“In Chapel Hill’s Ephesus-Fordham District, No Tools to Fight Bad Developments”

Excerpts from David Hudnalls article in Sept 23 Indy.
Read full article here.
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 Two years ago, the part of Chapel Hill where Eastgate Crossing and Village Plaza and Ram’s Plaza collide (home to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Food Lion, and dozens of restaurants and shops) was cobbled together into a designated zoning district called Ephesus-Fordham and singled out for an experimental—to Chapel Hill—approach to development known as form-based code.

The hope was that this new approach would streamline what had long been an excruciating review process for new projects in Chapel Hill. Today, Chapel Hill is so chockablock with hulking new apartment developments (with somewhere in the neighborhood of six thousand new apartment units already on the way), it’s hard to believe that, not so long ago, it was an incredibly grueling place for developers to do business. Elected officials and townspeople routinely spiked new projects deemed not in keeping with the town’s character.

That changed in the mid-2000s, when Chapel Hill leaders began to covet the shiny urban projects being erected from scratch, or reinvigorated via adaptive reuse, in Durham and Raleigh. Soon, high-rise projects like 140 West Franklin, East 54, and Greenbridge began to shoot into the sky. With development-friendly Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, first elected in 2007, and a willing council, Chapel Hill was suddenly a hot market for developers…..

In other words, once the code is in place, developers are basically free to do as they please in the district, provided they check all the boxes set in the code. No more marathon public meetings. No more council votes. The town’s planning staff deals with everything, and it has seventy-five days to either give a project a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.The thinking, a few years ago, was that if form-based code worked well in Ephesus-Fordham, it might work well in other districts.

You don’t hear that so much these days, though. Mostly, the talk is of how to change the code to keep the wrong kinds of developments from invading Ephesus-Fordham.

“We want a better outcome,” says Mayor Pam Hemminger.

The problem with form-based code, as it exists in Ephesus-Fordham, is that the specifics of the code weren’t faithful to community input. The code has no real teeth, and, as such, has thus far failed to deliver the streetscape and walkable environment everybody, including the town council, sought at the outset.

Since assuming office last year, Hemminger has worked with the council to refine the code in Ephesus-Fordham. She has hired an urban designer from Durham, Tony Sease, to improve the plan for the district.

This approach—hire consultants with an eye on improving the code, seek incremental progress on updating the code based on those recommendations, and pray like hell that nobody submits another monster market-rate apartment complex in Ephesus-Fordham in the meantime—is pragmatic, but also risky. Chapel Hill has a very real need for new commercial developments.

“Our tax base is eighty-four percent residential, with six thousand more residential units on the way,” Hemminger says. “We need to be closer to sixty-forty residential. We need a better balance.”

Short of eliminating form-based code in Ephesus-Fordham, though, there’s no way to ensure Ephesus-Fordham won’t get more projects like the ninety-foot-high, soon-to-open luxury apartments of the Alexan, the first project approved in the district. Or the apartments that have been submitted for the former Volvo dealership between Legion Road and the Fordham Boulevard service road.

Adding to concern is the news that South Village Plaza was sold over the summer, for $18 million, to Ram Realty, developer of the luxury condos at 140 West Franklin. The News & Observer reported last week that “an application is possible early next year [on South Village Plaza] that would include a new retail building, parking lot and storefront improvements.”

“I think we’re good for now on market-rate apartments,” says council member Jessica Anderson. “One thing that we talked about in our last meeting is ways to encourage or incentivize business in that district. I think we need to beef up the code to be more explicit that what we want to see there is commercial and office, and not just more apartments.”

Council member Michael Parker, who says he’s “neither convinced nor unconvinced” that there are too many apartment units coming into Chapel Hill, says he’s more concerned about new changes creating a “more urban and walkable and bike-able and generally less auto-reliant environment” in Ephesus-Fordham….And I think that’s what you’re seeing now. And I’m hopeful that in six months we’ll have addressed some of these concerns and shortcomings and made Ephesus-Fordham into a better district.”

