Gloves off

It didn’t take long for the magic to wear off. Last week, Town Council clicked through its agenda effortlessly, ending the meeting a minute shy of 8:30 p.m.

Last night, council began at a similarly brisk pace. No one from the public signed up to speak at the first four public hearings on the agenda – a LUMO text amendment that replaced every reference to “Comprehensive Plan” with “CH2020”; a proposal to begin new stormwater management practices earlier than the state requires; and two hearings to enable Meadowmont to replace a plan for a drive-thru bank with a child development center.

Laurin Easthom recused herself from the Meadowmont hearings and the Obey Creek concept plan review, as her husband belongs to the law firm representing the developer of each, and she skeedaddled early on. Donna Bell and Lee Storrow were absent due to work commitments. Lucky them. Only two agenda items remained, but one was Obey Creek. The meeting would not end until nearly midnight.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt dressed for a long meeting, in a Mr. Rogers cardigan that looked as comfy as jammies. But sometime into the third hour of back-and-forth with Roger Perry, prospective applicant to develop Obey Creek, even he showed his ire. Council members got testy with one another and Perry, who lost his usual bonhomie and was downright rude to council members. Ed Harrison, recipient of a new knee, also showed some spine in not backing down in the face of Perry’s frustration.

Bottom line: Perry does not yet have buy-in from surrounding neighborhoods, and everyone is entrenched at this point. Council agreed that a process similar to the development agreement that got Carolina North unstuck would be the way to go with Obey Creek, rather than drag everyone through a special use permit process. Perry agreed to make a true effort to work with surrounding neighborhoods and start with a clean sheet of paper.

What was to have been a 15-minute concept plan PowerPoint presentation surged to the brink of war and ended with a grudging détente. No timeframe was imposed.
– Nancy Oates

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27 Comments

  1. Terri Buckner

     /  September 21, 2012

    The major issue addressed by citizens at the Obey Creek concept review is the fact that the notes and recollections of those of us who participated in the 15-501 South Discussion Group (representatives appointed by the Council, who also designated the number of meetings) do not match what has been written into the CH2020 comprehensive plan. This discrepancy has been reported to the Town Council repeatedly, but they either don’t care or they aren’t listening. So what East West Partners presented as the concept for Obey Creek adheres to the plan but violates those principles that were agreed upon but not codified. I can’t even blame Roger Perry for this design (although his son was appointed to serve on the discussion group and knew damn well that what was presented bore no relationship to what the participants had agreed upon).

    However there are some principles that were codified that Council chose to simply ignore and decide in their wisdom, don’t matter. For example, throughout their own economic development committee minutes is a commitment to the goal of fostering locally grown businesses. That goal was written into CH2020. But despite the data-based arguments against a big box (as well as all those they’ve heard against mixed use), the mayor explained to the audience how mixed use with a big box anchor would be a total success and (implied) load the Town’s pockets with sales tax revenues. Who cares if years of research says that big boxes push out locally grown businesses? The mayor believes otherwise so the research must be wrong or just doesn’t apply to Chapel Hill.

    Other minor details: CH2020 nearly enshrines the concept of transit-oriented development. Who cares that Obey Creek completely obliterates the estimates of the MPO (based on data provided by the town) for this site and that no transit expansions are planned for that corridor? Let’s add 30,000 trips and see what needs to get fixed after the mess is created.

    Or so what if there was not a single voice of support for any aspect of the Obey Creek concept plan and ~25 speakers against it? Even though CH2020 repeatedly advocates for citizen engagement and every notice sent out by the town starts with “Participate! Turn your ideas into action and make Chapel Hill even better.” The message from the elected officials on Tuesday night was that participation is meaningless.

    So in it’s first big test, CH2020 fell on its butt. How did the council get around this? They agreed to pursue a development agreement (instead of an SUP) in which the developer has to come to some agreed upon plan with the neighbors. As if the neighbors (and others in the community) haven’t already said what they want or could live with and been ignored? What was the purpose of CH2020? What was the purpose of the Discussion Group? And what does all this say to the Estes planning group that is just getting started?

