mention renewed energy to keep fighting the good fight.

             This being the South, the snow will melt off in a matter of days, and the hustle of life will soon return. The Silent Sam debate will resume raging on. The moral weaknesses of some of our leaders will show up in unexpected ways and need strong voices and actions to counteract. Much will be required of us if we don’t want to lose ground.

             But I hope,especially in this holiday season, that all of us will create opportunities to find pockets of peace and relax into the luxury of some real time off.

             — Nancy Oates

People + Places = Community

I spent last Saturday morning in a workshop sponsored by the Historic District Commission that emphasized the importance of community to our quality of life.

I spent the afternoon talking with low-income seniors and people with disabilities about how the town could be more livable for them. The issues they brought up had at their core a longing for community.

One of the featured speakers at the HDC’s workshop, Thompson Mayes, wrote the book Why Old Places Matter. Mayes spoke of the need for continuity in a world that is often changing. Continuity provides stability, he said, and he cited studies of people who had been forcibly relocated to places that were safer and newer but found that their sense of community had been harmed.

The people I spoke to at the afternoon gathering told of how the housing vouchers formerly known as Section 8 were becoming all but useless as more and more landlords refused to honor them. In the experience of these folks, landlords could, at any time, change their policy about accepting the housing subsidy and adopt a business model of renting only to tenants at market rate. The renters’ stability was threatened. When they were forced to move, all of them scattered to different parts of the Triangle, wherever they could find housing in their budgets. Their sense of community had been harmed.

At a community meeting Sunday afternoon about proposed changes at a mobile home park in town, the developers’ representative spent much of the time assuaging residents of the mobile homes who were worried that their sense of community would be disrupted. The owner plans to make room for commercial ventures along the street frontage and relocate some of the homes to the side and back edges of the land. It was not known whether all of the homes would be saved.

Mayes also pointed out that beauty contributes to happiness, though developers and council members often treat it as frivolous. While the people on modest fixed incomes expressed gratitude for any affordable place when they faced eviction, they noted that those places were not designed with beauty in mind. Low-income neighborhoods often are very dense, stark and lack green space or nice views out the windows.

Increasingly, characteristics of continuity, beauty and community are available only to those who can pay a good price. Those of us who are policymakers, who decide what gets built where, need to do what we can to extend to low-income residents the same stability, grace and sense of place that financially secure residents take for granted.
— Nancy Oates

Improving with age

An out-of-state developer recently purchased two houses next door to one another in one of Chapel Hill’s historic districts. The Historic District Commission is bracing for the prospect of demolition applications for the two gracious historic homes.

State law, which trumps local laws, does not protect historic properties. If a Historic District Commission denies a demolition request, state law allows the property owner to tear down any historic structures after waiting a year from the date of denial.

The waiting period is meant to enable the property owner and the HDC to work out a way to minimize the damage to the historic district that removing the vintage home and building a contemporary structure would cause, but there is no sanction against a property owner who refuses to engage in a discussion. The property owner can let the structure and grounds fall into disrepair during that waiting period.

What do we lose when we allow historic structures to be removed or demolished? Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commission has organized an informational program this coming Saturday, Dec. 1, beginning at 9:30 a.m. to educate the public on the value of historic buildings. Among the speakers will be Thompson Mayes, author of Why Old Places Matter, and Laurie Paolicelli, director of the Orange County Visitors Bureau.

North Carolina laws skew toward allowing a property owner to do whatever he or she wants with a property, and that comes at the expense of property owners who invest in historic homes. Even though older homes require more upkeep, houses in a historic district sell for a premium, because a buyer is purchasing the ambience of a neighborhood as well as an individual house and grounds. Whether the houses in historic neighborhoods are grand or small, they have unique architecture and often are surrounded by trees that have been thriving for generations. Whether the grounds feature expansive lawns or modest gardens, the neighborhoods take people back in time and offer a singular experience to anyone strolling through.

The town that boasts the nation’s oldest public university tends to draw visitors who appreciate historic districts. Paolicelli understands the revenue-generating potential that history-rich neighborhoods bring.

Mayes, who is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservations, discusses in his book the wide-ranging benefits to us as a society for preserving old places, from the continuity of who we were to who we have become, to the transformation of the ordinary into the beautiful that time bestows.

It falls to the HDC to protect the historic districts, making important judgment calls complicated by outdated guidelines and living with neighbors who may be disappointed by the commissioners’ decisions.