Hemminger says she doesn’t expect form-based code will be attempted anywhere else in Chapel Hill. But she also says the plan is to stick with it in Ephesus-Fordham.

“We’re making revisions, we’re building momentum there,” she says. “We’ve made huge changes to inspections and permitting to make the process more predictable for developers. It’s an area we want developed. We don’t want to scare off developers. We’re trying to move to being a place with a good reputation to come build—where if you have a good, creative idea, we’ll work with you.”

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Council Considers New American Legion Plan

From September 20, Chapel Hill News

An American Legion official offered the town 30 days to buy 1714 Legion Road for $9 million Monday while advocating for a developer’s concept plan for the land.

A previous Town Council passed on buying the land in November. Post 6 Commander Bill Munsee urged the current council to “look through the smokescreens cultivated by a few activists” opposed to the Woodfield Investments proposal.

“We want the residents of the town of Chapel Hill to feel like the sale of the property has been an open process,” he said. “With the concurrence of Woodfield Investments, I’d like to once again offer our property to the town for $9 million.”

No formal application has been filed. The council offered feedback on a concept plan revised to reduce the number of apartments and increase office space.

Woodfield’s newest plan includes 300 to 400 apartments in two four-story buildings, flanked by a 50,000 to 100,000 square foot office building fronting Legion Road. A 50,000 square foot office or civic building is shown at the back of the site, adjacent to the town’s 10-acre Ephesus Park.

The plan also includes a road through the site and the park linking Legion Road to Ephesus Church Road. Only about 22.5 acres of the 35-acre site are developable because of a stream, conservation land and required buffers. Woodfield has proposed a stormwater pond, open space and trails for the rest.

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Council will Consider Concept Plan for American Legion Property

At a public hearing Monday night, September 19, the Town Council will consider a concept plan for the American Legion property. See council agenda.  On behalf of C.H.A.L.T. ,  Joan Guilkey, will present this petition to the Town Council.

Petition to: Mayor and Chapel Hill Town Council
Date:           September 1, 2016
Subject:     Just Say No to Any Apartments on the American Legion      Property

Woodfield’s plan—and any plan that includes apartment construction—is not appropriate for this particular tract of land. There are several reasons, including:

1—The Town’s Comprehensive Plan (CH 2020, adopted in 2012) and the Parks and Recreation Master Plan of 2013 specifically stated that this land, when available, should be considered for a community park. The Parks and Recreation Master Plan stated that Ephesus Park needed to be improved and expanded, and estimated that about $5 million would be needed to buy the land and make improvements.

2—The Woodfield plan does not expand Ephesus Park. In fact, it reduces the size of the Park in order to build a new road that intersects with Ephesus Church Rd. A second entrance/exit road is required for 400 apartments to be built (and a re-zoning of the property from R-2 is necessary). The road would have to be maintained by the Town, but is of little or no value to the Town and severs the walkable connection now in place between the Colony Woods neighborhood, Ephesus Park, and the elementary school, creating a danger to pedestrians.

3—The retention ponds proposed by Woodfield will require removal of many trees, some in the conservation district. Part of this woodland contains the last large stand of undisturbed hardwoods and shortleaf pine in Town. This pine is natural to uplands, and becoming scarce. Other uses of this land could preserve these trees.

4—Any traffic analysis limited to the immediate American Legion area that does not include the Ephesus Fordham District (E-F) or other parts of Chapel Hill which feed into Fordham Blvd. and 15-501/Franklin St. is virtually useless in terms of determining the true loads on Legion Rd. and Ephesus Church Rd. The standard traffic analysis manual used by traffic consultants would estimate that the proposed 400 American Legion apartments themselves could add 4000 more vehicle trips per day on Legion Road.  Ephesus Church Rd. is already congested near E-F. While the Town is spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to improve the Ephesus Road-Fordham intersection, we’ve seen no evidence that when the new approved Ephesus-Fordham densities are implemented, that congestion will be reduced or even stay at the current poor levels.

5—The Ephesus-Fordham (E-F) form-based code, as currently written, does not require developers to provide any publicly available green space. This makes a park even more necessary on the American Legion tract next to E-F.

