Two weeks ago, Chapel Hill hired a new planning director, Ben Hitchings, who came to the April 11 Town Council meeting. Much to my surprise, he did not resign immediately; in fact, he participated in our work session two days later. That says he’s a man undaunted by challenges.
In a nutshell — we embarrassed ourselves, council and planning staff alike. That Monday night meeting revealed some of what needs fixing about our development approval process.
The agenda included Capkov Ventures’ final public hearing on its high-density housing development on 27 acres along Homestead and Merin roads. The plan proposed 62 detached houses sited compactly on tiny lots, plus nine townhouses affordable to people earning 80% to 100% of the Area Median Income, close to but not in compliance with the town’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, which calls for 15% of new construction homes to be affordable to people making from 65% to 80% of the AMI. (I pushed for the developer to comply fully with the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, but got no support from other council members.)
Capkov built a nearly identical development in Carrboro, minus the affordable housing piece, some years back that has been tremendously successful, as I believe the Chapel Hill version will be, too, and that will bring value to several of our constituents.
The development partner making the presentation last Monday got off on the wrong foot by promising to be brief but wasn’t. Council became restive. Note to developers: By the time you get to the final public hearing, understand we have seen your project at the concept phase and at advisory board meetings, reviewed your written materials and questioned you at prior public hearings. By the final hearing, best to focus only on what’s changed.
Capkov had agreed to all staff modifications, except a nearly $90,000 payment-in-lieu for recreation. Given that Capkov had provided 115% of the recreation space required by town ordinance, the PIL felt to the developer like an impact fee.
Council members were divided on whether to impose the PIL. For a while, it looked like council was going to postpone the vote on approving the rezoning and SUP to give the developer a chance to renegotiate with planning staff. Then a council member made a counteroffer, and the horsetrading commenced. At one point, the development partner threatened to withdraw the project and build the traditional residential subdivision he was allowed by right. My disappointment with that idea would have been mitigated by the fact that the project then would yield at least three houses affordable to people at the 65% AMI level.
Ultimately, the developer agreed to split the difference with planning staff, paying $45,000. Council approved the project, in a 6-3 vote (Jess Anderson, Sally Greene and I voted no). What should have been a celebratory moment, instead left a bad taste for everyone.
Another concept plan comes before us tonight, and once again, the developer seems to labor under the belief that the town won’t follow its own rules. We need to fix our broken process. I’m hopeful our new planning director can help.
– Nancy Oates