Obey policy for Obey Creek

Don’t you hate it when your own words are thrown back at you in an argument?

Council member Jim Ward must have been thinking that during the Town Council meeting of Sept. 27 when Citizens for Responsible Growth lined up a passel of experts to speak out against rezoning part of the Jordan Lake watershed to allow the Obey Creek mixed-use development to be built.

In 2004, builder Scott Kovens proposed constructing about 600 houses on the 120-acre tract along the east side of U.S. 15-501, across from Southern Village. At that time, a Mayor’s Committee on Obey Creek development, headed by Ward, rejected the development as too dense. The committee wrote: “The Committee’s conclusion regarding existing land use policies in the Southern Area is that the existing policies were put in place thoughtfully and with benefit of a highly participatory process, … An argument can be made that all policies can benefit from periodic review; however, there is not evidence that current conditions warrant such a policy review for the Southern Area at this time.”

Kovens, a resourceful businessman with a wicked sense of humor, brought developer Roger Perry into the redevelopment plan. Perry, a principal of East West Partners, has earned a reputation as someone who can win town approval of controversial developments (think Meadowmont and East 54) and make them a commercial success. In May, Perry presented the concept plan for Obey Creek that showed 1,200 residences and 870,000 square feet of office/commercial space, including a 120,000-square-foot hotel, on 38 acres. The remaining 82 acres, much of it too steep to build on, would be designated a town park.

Perhaps because the Obey Creek proposal was presented under Perry’s brand, council members kept an open mind. They did ask Perry to scale back the height of the 10-story buildings that would front the project along the highway and reduce the density.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt dismissed the Citizen’s for Responsible Growth presentation as being too soon in the process. An application for a special use permit had not been received, and the time for residents to present feedback would be at that rezoning hearing. But might he then say that plans have proceeded so far along that it would be unfair to ask the developer to start over again? That’s the impression I got from his response to the public comments on siting the homeless shelter on Homestead Road.

I half expect Kovens to present a revised version of Obey Creek, this time the same 600-home development he proposed six years ago. Compared to the mixed-use behemoth presented in May, this 2004 redux plan would seem downright eco-friendly.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Steve Brown

     /  October 11, 2010

    Great story, and so “Chapel Hill”.

  2. Terri buckner

     /  October 11, 2010

    Not only did the CH Town Council reject the previous Obey Creek plan, but several of them were also active in objecting to the proposed Chatham County Wal-Mart development located at the county line–just a few miles down the road from Obey’s Creek. Purportedly they opposed the development because of the impact it would have on feeder creeks to Morgan Creek and the associated impact that would have on Chapel Hill’s ability to comply with the Jordan Lake rules.

    Does every square inch of Chapel Hill County (except those areas that are “too steep to build on” really need to be developed? Has all this development improved quality of life for Chapel Hillians? Has it reduced the commuting for those who work here? What are the metrics for assessing current development theories?

  3. Following on Terri’s points, three quick comments.

    One, there had been a commitment at the time that if Southern Village was developed to the level of density requested, the land east of it would not be developed to the same degree to counter anticipated impacts. The underlying reasons for this commitment have not change and, if anything, are more important now that Southern Community park with its attendant impermeable surface and the new state mandated Jordan Lake rules make maintaining water and environmental quality key factors in any development decision. Under the new Lake Jordan rules, we, the taxpayers of Chapel Hill, will pay to mitigate the damage Obeys Creek causes to the watershed. Another example of developers granted the ability to shift their costs onto our shoulders.

    Of course, if you have lived around here long enough you have seen such commitments – promises – fall by the wayside.

    Two, the argument will be made that if Obeys Creek is constrained that the commercial taxbase will suffer. Dollars Chapel Hill could capture from north Chatham and south Orange will flow further south to much less restrictive Chatham county. I think this argument could have some merit if the type of mix proposed was different but, even then, would caution Council to take a very jaundice view of the numbers I’m sure will be thrown about (look at S.V.’s original economic tout, for instance, and compare it to the level of economic activity we see there today).

    Finally, when I served on the recently defunct Sustainability Visioning Task Force, I and others suggested looking at this area as a test case for establishing guidelines for future sustainable growth in Chapel Hill. Several staff members and, notably, one of our members who frequently works for the development community, pushed back on that suggestion. In fact, their comments would leave one to believe that it was a flight of fancy to even suggest an Obeys Creek type development would happen in that corridor. Yet, just a few months after that group was disbanded, here we are.

