Keeping tabs on the neighbors

Two neighborhoods in Chapel Hill are proceeding with Neighborhood Conservation District applications. The town has six NCDs already and has spent tens of thousands of dollars on consultants to help with the process.

So who’s in charge of making sure that land owners in and residents of NCDs comply with the ordinance? Nobody.

That was clear Monday night at the council meeting as Town Manager Roger Stancil and council member Donna Bell discussed their recent experience of taking a walking tour of the Northside neighborhood to check out neighborhood needs and just how far some land owners have bent the rules. The fact that two town officials were on the tour had nothing to do with town vigilance.

It took a concerted effort by Orange County Justice United and Empowerment Inc. to audit the state of the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods and report back to the town before it got the council’s attention.

Two properties appeared to be in violation of restrictions on front-yard parking, and one property was in disrepair. Sidewalks are nonexistent in many places, especially along North Graham Street, where construction on Greenbridge has forced regular foot traffic into the streets. Street signs were either damaged or missing. Streets are cracked and need repair.

The NCD designation means that a neighborhood is a “unique and distinctive” older in-town residential neighborhood or commercial district that contributes “significantly to the overall character and identity of the town and [is] worthy of preservation and protection,” according to the town website. The Glen Lennox and Highland Woods neighborhoods are knocking at the club door. Northside was the first to join.

Even with the NCD rules, Northside continues to slip away. The council doesn’t monitor what goes on in the NCDs. There’s no early-warning system when questionable practices develop, except for a resident to point it out. There’s no follow-up on how a neighborhood is doing once the NCD designation is approved.

If the Northside tour proved anything it is that the town needs a system for checking on and enforcing NCD rules before these distinctive parts of town edge beyond distinctive and into questionable.

Stancil suggested that strengthening a neighborhood’s Community Watch will spur input. That can work to some extent when the community has an active and committed contingent such as Justice United and Empowerment. But what about the town making good on its commitment to these neighborhoods? The town cannot just proudly proclaim its pride in these neighborhoods and then ignore them.

In the end Mayor Kleinschmidt suggested the town revisit the NCD process in its entirety, from instigation to follow-up. That’s a great idea – it could mean taxpayer money that was spent on establishing NCDs will not have been wasted.
–Don Evans

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  1. George Cianciolo

     /  April 28, 2010

    The NCD (Neighborhood Conservation District) overlay zone is never created unless it is first requested by the neighborhoods themselves. The legal specifications (such as height limits, setbacks, uses, etc) of the overlay zone, as well as the design guidelines, are then developed for each neighborhood with the participation of the citizens living there. Since these specifications and design guidelines vary from NCD district to NCD district, having Town inspectors go around to spot violations is probably difficult and certainly not cost effective. Although the Town certainly has a vested interest in neighborhood protection, it demonstrates that interest by the creation of the NCD overlay zone in the first place. I do not believe that it is asking too much of citizens living within those specially-created zones to do their part in protecting their neighborhoods by taking the time to report violations, or perceived violations, when they see them. At that point it is relatively easy (and certainly more efficient) for a Town inspector to pull up the map of the zone (to verify a property is actually within it) and to compare the reported violation to the actual specifications and design guidelines. While I’m a firm believer in government working for its citizens there are times when I believe citizens have to be willing to help, and maintaining the integrity of their NCDs is one of those times.

  2. How can a neighborhood organize itself enough to get the NCD designation in the first place and yet not have enough interest and initiative to do a little self-policing after that?

  3. Geoff Green

     /  April 28, 2010

    I agree with the first two commenters that, at a bare minimum, residents of an NCD need to report violations to the town. That said, I’m not sure how the NCD status of the neighborhood is relevant to the disruption caused by Greenbridge construction, the poor road conditions, the damaged/missing street signs and the absent sidewalks. They are unfortunate, and would be unfortunate even if this were not an NCD.

  4. Bill

     /  April 28, 2010

    Lets just eliminate NCDs then.
    save some tax $$$$$