Town Resources Mismanaged

At a recent work session, the Town Manager Roger Stancil and Executive Director Mary Jane Nirdlinger said the Town lacked sufficient staff resources  to handle all the priorities the Council had identified.

This suggests that town staff resources perhaps need to be reallocated in order to achieve the goals that our elected officials have set.

Beginning in 2009, under Stancil’s leadership and with encouragement from elected officials, the Town government began to shift resources toward public relations and the external communications department.  Citizens active in the negotiations concerning the future of UNC’s Horace Williams airport property had petitioned the Town Council for more citizen engagement.  In response, the Manager hired a Communications Director and subsequently additional communications staff.

The expansion of the Town’s communications staff, however, has not led to more meaningful citizen engagement in town planning processes. For example, in the Ephesus-Fordham and Obey Creek planning processes, communication too often took the form of mere promotion or public relations, with staff resources used not to elicit citizen input but, rather, simply to inform the public about the town’s plans and portray them in a positive light.  This trend toward devoting staff resources to creation of newsletters, reports, and posts to online media such as Facebook,and Twitter has continued and expanded in recent years.

During the March 21st Town Council budget work session, David Schwartz presented data showing how, between 2004-2014, the percentage of the town budget allocated to the Town Manger’s office—which includes the Communications Department — increased while the percentage allocated to core functions such as public safety, building inspections, and public works has decreased (see slide above).

Over the period in question, 2004-2014, the total General Fund budget increased from $42.7 million to $54.7 million, an increase of 28%. Over the same period, the Town Manager’s budget line, which includes the Communications and Public Affairs Dept.,  increased from $1.06 million to $2.4 million, an increase of 125%

The Town’s expanded Communications Dept. has been recognized for the high quality of its work (click here for list of most recent awards). However, at a time when we are facing multimillion-dollar annual revenue shortfalls, is this a wise way to spend our tax money?

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Chapel Hill’s Hope for Legion Park a Challenge but Not a New Idea

This article appears in the Chapel Hill News April 20
by Tammy Grubb

CHAPEL HILL
The idea of using American Legion land to build a bigger neighborhood park has been around for years, unofficially and in the town’s 2013 Comprehensive Parks Plan.

The plan suggested leasing or buying part of the land from American Legion Post 6 to expand Ephesus Park, a 10-acre town-owned tract on Ephesus Church Road that backs up to the post, into a community park.

Neighbors have long viewed the 36 acres at 1714 Legion Road as a local resource, walking its trails, exploring the creek and letting their children use it as a safe route to Ephesus Elementary School.

Woodfield Investment’s $10 million bid for the land and plans for an office building and up to 600 apartments has some residents asking the Town Council to step in. The previous council had first crack at buying the land, but passed on it in November, saying there wasn’t money.

But the new council, at a March meeting, explored the possibilities. Only 20 acres can be developed, a consultant said, because a stream and floodplains cross the property.

The town could use $8 million in parks and recreation bonds approved last fall, council members said. Planning for how to use that money is in the very early stages, Parks and Recreation director Jim Orr said.

The parks plan calls Ephesus one of two parks with “the greatest need for major renovation and expansion.” It calls for creating a master study of the needs and lists more than $900,000 in critical improvements, including new tennis courts, restrooms, a park shelter and baseball field. There’s no money available yet for that work.

The Parks, Greenways and Recreation Commission also gave the town a “wish list” recently for future negotiations with Woodfield, Orr said. Among the suggestions, more parking for Ephesus Park and a dog park.

“It’s all just conjecture at this point,” he said.

Town Manager Roger Stancil said the council may have considered the parks plan in negotiating trails to Ephesus Park last year as part of Woodfield’s potential redevelopment.

“The idea was if the developer built trails and if they connected (to) Ephesus Park, it’s kind of like extending the town’s recreation area without the town spending any money to do that,” he said.

He wants to talk with the council again before June, Stancil said, but is waiting for the developer’s concept plan.

“The message was clear from the council, I think pretty unanimously, that anything that was 600 residential units was not going to get much favorable response,” he said. “If I were a developer, I’d rather try to put something together that might fly.”

Woodfield developer Scott Underwood said in an email last week they are continuing work “to find an equitable path to move forward.”

“We will not be submitting a formal application in April as we continue to work through our plan,” he said. “Woodfield is committed to working with the town and the community to develop a fantastic project.”

Any project submitted would require rezoning the land and face multiple hearings.

A vote against rezoning would stop the plan, but the town must give it fair hearing or it could appear as an illegal attempt to thwart the deal.

Legion officials won’t say if the town could get another shot at the land. It’s not an option they will address while under contract with Woodfield, Post Commander Bill Munsee has said.

Money, in any case, is the issue, Stancil said. The town has leveraged Town Hall to finance road construction and stormwater measures in the Ephesus-Fordham district and other projects and is taking on $40.3 million in bond debt over the next decade for parks, greenways, streets, sidewalks, solid waste and stormwater improvements.

There’s also a pressing need to replace aging fire departments and the Chapel Hill Police Department.