    As of now, with Council dragging its feet on revamping the comprehensive plan, there are no new guiding principles (or even folks from our community working on new guidelines) to manage the final infill of this community.

    Several years ago, when I first ran for office, a long term resident told me that with Meadowmont’s approval it was “open season” for developers in Chapel Hill – that the combination of weak political leadership and increased savvy on the part of developers would lead to the ascendancy of projects we actually see today.

    At the time I told her that I was optimistic we could guide Chapel Hill through this stage of growth without trashing those qualities many of us cherish about our community. Five years later I have to wonder. I’m still optimistic but that optimism is tempered by a deeper understanding of how far developers will go to sell a project (green washing) and how little analysis some of our leadership (not all thank goodness) puts into evaluating the consequences of the pattern of growth Chapel Hill is currently experiencing.

  4. FYI, you might want to request the meeting notes (hah!!) from Foy’s 2005 Obeys Creek Mayors committee (I recall Strom, Ward and Hill were on it – at least in 2005).

  5. Terri Buckner

     /  October 11, 2010

    I’m glad to hear you still feel optimistic, Will. I don’t. I used to agree with those that said we couldn’t roll up the doors to the community in order to protect the “village” it used to be. But the open door policy for development has reduced our long-term security of clean water, forced the out of community trucking of our waste, pushed more university employees to live out of town, and most importantly to me, pushed our historically black community out of their family homes. Urban density has been the theory du jour of local progressives for the past 10+ years, but the evidence simply doesn’t support continuing on with policies that have an overall negative impact on the community.

    I don’t mean to sound too fatalistic. I still think we have a wonderful community. But progressive theories need to have progressive impacts. I see a disconnect.
    –Yes, we have a great bus system. But what impact has that had on reducing the number of commuters on campus? (Let’s not include the park and rides in the discussion since they obviously facilitate commuting from longer distances even though they reduce commuting within town limits). And in times of enforced budget austerity, how to we maintain the current level of service?

    –Yes, we have a well funded educational system. But are all children benefiting equally or are some taking giant steps while others are still struggling? How do we maintain the facilities we have in the face of growing need for more space? That’s the driver for the new sales tax. The town councils need to take responsibility for the BOCC pushing for this new tax since it’s the local councils that continue approving new growth.

    –Yes, we have an increasingly dynamic downtown. But what impact has that had on the care and support of our homeless population?

    The private property rights of local developers seem to take precedence over everything. That’s a conservative value–even if the town councils force those developers to follow their desire for urban density.

  6. Evidence based decision-making? Nice call Terri ;-)!

  7. Duncan O'Malley

     /  October 12, 2010

    “…the combination of weak political leadership and increased savvy on the part of developers would lead to the ascendancy of projects we actually see today.”

    “Total paranoia is total awareness.”
    – Charlie Manson

  8. Duncan, unfortunately they were somewhat right. The PR tactics have shifted over time – mixed-use village would save the day, then high density transit-oriented, then “green” (washed) high density transit-oriented mixed use village blah blah blah.

    However projects like Obeys Creek are titled or classified the point Terri made – are they serving the whole of this community’s needs/values – is on target.

    One of the key problems we have in Chapel Hill (actually at pretty much every tier of governance) is looking back at what was promised and comparing it to what was delivered. In other words, we don’t validate the initial assumptions – just keep on moving forward never pausing to look at all the dust that’s being raised in our rearview mirror.

    In my experience, this is a terrible strategy for achieving success.

  9. Steve Brown

     /  October 13, 2010

    The question “are they serving the whole of this community’s needs/values ” could be very simply made unneccesary to ask. All Chapel Hill needs to do is take all private property away from all owners. You know, like Communism. Then the community leaders can decide exactly what to do with every square inch of the southern part of heaven.

    And they don’t have to worry whether their existing zoning meets their latest criteria for “sustainability” when someone wants to actually use their property.

    While it sounds ridiculous, that is what is being proposed.

  10. Steve, if developments like Obeys Creek, East54, Greenbridge, etc. did not require new zones (TC3 in Greenbridge’s case) or dramatic rezoning (Obeys Creek) or a number of exceptions (East54’s buffer and setback) – variances or modifications granted the developers by the community – then you could argue that the community should have little or no expectation of getting some value in return.

    Of course, this hasn’t been the case. The community has made or will be forced to make real dollar investments in support of these projects. The community has made or will make further concessions on transit, environmental carrying capacity, etc. to support these projects.

