Growth on what conditions

For 10 years before becoming Chapel Hill’s planning director, Ben Hitchings held the comparable role in Morrisville. There, he used a process called “conditional zoning” to develop and redevelop parcels to spur growth.

At council’s Nov. 15 meeting, we heard a staff proposal to add conditional zoning to our Land Use Management Ordinance. CZ makes development faster and cheaper for developers. The proposal presented for our consideration is a no-holds-barred density and use expansion that could be used almost anywhere in town except areas zoned R-1, R-2 and R-3 (basically neighborhoods of single-family houses).

CZ would let council set the parameters of what could be built on a parcel, and the town manager would have final approval over the project, including expanding it as much as 20% without council’s knowledge or say-so. Also, council members could negotiate privately with applicants, unlike in the Special Use Permit process where all conversation between council and applicant must be in a public hearing.

Council members talked about CZ at length, many of us wanting to tweak it to make it less onerous and disruptive. Some of us asked that the process start with a concept review to give council a peek at the plan before an applicant invests significant time and money in it. Some wanted to limit the extent the town manager could independently expand the project to 10%. Some wanted to ensure that the conditions in CZ not be less restrictive than specified in the town’s current LUMO.

I asked that CZ not be allowed in zones R-4 and R-5 — apartment complexes abutting single-family home neighborhoods — until after we saw how CZ operated in other areas and the kinks are worked out.

The lack of transparency concerns me, too. If council members have individual conversations with applicants, not only do we risk coming to a decision-making meeting with different understandings of what a project entails, but we also may have left the applicant with different expectations. We have a rezoning tool already that allows council members to talk privately with an applicant — a development agreement — and I still haven’t heard a convincing explanation of what CZ can accomplish that a development agreement can’t.

But before we’d had any of this discussion, an owner of several undeveloped acres zoned for single-family residences petitioned council to upzone his land, using conditional zoning without specifying what could be built there. The land would fetch a much higher price for him if it were zoned to higher density and commercial use.

And we ended the council meeting with a concept plan review for a high-density project on less than 4 acres zoned R-2. Staff claimed that CZ would be an option for developing this property, even though council has not yet approved CZ, and R-2 is not among the allowable zones anyhow.

Already staff and council seem to have different ideas of where and how this proposed zoning could be used and what type of growth it would encourage. Because approving CZ amounts to a policy change — essentially enabling town-wide spot-zoning — we need to take the time to get this right.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. “Because approving CZ amounts to a policy change — essentially enabling town-wide spot-zoning — we need to take the time to get this right.”

    Given Chapel Hill’s disastrous application of form-based code and development agreements, what is the compelling argument for another “wild-west” land-use change?

    Nancy, the Council can’t continue to cede its responsibility to make thoughtful land-use decisions to a behind closed-door, staff driven process. The best option is to drop CZ completely as a proposed tool.

  2. Oh, if Council needs a push to drop CZ, I suggest they take a little “class trip” to Morrisville and see the ugly outcome of “wild west” planning.

  3. Nancy

     /  November 21, 2017

    I agree, Will. There’s a lot about this that makes me uneasy: staff seeming to have a different understanding of how to use it; the rush to ram it through before the current council leaves office; the closed-door negotiations; the lack of differentiation with a development agreement process. Given that the manager and mayor claim that nothing is in the pipeline, I’m not sure why this needs to be pushed through before some reasonable limits are put on it.

  4. plurimus

     /  November 24, 2017

    RIght, I would not hold up Morrisville as an example of what Chapel hill aspires to.

    In my way of thinking, CZ should be a tool to focus specific uses, offering more surety to neighbors and a less onerous process within CZ boundaries to developers in exchange. In other words it should reduce wild speculation in favor of a more mature vision.

  5. Nancy

     /  November 24, 2017

    Morrisville’s council approved CZ because a prior council had approved upzoning throughout town to spur growth, and CZ was a subsequent council’s way of tightening development. Also, Morrisville’s council has an “expectation” (can’t make it a requirement) that council members will not talk with a developer about a project until after it comes before the council and public in a concept plan review. Morrisville’s mayor and planning commission chair are well aware of how developers try to game the system.

  6. plurimus

     /  November 26, 2017

    My question then is do you think Morrisville is a model for Chapel Hill or do you think Morrisville’s mayor and planning commission chair found out how developers try to game the system the hard way?

  7. Nancy

     /  November 26, 2017

    They are two separate questions. Morrisville is not a model for CH, because Morrisville has the opposite problem. While Morrisville is trying to exercise some control over a town that is upzoned entirely in “general use,” CH downzoned most areas and now wants to make room for more growth. There are ways for CH to do that without giving carte blanche to developers, which is what CZ would do. Note that CHTC has turned down only one proposed development — Ayden Court condos next to Meadowmont — in the past decade.

  8. plurimus

     /  November 26, 2017

    so, no and yes?

  9. Recent Councils have been terrible measuring obvious down-sides and objectively evaluating proposals.

    For instance, the required sale of a ladder truck to underwrite completely anticipated or should have been known cost over-runs with Fire Station #2.

    Citizens came forward explaining why the cost+plus arrangement with East/West Partners was a big mistake and also questioning the rather optimistic cost projections for Fire Station #2.

    What happened?

    The same-old, same-old “only upside” story.

    Council ignored residents reasonable concerns. Staff participated in a lot of hand-waving and joined the “rah rah growth” chorus.

    And, once again, a developer wins by externalizing the cost of their risk to Chapel Hill tax payers.

    Got to say I think there is a growing number of residents who are getting more than tired underwriting the profits of developers like East/West for projects that don’t provide much – if any – community benefit.

  10. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  December 2, 2017

    In going through some of my old planning board papers a few months ago, I found a question/answer list regarding changes made to the Form Based Code as presented to Council compared to what had been shown to the PB to work on. One question asked why, when Town Council had approved a Small Area Plan for the Ephesus-Fordham zone that called for 3- to 5-story buildings, did the Form-Based-Code district call for 7-9 stories. The answer: “staff” had decided that 7-9 stories was more appropriate than what the PB had voted on. I can go look for that if you’re interested. It’s from several years ago.

  11. Nancy

     /  December 3, 2017

    Thanks, Deb. That’s yet another reason I voted against the Conditional Zoning council approved last week. Staff and council are not on the same page. We put conditions in an SUP, and staff changes them, citing their ability to make “minor changes.” In discussing Conditional Zoning, the PB recommended that all proposed development projects get the input of the Stormwater Advisory Board early on, because flooding is a major concern of properties nearby and downstream from development. But staff jettisoned the recommendation because of the mirror image of “we’ve always done it this way”: “we’ve never done that before.”

  12. David

     /  December 7, 2017

    If staff continually undermine the intent of elected officials’ policy directives, it’s a problem. Stancil has been manager for ten years and during that time has shaped the town government in his image. His upcoming retirement presents an opportunity for a major housecleaning. I hope we take advantage of it.

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