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  September 21, 2012

    I firmly believe the big box threat is a red herring. Only grocery stores are getting bigger; other businesses are moving away from that concept. Target would have to compete with a Walmart about a mile away, and both stores are expanding their online presence. As soon as Roger Perry said “big box,” everyone forgot about the high density complex being built on land that Town Council 15-20 years ago promised would not be built on. I do like the idea of a performing arts venue, especially one that shares its revenue with the town.

  3. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  September 21, 2012

    Development agreements on Carolina North and Glen Lennox were successful because those properties’ owners will develop thoseproperties. Obey Creek’s owners are at least two degrees of separation away (Roger Perry at Town Council: “I’m not buying green bananas anymore, I have a bunch of owners up in Baltimore, and they want an answer from me!”).

  4. matt czajkowski

     /  September 21, 2012

    Terri — thanks for a great explanation of how things have unfolded. My only quibble is you refer to Council as if it is monolithic. As you know I was the only Council member who suggested Mr. Perry follow 2020. Conversely another Council member labeled the 15/501 South Task Force recommendations as a “place holder” (which just happens to be part of the new comprehensive plan (2020) that was unanimously approved a mere few months ago) and another said that the cluster housing specifically mentioned on the Small Area Plan Map was a “terrible idea”. So much for vox populi!

    I agree with Nancy on the “big box” issue. As I heard all the people (including the mayor) talk about how they won’t shop at big boxes I wondered who was there representing that end of the economic diversity scale that needs to shop at stores that offer the lowest prices or where everyone who had their ipads and iphones at the Council meeting bought them.

    Unfortunately the sentiment in Chapel Hill seems to be against “big boxes” and the debate has devolved into arguments about whether they contribute a net positive that is material enough to matter to the tax base. The 2020 process never found a way to provide numbers in that regard so it has been left to citizens who naturally have their own biases.

    As I said at the meeting, we have a choice. We don’t have to approve high density retail we will just pay for town and county services through an even heavier property tax burden. That WILL make Chapel Hill an even more expensive place to live but it is a choice that many in Chapel Hill seem willing to make (if albeit inadvertently). To the extent that doesn’t square with how some Council members think we should proceed — well we’re back to that damn vox populi.

  5. George C

     /  September 21, 2012

    Matt, I hope that at least some of the folks either at the TC meeting or reading your post appreciate the point you made in your last paragraph because I expect it is going to be driven home more than a few times when TC begins to work on next year’s budget. Unfortunately I believe when you made the point the other night it came late enough in the meeting and following some heated discussions that it probably didn’t have the impact it might have had otherwise.

  6. DOM

     /  September 21, 2012

    Matt C.

    “…we will just pay for town and county services through an even heavier property tax burden. That WILL make Chapel Hill an even more expensive place to live but it is a choice that many in Chapel Hill seem willing to make.”

    I think this is a false assumption. The loudest and wealthiest may be willing to opt for higher and higher taxes, but those too busy making a living or not as well versed in making themselves heard are eager to find other alternatives.

    There is a very vocal and visible minority who continue to rail against commercial growth in almost all its forms, but the time has come to ignore their familiar cant and move on to a healthier, more egalitarian economy for CH.

  7. matt czajkowski

     /  September 21, 2012

    DOM, I have been arguing for more commercial development ever since I ran for office the first time five years ago. In fact I have been labeled as “pro -growth” by Orange Politics and virtually all of the advocates for a “more egalitarian economy for CH”. They all opposed me, of course, because of my “pro-growth” stance. There is a very well practiced and established part of the CH community that argues vocally and aggressively for maintaining and enhancing diversity many of whom post on Orange Politics yet the reaction of one person who tweets for Orange Politics to Jim’s Ward’s statement that “I do think that big box has a place in Chapel Hill.” was “Ugh. =D”. The 2020 process involved a substantial part of the community. It’s recommendations, which the Council adopted unanimously, did not include high density retail for Obey Creek. Many of the advocates for growth as a mechanism for greater equality are uncomfortable with high density retail for the usual stated reasons. It’s all a matter of trade offs — which involve compromise.