6—The Council unanimously approved 6 principles related to development of the American Legion tract. The Woodfield proposal does not meet several of them. The most glaring deficiency is Woodfield’s inclusion of luxury apartments on the land, even though they have been advised that the Town is over-built in apartments. E-F already has the Alexan with 263 high-end apartments, and DHIC is building a new affordable housing development and a senior housing facility practically across the street from the American Legion property. Another developer has already proposed apartments nearby on the site of the former Honda/Volvo dealership, which, if built, will make it all the more important to provide open space on the AL tract.

7—Parking lots to serve the Woodfield apartments will greatly increase impervious surface and result in more storm water problems in an area that already has flooding on a regular basis. Addressing flooding of the tributaries flowing into Little Creek is needed to inform the prevention measures for the AL tract.

8—The Woodfield Memorandum of Understanding was created and executed in closed meetings without ANY public knowledge or input and without consideration of the existing Master Plans. While the process used to rescind the Town’s “right of first refusal” and create the MOU may be legal, it is not in keeping with the transparent government Chapel Hill is known for and desires to retain.

Respectfully submitted by:   Joan Guilkey for Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town and 110 signatories of the petition.

http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/article97591137.html

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What’s Happening at Elliott Road?

September Update

Alexan Apartments was the first project permitted under the new fast track approval process, i.e., form-based code, that the Town adopted in May, 2014.  As the project nears completion, let’s assess how well the Ephesus-Fordham (E-F)  redevelopment plan is measuring up to expectations.  Originally billed as “mixed-use” the zone is fast becoming apartments (7 story) that crowd the 2 lane Elliott Road marketed to students.

Alexan ApartmentsNew projects in E-F are not creating a walkable, pedestrian friendly experience.  Since the Alexan provides no pedestrian pass-through, the route from businesses on the east side of the building to those on the west side—e.g., from Thimble Pleasures to Whole Foods—is a long, unpleasant experience, especially on a hot summer day. The block size of this structure is about 400 feet – too large for good pedestrian mobility. Curbs with narrow sidewalks along the street front of Elliott Road crowd pedestrian travel and the enjoyment of a pleasant walk.

Willow Oaks along ElliottTree canopy replaced by concrete and glass. Beautiful mature willow oaks, such as these on the south side of Elliott Road, were cut down on t he north side of the road to make way for the more “urban” streetscape of the Alexan building. The form-based code (FBC) encourages loss of tree cover during redevelopment by permitting construction right up to the property line. How will redevelopment in E-F deliver the tree-lined pedestrian streetscape that residents want if the FBC does not require building setbacks to make that possible?

greenwayA missed opportunity to enhance the Booker Creek greenway.  A replacement greenway pictured here skirts Booker Creek, located just to the left. On the right side of the greenway path will be a new connecting road and the garage and garbage bays of the 90-foot tall Alexan apartments. Those additions will turn what was once a pleasant walk through natural surroundings into an uninspired sidewalk route surrounded by pavement. Booker Creek and the adjacent wooded landscape would have provided a perfect backdrop for a park and an enjoyable public space.

Major problems yet to be tackled. These are just a few of the changes we’ve observed on the ground since the Town Council approved the FBC and applied it to the nearly 200 acre E-F district.  The pictures illustrate only a few of the problems that need to be fixed in the FBC.  Other problem that need to be addressed include the lack of affordable housing requirements, lack of incentives for energy efficient construction, and building densities and heights that threaten to overwhelm our infrastructure.

Summary August 22nd Public Meeting

The public session was billed as a chance to give input to improve “walkability and open space” in the Ephesus-Fordham district, which is regulated by the FBC. We came to this meeting thinking we would be asked to offer ideas about how to integrate green space, mini parks, sidewalks and connections in the FBC, but we didn’t get the chance.

Most discouraging, the meeting leaders did not acknowledge the fact that we are not at the beginning of a collaborative process, but are instead trying to improve a poor, hastily-adopted code that is already in place.  New projects could be submitted any day and the Town Manager would need to approve them if they satisfy the minimal criteria of the deficient existing FBC.

