Horsetrading at the Council Corral

Two weeks ago, Chapel Hill hired a new planning director, Ben Hitchings,Nancy Oates 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

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
Next Post
Leave a comment


  1. plurimus

     /  April 18, 2016

    “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.”

    What is the policy/rule when the developer exceeds the recreation space? What is the difference between recreation and recreations space? Was there an agreement that the “space” = “recreation”? Definition matter and when things are not well defined they are open to interpretation.

    Sounds like the “rules” need clarification and fine tuning and the planning staff and TC does not even know the correct interpretation. Reading what you wrote it seems like the developers perception is correct mostly because the terms and definitions are not clear.

  2. anon

     /  April 18, 2016

    Town Stafff work for town council. It’s a mistake to think a new director will “fix” any perceived problems.

    Now the “rule” is, if a developer exceeds the recreational space they can decrease payment in lieu.

    The problem is town council violating their own rules and then every subsequent development becomes fungible too. Having more recreation space likely increases the value of a development so the trend would be to increase recreation space and decrease payment in lieu – my prediction.

  3. Onsite recreation spaces in small housing developments serve a different need than do the larger community parks that payments-in-lieu help to finance. The two should not be treated as fungible. 30 one-acre parks scattered around town do not obviate the need for a 30-acre park that can provide, for example, walking trails, sports fields, room to build indoor recreational facilities, etc.

    Let the developer call it what he will, but the residents of the new housing will place additional demands on town-wide services, including recreation facilities, and the incremental property tax revenue from the new housing will not suffice to cover the cost of expanding services. If we are to maintain our existing quality of services as the town’s population grows, the money to make up the difference between the incremental cost of expanding government services, e.g., acquiring and maintaining new parkland, and the incremental property tax revenue has to come from somewhere. If it doesn’t come from the developer, it comes from us. By seeking an exemption from the town’s payment-in-lieu rule, the developer is, in effect, asking the townsfolk to subsidize his profits. Kudos to Nancy, Jess, and Sally for holding the line.

  4. plurimus

     /  April 18, 2016

    Municipalities and county governments have the authority to charge fees in lieu for certain road and recreational land GS160A-372.

    with regard to recreation GS160A-372 (c) states: “The ordinance may provide that a developer may provide funds to the city whereby the city may acquire recreational land or areas to serve the development or subdivision, including the purchase of land that may be used to serve more than one subdivision or development within the immediate area. All funds received by the city pursuant to this paragraph [subsection] shall be used only for the acquisition or development of recreation, park, or open space sites. Any formula enacted to determine the amount of funds that are to be provided under this paragraph [subsection] shall be based on the value of the development or subdivision for property tax purposes. The ordinance may allow a combination or partial payment of funds and partial dedication of land when the governing body of the city determines that this combination is in the best interests of the citizens of the area to be served”

    In fact Session Law 2008-76 extended Chapel Hill authority to the ETJ.

    My question stands: Does “recreational space” have a different definition then “payment in lieu” in the Chapel Hill ordinance? Was the developer infact seeking an exemption? Was the area less that 3000sq feet? Could the developer add more units instead of providing the 115% of recreation area, and just pay the PIL?

    Was there any discussion about how this is or is not in “the best interests of the citizens of the area to be served”?

    How was what they provided inconsistent with:

    Where is the “master plan”?

    Reading it it is not clear to me at all, and I doubt it is clear to anyone else including staff. Horse trading is not mentioned in the rules, is probably a source of irritation to developers and a distraction from the ultimate goal of unified greenways and trails.

    Not saying the developer is right, just that clarity in the form of fitting into a plan is lacking.

  5. Nancy

     /  April 18, 2016

    Plurimus, I believe the developer had a point that he had met town ordinance already and should not be subject to a PIL. Also, the price point of his homes is expected to be at or above the threshold that is at least revenue neutral when it comes to the property tax revenue vs. cost of town services. Town ordinance doesn’t seem to address the process for a PIL if the developer is willing to provide 100% of the required recreation space. And what constitutes adequate recreation isn’t applied uniformly, either. Timber Hollow Apts. wrote “Dog Run” on a part of the map over a sedge of undeveloped land on the corner of MLK and Piney Mountain, and voila, there was its recreation space.

  6. plurimus

     /  April 18, 2016

    Nancy, Yes. it seems like the “rules” are too open to interpretation. I do not think this is the only case.

    Again, trying to walk a few yards in the developers shoes, it would frustrate me.

    To me the larger issue is that this sort of thing leads to “spot planning” rather than overall planning and that tension often runs counter to the “the best interests of the citizens of the area to be served”