The program on Saturday runs from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is open to the public free of charge, but please RSVP to rsvpCHHDC [at] gmail.com so organizers will have sufficient food for lunch refreshments.
— Nancy Oates

Views across the board

When my computer failed last month, I spent a few hours at the Apple Genius Bar, a sort of emergency room for digital devices in distress. As I waited for new software to install itself very slowly, I got to hear snippets of people’s lives as told through their troubled phones and iPads and MacBooks.

One young woman came in with a phone that had stopped doing the things she needed it to do. The good news, the Apple Genius told her, was that this was a software flaw that Apple would not only fix but upgrade for free, if she would surrender her phone for a couple days for the physical repair. The phone’s screen was cracked, though, and Apple would have to replace that, because the technicians would not be able to reassemble a cracked screen. It would cost her $150.

She was quiet for a moment. You could see the budget calculations going through her mind as clearly as if they were laid out in a thought bubble over her head. Finally, she said, “No, thanks.”

All of us lined up at the Genius Bar turned to look at her. Essentially a brand-new iPhone for $150. How could she turn it down? But she slipped the cracked phone back in her pocket and left the store.

I observed the opposite end of the financial spectrum last week at an OWASA board meeting when, during a discussion, I realized that I was perhaps the only one at the table who knew how much my monthly water bill was. Everyone else, it seemed, had automatic bill pay and had no idea how much water they used or what they paid for basic living expenses. The amounts were deducted from a bank account so deep they never thought about it running dry.

People from a wide range of life circumstances call Chapel Hill home. To make decisions that create an environment where people from one end of the wealth spectrum to the other can thrive, those of us on Town Council need their input.

Next month, council will vote on changes to rules about who can serve on advisory boards. One proposed change is to institute a “three strikes you’re out” policy whereby anyone missing three meetings in a row is automatically tossed off the board.

Certainly a chronically empty seat serves no one. But we don’t want to lose the valuable perspective of someone just because the store manager called them in for a last-minute shift or the car wouldn’t start or a child threw up. Whether to keep someone on the board is best left up to the board itself. We need to soften the language to give boards that discretion.

We make better decisions when we have information from different perspectives, from those who know the impact of an unexpected $150 expense, and from those who don’t even know what their expenses are.
— Nancy Oates

Resiliency

Do weather events seem more severe in recent years? The Triangle Regional Resilience Partnership checked our perceptions against the data and found that, yes, flooding of greater intensity happens more frequently, and droughts last longer.

The trajectory is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon, despite our efforts to take the bus more frequently or adjust our thermostats a few degrees. Our swelling population uses more resources. We need to build more places to live, and we need to move more people from place to place throughout the day. Even if we employ drones to deliver our groceries and dry cleaning, they need some form of energy to operate.

All of these stressors work together and take their toll. And after every major weather event, we need time for our economy to bounce back.

We can’t change the weather, but we can increase our resiliency.

The Triangle J Council of Governments (we are in the state’s Region J) partnered with the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center based at UNC-Ashville to conduct a quantified assessment over the past two years to help elected officials and senior staff concerned with health, infrastructure and agriculture identify vulnerable areas and figure out what investments would be most beneficial.

The team presented a summary of their 215-page report (available at http://www.tjcog.org/regional-resiliency-assessment.aspx) on Nov. 9 to a gathering of elected officials, emergency services providers and municipal sustainability staff from the region. We learned the difference between vulnerability (how well-prepared a structure is to fend off damage from severe weather) and risk (the likelihood of a major event happening). We learned the benefits of creating a resiliency plan — higher bond rating and lower flood insurance rates. Maps identified socially vulnerable areas where residents had few resources to protect against damage and to bounce back after disaster strikes.

Strategies included reducing exposure, increasing adaptive capacity and supporting response and recovery. The presenters emphasized the value of working together to prepare for and recover from traumatic weather events.

One example: A large upstream basin shunts more water to a receiving watershed. If there is a significant size difference between the upstream basin and the receiving watershed, the downstream area will feel the brunt of the flooding damage, Understanding that connectivity might encourage the county with the large upstream basin to avoid overdevelopment there and encourage the county with the small watershed to expand it.

The researchers emphasized the importance of putting ordinances on the books to mandate thoughtful development. Chapel Hill already has good ordinances, but the rezoning and Special Use Permit process enable elected officials to exempt an applicant from these environmentally sound practices. Fortunately, we have town staff working diligently to mitigate harm on residents when council too blithely grants developers exemption from those laws.

Holding to our already sound ordinances would benefit our community every bit as much as all of us riding the bus.
— Nancy Oates