  8. DOM

     /  September 21, 2012

    Matt –
    What you say is true, but I would bet there are more people in favor of growth out there than we both think.

    As I said above, there’s a small but very vocal minority that jumps into action whenever commercial development of any size or import is suggested but I honestly think it’s much smaller than it appears to be. Of course, they’ve been at it for twenty years so they know how to work the system better than anyone else in town.

    Realistically, I would say there are less than a dozen individuals who account for 95% of the noise – and I bet you know their names as well as I do.

    When I took part in the 2020 process, I heard from hundreds of members of our community who were definitely in favor of more density and more commercial opportunities.

    By the way, I voted for you because you seemed to be the only one who was “pro-growth” at the time. Please don’t give up the cause.

  9. DOM

     /  September 21, 2012

    I should add that I don’t necessarily agree with ALL commercial development ideas that are brought forth.

    I was shocked by the size of the Obey Creek project presented by Mr. Perry. It went way beyond any parameters set by 2020’s 15/501S sub-committee and IMO is way too large considering all the traffic problems that already exist there.

    But the Future Focus area around MLK/Estes is another matter entirely: Let’s hope the town is smart enough to promote increased commercial/density in that area to complement Carolina North.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  September 21, 2012

    Matt–as I said in my statement Wednesday night, I don’t object to having a big box in Chapel Hill. But I do think it needs to be part of a well-thought out economic development plan. I do not, however, believe that an economy based on retail/sales tax is sustainable. If you’ve read the studies I’ve sent you, high tech development comes with a significant multiplier–it not only creates high wage jobs, but it also draws in other services that pay higher wages than a Target would. Also, if we’re going to have a big box destination site, then let’s put it where there is sufficient transit infrastructure.

    I do apologize for lumping the entire council into a single unit. You and Ed Harrison both supported the 2020 process and raised issues about the broken 15-501 South discussion group.

  11. matt czajkowski

     /  September 21, 2012

    Terri,

    Weren’t we supposed to get a “well thought out” development plan as part of 2020? If not how do we make these kinds of decisions?

  12. Terri Buckner

     /  September 21, 2012

    Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it, Matt? Over and over again, the citizens participating in the 2020 process asked for more time and questioned the process being used. Now we have a comprehensive plan that was rushed; the parts don’t necessarily relate to one another; and there’s some missing details in some of the goals.

    But the fact is that it’s what we have and once it was adopted as town policy, it has to be adhered to. It’s not the legal prerogative of individual council members to discount the parts they don’t like.

  13. PhSledge

     /  September 21, 2012

    It is lovely that the Chapel Hill elite abhor the idea of big box stores or choose not to shop in them, but the majority of working folk, like those you are trying to provide affordable housing for, are spending ALL of their money out of county. God forbid the bubble that Chapel Hillians are living in is ever burst–but at this rate, property taxes will be the pin that does the job.
    Matt, keep plugging away–we voted for you because you seem to forever be the only one that gets this. Don’t stop until they get it right.

  14. George C

     /  September 21, 2012

    Matt,
    You said “Weren’t we supposed to get a “well thought out” development plan as part of 2020? If not how do we make these kinds of decisions?”

    You listen to the citizens, you listen to the professional staff who have the knowledge and experience, you examine the data, and then you and the 8 other members of Council make the decisions. That’s what you were elected to do – make the tough decisions. In hindsight, you might not always make the right decision(s) but hopefully you’ll (the Council) get more right than wrong. And in the end, if the voters aren’t satisfied they can turn you out of office. Every project shouldn’t be a referendum. Important decisions shouldn’t just be a popularity contest – who turns out the most supporters that evening.

  15. Terri Buckner

     /  September 21, 2012

    You may be right George, but the comprehensive plan is still the basis for all decisions.