Using bond money to buy the land won’t leave enough to build facilities, Stancil said. No one has asked the town about a public-private partnership, meanwhile, and they need more details before asking the county for help.

Using bond money also delays priorities that residents and the town’s advisory boards spent years debating.

“It’s kind of similar to what you hear from the schools,” Stancil said. “We really need to invest our money in fixing up what we have rather than expanding that.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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Request to Review Sale of Town Assets

This Petition was presented to the Mayor and Town Council on April 11, 2016
From: Del Snow and CHALT co signers listed below.

Town Sale of Assets

We petition the Council to review your policy of selling Town assets and to conduct a public hearing so you can hear from community members. The sale of assets can adversely affect residents, and the current process needs to be more transparent and more open to public review.

The idea of selling off Town assets gathered force at an October 17, 2012 council work session when some Council Members “suggested that staff seek the assistance of local real estate professionals on thinking about the highest and best use for some of the Town’s properties based on the condition and value of existing assets, the asset needs of the Town, and the goals of Chapel Hill 2020.”

At that time, interest was focused only on the old Chapel Hill Public Library, Old Town Hall, and the Homestead Road Sport-Arts Building. At the Manager’s suggestion, the charge was later amended to include:

  • Collecting additional information on each of the three buildings above
  • Collecting information on all other Town-owned buildings and land
  • A staff assessment of which properties could be considered for immediate disposal and those that have certain restrictions, which will be identified, that could potentially complicate immediate disposal
  • Collecting information on condition of existing space and future space needs for the Police Department and Parks and Recreation Department
  • Collecting information on the condition of the Town’s fire stations
  • Exploring other space needs for the future

The Manager convened and sought advice from a group of local real estate professionals (some suggested by individual Town Council members). The final report was created by the Real Property Asset Review Group Participants group,
made up of seven commercial real estate property representatives plus Robert Dowling of the Community Home Trust.

However, no advisory board members, citizens, or Town staff were part of these deliberations.

Over time, the Manager and Council’s original focus has grown to include Fire Stations 3 & 4 and Parks and the Recreation building on Plant Road. The Manager and staff reported periodically to the council in information reports.
It is time for the council to evaluate the concept of selling town assets, to review its purpose, and to address citizen concerns about whether these decisions are transparent and fiscally wise.

We ask the Mayor and Town Council to schedule a public forum to revisit the policy to sell town assets before the discussion begins of the most recent proposal from SECU for the Weaver Dairy Road Fired Station property. The long term consequences of selling off Town-owned land at bargain prices neglects to consider that we will need land for public purposes in the future and the Town will not be able to afford the market rate land at that time.
As it stands now, the SECU current proposal proposes revenue of $1.4 million from selling the fire station and costs of $2.9 million plus land purchase for a new fire station. Additional costs will be incurred towards the construction of a
regional training center. It appears on the basis of the information provided that there is no fiscal benefit from this transaction.

We would like to include the current policy of winding down Chapel Hill cemetery operations to the public forum.

We value and respect the interest of the SECU in expanding their presence in Northern Chapel Hill and hope that the conversation with them can continue at a later date, but it is imperative that the Town first establish its priorities and hear from the public on this important public policy approach.

Petition Signers: Del Snow, Eunice Brock, Lottie Chorman, Shauna Farmer,
Joey Ware-Furlow, Jeff Furlow, Joan Guilkey, Suzanne Haff, Tom Henkel, Bruce Henschel, Fred Lampe, Ann Jamison Loftin, Rudy Juliano, Scott Madry, Barry Malawski, Julie McClintock, Martha Petty, Phyllis Pomerantz, John Quinterno, Alan Snavely, Mark Weisburd, and Neva Whybark

Letter to Town Council, Amey Miller

Letter to Town Council, James Merkel

4.18 Update  Del Snow statement to Town Council

Council Weighs Options, Chapel Hill News

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Let’s Get Electric Buses for Chapel Hill

At the Monday April 11th Town Council meeting, the Town staff is asking the council to approve and authorize a contract with Gillig to purchase of up to 53 new Gillig diesel buses.

Here is what has happened so far:

  1.  At the Feb 10, 2016 Transportation and Connectivity Board meeting, the Transit Department Director presented the department plan to replace up to half of 42 “old” buses with new diesel buses.
  2.  At the March 7, 2016 council meeting, a petition signed by 18 Town Citizens asking Council to request staff to analyze the life-cycle cost of using electric buses instead of diesel buses was presented. As of March 15th, this petition was assigned to the Transit Department for response. No response to citizens or status update has occurred to date.
  3.  The agenda for the April 11, 2016 council meeting lists item 11 as a request from the Transit Department Director for Council to authorize the Town Manager to “Execute a Contract with Gillig to Purchase (up to 53) New Buses.