We learned that the Town intends to attack the problems in the FBC by hiring four consultants:

TOPIC                       CONTRACTOR                  SCHEDULE

Urban Design                Tony Sease                          fall

Mobility Study              Stewart Consulting            fall

Design Guidelines       Winter Consulting              fall

Affordable housing      David Paul Rosen Assoc   ???

Here is the schedule the town will use to bring the final text recommendations to public hearing.

We see at least three barriers to success for improving the FBC.

  • The fragmentation of property ownership in the district restricts opportunities for green space and large scale storm water planning
  • Need for parking coordination across parcels: If every property owner provides exclusive on-site parking, this will cause additional auto congestion and undermine “walkability”
  • Increased heioght and density, currently allowed “by right,” must be made contingent on provision of affordable housing, energy efficiency and other community benefits.

Central Questions

Will the Council adopt any of the significant changes suggested by the participants, e.g. lower building height (50 ft vs 90 ft), reasonable setbacks, adequate publicly accessible green space in every development, pedestrian/bicycle connectivity (other than street-based sidewalks) between developments, energy efficient construction, stormwater controls, and incentives for affordable housing units?

What happens between now and when the FBC is “fixed?“ We worry every second of every day that yet another “Alexan” will be approved, or that The Park Apts. will submit their redevelopment application. In fact, some of us have heard that the new owner of the property adjacent to the Alexan wants to construct another building just like it!

Will the minor fixes the Town intends make enough difference for community members feel it worthwhile to engage in this process?  Will the Town Manager and the Project Managers allow the hired experts to make an honest assessment about what needs to be done to really fix the code, so the town staff can begin to rebuild that trust with community members?

Sept 12 Staff update to Town Council

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Superintendent Search 2016

Strong Schools Make Strong Communities

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education is searching for a new superintendent. The members of the board are seeking your input in this process. Please help out by taking this survey by September 7, 2016.

Note:  No one will know who submitted a particular comment, but the results will eventually be released to the public, without any references to specific individuals. Click on link to take survey.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Community Survey.

Schools are back in session this week!  Read Katie Jantzen’s article here.

CHALT aims to sustain and enhance the qualities and institutions that make Chapel Hill a wonderful place to live, including our schools.

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A Chance to Fix Ephesus-Fordham Zoning Code

Public Meeting:
Walkability and Open Space Standards in Ephesus/Fordham Area

TODAY      Date: 08/22/2016 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Location: Chapel Hill Public Library, Meeting Room B
100 Library Drive
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514

As many have heard, more properties are changing hands in the Ephesus Fordham District.  If the Code is not fixed, the Town will be required to approve the sort of project we see now on Elliott Road in nearby areas in the district in our Town.

Please try to attend this meeting tonight at some point.   Note that you can go early at 6 pm or later at 7 and still hear a presentation.

The Town Council is asking for ideas on who to improve the Ephesus/Fordham
development rules to create open space opportunities and new and improved streets and pedestrian-bicycle path connections.

Click here for a full list of the Town’s plans for this area.  See a full list of the scheduled hearings for these improvements here.  Staff contact is John Richardson, project manager.  jrichardson@townofchapelhill.org or call 919 969-5075

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Paperhand Puppet Intervention is Back!

INCREDIBLE OPENING SHOW!

                          THE BEAUTIFUL BEAST

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 8.36.33 PMSEE US THIS WEEKEND!    Outdoor Forest Theatre, UNC Campus
7 pm, FRI AUG 12, SAT AUG 13 & SUN AUG 14.  Tickets at door, suggested contribution for adult is $15.  All ages welcome                  Photo by Lee Capps

  • Fri Aug 19: 7pm with a 6:20 Pre-show with The Bucket Brothers
  • Sat Aug 20: 7pm with a 6:20 Pre-show with Shabutaso
  • Sun Aug 21: 3pm with a 2:20 Pre-show with Matt Brockman (Up-Close magic) & 7pm with a 6:20 Pre-show with TBA

“Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s latest show is amazing – great music, gorgeous puppets – how do they get better every year!?” – Blaise Kielar

“Awesome performance and creativity! So much imagination and love goes into these performances!” -Chrystal Kelly

“Mommy I need you to check under my bed. Are there any beautiful beasts?!” -Henry Holden age 5.