    In other words, this can’t be, like I believe has been the case for some projects, essentially a one way street where the taxpayers and residents of Chapel Hill get to pickup the tab.

    Some of the trade-offs are fairly clear and specific mitigations can be stipulated to by both parties. Others are not as clear or, and this is one of my major concerns, even discussed.

    Again, the community should receive some benefit in accommodating the special requirements of these projects (many of the large-scale projects approved over the last 5 years have required special use permits – and some, like the Lot $$$5 project, exceed the underlying zones specifications dramatically).

    You could argue that the underlying zones, the resource conservation districts, the neighborhood conservation districts, the historic properties rules, the watershed protection requirements and the other rules encapsulated in the LUMO are too restrictive or not inline with what the community “really” wants but I would disagree.

    Finally, as I suggested before, we should be looking at previous projects – Meadowmont, Southern Village, Chapel Hill North, Greenbridge, etc. – to see if the rewards touted – increased tax revenues, decreased traffic, greater economic activity – are commensurate with the costs the community took on.

  11. Terri Buckner

     /  October 13, 2010

    “The question “are they serving the whole of this community’s needs/values ” could be very simply made unnecessary to ask. All Chapel Hill needs to do is take all private property away from all owners. You know, like Communism. Then the community leaders can decide exactly what to do with every square inch of the southern part of heaven.”

    Clearly, the balance between private property owner rights and the good of the whole community is a controversial issue. But think about the last phrase in the pledge of allegiance–“with liberty and justice for all” or the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”). The framers of our constitution/democracy didn’t frame a government that makes some people more more equal than others. They wrote the constitution to preserve the balance of equity between the powerful and the powerless. That’s what I think many conservatives forget in their absolute loyalty to the principle of private property rights. If we want to preserve the original principles this country was based upon, we will not support policies and principles that place the rights of one group over the rights of others.

    We’ve changed the constitution throughout our history to bring greater balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of society. I believe that with urban density, we need to shift focus from the rights of individuals to the rights of the larger community. We’ve already seen process changes that require all new development come before council (conditional use permits), but the basic premise is still slanted in favor of large property owners/developers.

    What I would like to see is more evidence-based governing (as Will labelled it) that moves away from “conditions” placed upon the individual property owner and places the onus of decision making on data demonstrating positive community impact. I believe that was somewhat the intent behind the Community Sustainability Task Force.

  12. Steve Brown

     /  October 13, 2010

    Like I said before, it sounds like the other posters here want Communism.

  13. So if I don’t want to pay your bar bill I’m a communist?

  14. Steve Brown

     /  October 14, 2010

    No, Mr. Citizen, do not twist my words. What Ms Buckner said was implying was that “all men are created equal” means that “everyone should have the same things”. At least that is what I got out of it.

    This discussion is a waste of time. The bottom line is that Chapel Hill continues to make the development process so onerous that only a few hardy souls undertake it. And the rules get changed depending on the “cool type of development” in vogue when there is an application. And then, in what one can only find absolutely hilarious, the Town and its hapless citizens wonder why the cost of housing and living in general is so high. One wonders why the connection is so difficult for most people to see.

  15. Terri Buckner

     /  October 14, 2010

    Steve Brown–you need to learn more about what communism means before you use the term. Despite that inaccurate usage, you and I do agree that we need specific rules for approving development rather than the whims and fancy of the council on the particular night that a project comes forward. The difference in our beliefs is that I want those rules to be data driven, with the data deriving from community impact.

  16. Duncan O'Malley

     /  October 14, 2010

    “…you and I do agree that we need specific rules for approving development rather than the whims and fancy of the council on the particular night that a project comes forward.”

    I think just about everyone in Chapel Hill would agree on that one – except for certain members of the town council and planning board, maybe.

  17. Geoff Green

     /  October 14, 2010

    Getting back to the original post: “I half expect Kovens to present a revised version of Obey Creek, this time the same 600-home development he proposed six years ago. Compared to the mixed-use behemoth presented in May, this 2004 redux plan would seem downright eco-friendly.”

    How exactly is the original plan more eco-friendly? Is this the commonplace conceit that suburbia is environmentally friendly while dense urbanism is environmentally hostile, or is there something more?

  18. Terri Buckner

     /  October 14, 2010

    Building a dense urban development that has previously been declared a threat to water quality by sitting council members in both previous iterations of this development and for a proposed development just a few miles down the road in Chatham County seems like a pretty clear explanation to me. What other evidence do you want?