    § 160A‑383. Purposes in view.
    Zoning regulations shall be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan. When adopting or rejecting any zoning amendment, the governing board shall also approve a statement describing whether its action is consistent with an adopted comprehensive plan and any other officially adopted plan that is applicable, and briefly explaining why the board considers the action taken to be reasonable and in the public interest. That statement is not subject to judicial review.

    The planning board shall advise and comment on whether the proposed amendment is consistent with any comprehensive plan that has been adopted and any other officially adopted plan that is applicable. The planning board shall provide a written recommendation to the governing board that addresses plan consistency and other matters as deemed appropriate by the planning board, but a comment by the planning board that a proposed amendment is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan shall not preclude consideration or approval of the proposed amendment by the governing board.

    Zoning regulations shall be designed to promote the public health, safety, and general welfare. To that end, the regulations may address, among other things, the following public purposes: to provide adequate light and air; to prevent the overcrowding of land; to avoid undue concentration of population; to lessen congestion in the streets; to secure safety from fire, panic, and dangers; and to facilitate the efficient and adequate provision of transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks, and other public requirements. The regulations shall be made with reasonable consideration, among other things, as to the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses, and with a view to conserving the value of buildings and encouraging the most appropriate use of land throughout such city.

    (1923, c. 250, s. 3; C.S., s. 2776(t); 1971, c. 698, s. 1; 2005‑426, s. 7(a); 2006‑259, s. 28.)

  16. Fred Black

     /  September 21, 2012

    Let me just say it, Terri, we could send another five years on CH2020 and we will still have many uphappy with the outcome. And when we get to 2020, we would just stary all over on CH2030 and never come to an acceptable agreement in the minds of some. I think George has it right.

  17. George, CH2020 was supposed to bring more specificity to the development process, create a facts-based decision-making process and put community front-and-center in deciding its own future.

    It was supposed to have more clarity than the former Comprehensive Plan, integrate development strategies across the geographical, economic and transit spectrum and work within our fiscal, social and environmental carrying capacities.

    On EVERY SINGLE ELEMENT the current CH2020 plan has failed.

    Worse, when compared to the “old” Comprehensive Plan, it is sorely lacking in the one quality you would expect – comprehensiveness.

    I would disagree, slightly, with Terri’s assertion that Obeys Creek was the first failure. The problematic MLK/Estes (Central West) planning process was the first to see the many flaws that both citizens and the Town’s own Planning Board feared: a staff driven process which downplaying citizen input – flouting economic, transit, geographical and environmental realities.

    Matt, you know that I’ve called for a rational economic development policy and reasonable growth scheme for a longer time than you have.
    Just l

    that is why I’m disappointed that the Town continues to reject your, mine and many of the folks who stood before you critiquing CH2020 calls for using modern economic modeling tools to see if the touted benefits of development are realistic and defined.

    Why the continued rejection of modeling? Is it that the kind of development proposed won’t produce the benefits touted by the developers?

    When we asked George and Rosemary to include this element in the CH2020 plan, and though several dozen citizens contributed their expertise and time developing just such a model for Chapel Hill within what was supposed to be a community driven process, the modeling concept was roundly dismissed.

    It’s understandable since that model clearly shows that the kind of development proposed for Charterwood, Carolina Flats and Obeys Creek represents a NET LOSS to bottom line – certainly not in keeping with the message being sold to the community. Even another 10 minute CH2020 infomercial can’t erase reality – though maybe it will placate the populace long enough not to notice.

    Further, the model shows that to significantly alter the ratio of residential property taxes to commercial property/sales tax Chapel Hill would have to build 30-40 times more commercial square footage than it already has, along with 25-35 times more office space. And, of course, the nearly 900+ K sq/ft. of already approved commercial, 400+ K sq/ft of already approved office, the significant commercial and office vacancies around town were ignored in forming CH2020. Even worse, macro-economic changes, like development in Carrboro (hotel, etc.), the move by UNC Healthcare of facilities to the periphery of town (or to Hillsborough), the changing dynamic in Durham/RTP/Raleigh, were also left off the table.