“Breathtaking beauty.” -Kathy Violette

“Amazing! Pushing the envelope yet again my friends!” -Chris Johnson

paperhand2

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A New Plan for American Legion or an Old One?

Woodfield Llc has submitted to the Town of Chapel Hill a new concept plan for the American Legion property. Many members of the public attended a Community Design Commission meeting and spoke objecting to the new plan.

Background. Woodfield, a developer,  signed a contract to purchase the 36-acre American Legion property if the Town grants approval for construction on the site of at least 400 apartments. As part of these negotiations, Town officials decided, in closed session, to forfeit the opportunity to purchase the land, thus denying the public any opportunity to have a say in this important decision.

In January the developer presented a development concept to a full house at the American Legion for 600 apartments.  The concept was opposed by neighbors and many living throughout town.  Read the Indy for a comprehensive report of the meeting and our background report here.

Mayor Hemminger asked her colleagues earlier this spring to supply their ideas about how to plan for the future of this important piece of property.  The council approved principles for the goals they would like future development to meet.

Woodfield site planWhat’s new?  This week Woodfield proposed a modified concept to build a development with a mix of uses to potentially include 400 apartments, a 50,000 sf office building and a second 50,000 sf office, civic or flex space building. In order to redevelop the site, the two existing buildings would be demolished and the pond removed and replaced with a stormwater facility that would be built to current standards. Woodfield has also agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding with the Town to build a road connection, alignment to be worked out with the Town, to Ephesus Church Road along with a trail system to enhance the current park facilities adjacent to this site. See the Town webpage.

CHALT finds that Woodfield’s slightly altered proposal to build 200 fewer apartments on the American Legion property is still not a good fit for the town’s needs nor does it meet the principles outlined by the Council.  Specifically it does not meet the principle of serving a variety of housing needs nor protecting the quality of life of surrounding neighborhoods.  Roads in the area are already over capacity and Chapel Hill transit is financially unable to increase service routes.

Most important, Chapel Hill has a more than adequate supply of new market rate housing units—over 6,000 at last count—already approved or in the development pipeline.

Conversely, Chapel Hill has a shortage of public park land and recreational facilities, particularly in the part of town where the American Legion property is located.  We feel confident that the Town government, the land owners and third party developers together will be able to craft a plan for the property that better meets both the financial needs of the American Legion membership and the Town’s need for expanded parkland and recreation opportunities.

Before that can happen, however, the Town Council needs to communicate clearly to Woodfield during the concept plan review process that proposals to build apartments on the American Legion property are not likely to be approved.

The town’s Parks, Greenways and Recreation Commission has unanimously recommended that the town acquire some or all of the American Legion property to expand Ephesus Park. The action taken by the previous Council in closed session removed the opportunity to include a town park in the recent bond issue. But a future plan could provide for a much needed park.

The proposed site plan shows that much of the site will be transformed into paved parking lots and stormwater retention ponds. Far from expanding the amount of public parkland in the vicinity, the plan envisions reducing the amount of parkland because a paved road would be built through the existing 10-acre Ephesus Park.

The concept plan put a new road on the town-owned park land for the convenience of the developer which would greatly inconvenience the neighborhoods adjacent to the school by cutting off walking routes to the school and dumping even more congestion onto Ephesus Church Rd. The plan changes
the location of the retention pond which would require cutting down large sections of forest.