    Just as you can’t dig yourself out of a hole, building 10’s of millions more square feet of the type of commercial proposed at Obeys Creek ends up being a losing proposition.

    In a race to scoop up non-sustainable revenue streams, the Town would see quick diminishing returns as that new revenue was plowed back in to infrastructure resulting in an eventual net loss.

    That is cold, hard economic reality based on the same statistics/data/consultant analysis that was supposed to be part of the new Comprehensive Plan.

    This is just one of many problems in the trainwreck that is CH2020.

  18. Terri Buckner

     /  September 21, 2012

    Then why have a comprehensive plan, Fred? I think that’s the frustration. We said we were going to develop a plan that would be more specific so that developers would know what we want. And yet, in this first concept plan review under CH2020, the developer has only vague requirements (that don’t reflect the group discussions) that don’t provide any guidance. So we end up with one council member saying cluster housing would be a disaster even though the plan itself says “Utilize clustered, compact development to maximize open
    space preservation.” Clearly, the developer thought the plan was asking for cluster housing. But is that what it really means? In George’s response, it’s the council’s responsibility to decide what it means.

    I realize I am being linear, thinking the plan should provide guidance so that citizens and developers know what to expect instead of always waiting around to see what the whims of the night will generate from council. But I thought that linearity was what was expected from CH2020. If that’s not feasible, then what did we do all that work for?

  19. DOM

     /  September 21, 2012

    CitizenWill:
    “The problematic MLK/Estes (Central West) planning process was the first to see the many flaws that both citizens and the Town’s own Planning Board feared: a staff driven process which downplaying citizen input – flouting economic, transit, geographical and environmental realities.”

    Wow, you’re just too much. The planning process has hardly even begun, nothing at all has been decided – so how can you throw blame at everybody involved (except yourself and your cohorts, of course) and say that it has already failed?

    Any credibility that you and your cohorts have left slips even further when you make outlandish, untrue claims like this.

  20. “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is. ” W.C.

  21. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  September 22, 2012

    The Obey Creek proposal has nothing to do with CH2020 or the earlier Comprehensive Plan or the Southern Area Small Area PLAN, and only reflects the particular economic wishes of the present owners (which does not necessarily include the developer East-West Partners).

  22. DOM

     /  September 22, 2012

    CitizenWill

    “The problematic MLK/Estes (Central West) planning process was the first to see the many flaws that both citizens and the Town’s own Planning Board feared: a staff driven process which downplaying citizen input – flouting economic, transit, geographical and environmental realities.”

    If you and the other members of the “Estes Neighbors Coalition” really believe this to be so, then why even bother to be part of the process? If you simply keep complaining about it long enough and loud enough, maybe it’ll all just go away.

  23. Nancy Oates

     /  September 22, 2012

    Deborah — Didn’t East West buy the property from Scott Kovens’ company? If not, who owns it?

  24. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  September 22, 2012

    It belongs to Caves Valley Partners of Owings Mills, MD.

  25. Nancy Oates

     /  September 22, 2012

    Thanks, Deborah. Here’s a link to their website. http://cavesvalleypartners.com/projects/mixeduse.shtml#obeycreek

  26. Objective perspective

     /  October 2, 2012

    Hi. I have developed a cost-benefit model to see the impact of Obey Creek on Chapel Hill. Matt, you are welcome to play with the assumptions and arrive at your own conclusions.

    The town has barely looked at data. No scenarios have been modeled. If the developer’s projections turn out to be optimistic (developer’s team quoted $1200 per square foot retail sales, that is TRIPLE the Wal-Mart average), the town would lose money. The taxpayers will then have to bear the burden of those losses in form of higher taxes or lost town services.

  27. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  October 3, 2012

    Let me correct that, Nancy: the purchaser of Obey Creek was a LLC (Obey Creek Ventures) owned by Scott Kovens’s Capkov. Since 2009, Obey Creek Ventures appears to include a subsidiary of Caves Valley Partners as owner. That’s what the public record looks like to me, but maybe a journalist would be able to derive more information.

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