Related articles, documents

August 14 Chapel Hill News article
American Legion Process, 
Michael Parker
Residents Pan Legion Road Apartments, Chapel Hill News, August 23 public hearing, CDC
Concept Plan Application
Developer’s Proposal
Closed nature of meeting draws concern, Durham Herald
Ken Larsen’s website, American Legion

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Town off to Slow Start on Connectivity and Mobility Project

Post by Joan Guilkey                         Take the Survey

About three weeks ago, Staff announced a Town-wide project to improve our ability to walk, bike and ride a bus to travel all over Chapel Hill. The Town’s objectives are to reduce vehicle traffic by enhancing safety for pedestrians. Stewart Inc., a consultant with offices in Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh, has been retained to conduct the project under the leadership of David Bonk, the town’s Transportation Planning Manager.

zebra_crossing_630pxAs a first step in the study, one or two members of each Town advisory board was asked to provide input about where each person currently travels and by what method. These participants were named to a project Steering Committee, but it remains unclear what exactly will be expected of this Committee. Each person completed a survey and the information was mapped. About a week later, all Chapel Hill residents were encouraged to do the same at two sessions in the public library.

Several who attended these public meetings left feeling very frustrated because the consultants did not adequately explain the process they will use. Surely, town staff does not believe that a few small and poorly-publicized sessions where citizens write on maps and complete a survey are sufficient to provide the information needed to get the necessary input do this project well.

The maps the consultant provided were disjointed, and hard to use and did little to clarify our transportation and connectivity needs.  For example, participants eager to be helpful spent wasted time putting dots on maps located far apart from each other.  It would have been helpful to show all bus routes on the maps, and maybe even proposed rail stops.

While we are fully supportive of the need for this mobility study, we are concerned about the validity of the results of the first phase of the study if good input is not received.  There does not seem to be a systematic plan to reach out to hundreds, if not thousands, of walkers, bikers, and bus riders needed if Stewart is to obtain enough detailed information to determine Town connectivity priorities.

Stewart says they will utilize the town’s Greenways Master Plan and the Bicycle Plan, bus routes and projected light rail, but they were unaware of the Bus Rapid Transit Study now underway.  Our own staff is far more knowledgeable about the pedestrian and connectivity needs, but Stewart was hired we are told because their workload is too heavy to get to the job done in a timely manner.

For this reason, it is critically important that citizens provide lots of trip information so there can be no doubts as to the most used and most needed pedestrian routes.  We encourage everyone to take the survey.  This data collection effort will continue throughout the summer. www.surveymonkey.com/r/chmobility.

In addition to taking the survey, you could consider writing the consultant representative Randi Gates, at rgates@stewartinc.com or David Bonk, dbonk@townofchapelhill.org, the project director stating where you wish to travel safely by bike, bus or walking.

Be sure to say where your trips typically begin, each route you take now, and where each trip ends. The most used and desired routes and destinations will take top priority when the analysis of data starts. List each route you currently take and indicate where you see problem spots. Also list routes you would take if you could do so safely. Ask your friends to do the same. Thank you for helping make our needs known.

If you have questions, call or email David Bonk at 919-969-5064, dbonk@townofchapelhill.org

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On Transparency

Post by Rachel Conerly

transparencyCHALT grew out of residents’ frustration with elected officials who repeatedly made land use decisions that were at odds with the desires of local citizens and that were detrimental to Chapel Hill’s future. CHALT seeks a future for Chapel Hill that is fiscally sound, maintains diversity, protects our environment, and is respectful of Chapel Hill’s distinctive character.

Of particular concern is the lack of transparency that allowed flawed decision-making to take hold and persist despite citizen efforts.  Out of state consultants with scant knowledge of the Town were chosen over highly qualified local talent. Instructions given to the writer of our form-based code were never made public. Small area plans are routinely ignored with no justification. Decisions to sell Town assets are made out of the public eye. Out-of-state investors and developers, who profit handsomely from town government decisions, make political contributions that are not reported until after the election. And the list goes on.

A course correction is in order. CHALT believes that the work of our town council and local government should be aligned with the needs and wishes of the citizens who live here, and that the creation of a more transparent, representative approach to governing our town can help better align the desires of citizens with the work of town government. Chapel Hill elected officials and public servants are susceptible to the same conflicts of interest affecting governance at the state and national level. Greater transparency can help improve the behavior of elected officials and enhance confidence and trust in our local leaders.

Rachel Conerly
www.thecos.org
rachel@thecos.org

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