We ask these questions of the Town Council and staff:

  1.  According to the Citizens Petition, other cities have tested electric buses and begun ordering electric buses to replace their entire fleets. How do we here in Chapel Hill get the process started to get federal approval for similar electric bus procurement?
  2. The purchase authorization requested by the Transit Department of almost $25 million represents a huge investment for the Town equal to one quarter of the Town budget if made as a single payment. Should not the Town exercise due diligence, per the Citizens’ petition, before making such a large commitment of local, state (UNC) and federal funds?
  3. Given that dozens of cities around the world have already committed to replacing their diesel bus fleet with electric buses, why should Council authorize the purchase of up to 53 diesel buses instead of the much smaller quantity required to replace the dozen or so old Chapel Hill buses facing imminent failure?
  4. In an article in the March 23 issue of “The Daily Tarheel”, it is noted that “Complete Coach Works”, which has previously refurbished Chapel Hill buses, now offers to convert existing diesel buses to electric for essentially the same price as a new diesel bus. Why has the Town and its Transit Partners not considered this option?

Good questions!  We hope we get some answers Monday night.

See Tarheel article here for background on the petition.

 

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Bell Denies Donor Influence in Campaign

This full article by Katie Jansen appeared in the Durham Herald Apr 2, 2016
CHAPEL HILL — Recently filed campaign expense reports show Chapel Hill council member and mayor pro tem Donna Bell received more than $10,000 from developers associated with the real estate development sector, many of whom also donated to former mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

Bell’s year-end report shows that $10,294 in contributions came from developers or their family members. Some of the developers were local, such as Chapel Hill-based East West Partners, and some were from out of state, such as Maryland-based Caves Valley Partners.

The developer contributions represent nearly 75 percent of the total $13,743 listed on Bell’s year-end report. Bell’s year-end report closely follows several patterns found in Kleinschmidt’s year-end report: (1) A file date after the deadline of Jan. 31; (2) A large number of developer contributions that weren’t listed on the pre-election report despite being dated before Oct. 19, when the pre-election report ended; and (3) A large number of donations for $336, the maximum donation allowed from an individual.

Read full article at Durham Herald here for $1…

Katie Jansen: kjansen@heraldsun.com, 919-419-6675. She blogs about Orange County at Orange Pulp: http://bit.ly/OrangePulp

We attach a summary of Bell’s contributions from developers:

  • $3,360 from developers or family members representing Maryland-based Caves Valley Partners
  • $2,552 from developers or family members representing East West Partners, the developer of several Chapel Hill projects, including Meadowmont and the recently contested Obey Creek
  • $2,030 from developers or family members representing Trammell Crow Residential, a real estate developer working on the Alexan Chapel Hill complex on Elliott Road
  • $672 from Eller Capital Partners, a firm that owns several Chapel Hill apartment complexes
  • $336 from an employee of Resolute Building, a contractor that has been involved in several Chapel Hill projects, including East 54 5000
  • $672 from individuals representing GHK Developments, Inc., the firm behind two Walgreens locations in Chapel Hill — the one on the corner of Franklin Street and Estes Drive and the one on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Weaver Dairy Road.
  • $336 from an employee of Scott Murray Land Planning Inc., a firm that has helped with many development projects in Chapel Hill
  • $336 from an employee of Markel Eagle Partners, a real estate asset manager
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#WeAreNotThisEither

This April 3 article reprinted with permission from Nancy Oates on Chapel Hill Watch.

Years ago, Chapel Hill adopted a campaign contribution policy to encourage Nancy Oatesvoter-owned elections and make it harder for donors to “buy” elections. Individual campaign donations were limited to $336, a sharp contrast to the $5,100 limit for county commissioner, U.S. president and other partisan elections. Given the recent news about campaign finances of council member Donna Bell and former mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, it appears that developers, many of them not voters, own Chapel Hill elections.

A story in the April 3 edition of the Chapel Hill Herald looked at Bell’s end-of-year campaign finance report that was due Jan. 31 but which Bell filed March 11, and noted that of the $13,743 Bell raised in her 2015 Town Council re-election campaign, $10,294 came from developers or their family members. Many of those developer-related contributions were from out-of-state firms that had projects in Chapel Hill approved by council in the months before the election. George Cianciolo and County Commissioner Barry Jacobs took this approach, too, in their campaigns.

Campaign contributions by themselves don’t mean an elected official is bought and paid for. Political influence is rarely so crude as to ask for a favor in exchange for a donation. People and organizations donate to candidates who are most likely to represent the donors’ interests. What troubles me is that Bell did not report the contributions when they came in, instead waiting until after the election to make them public; that the out-of-state donors benefited financially from Bell’s votes; and that Bell has voted in favor of projects by some of her big donors in at least two instances since she was re-elected (East-West Partners’ The Station and Scott Murray’s Stancill Drive Car Wash).

In the Herald article, Bell stated that she raised so much money because the “dynamics of the campaign changed my tactics.” Developers from all over lent a hand, and the principle of voter-owned elections fell by the wayside.

The editor in me has nits to pick about Bell’s disbursements, too. Her financial forms leave blank a box that requires her to explain why she paid $2,000 to Mark McCurry, her campaign manager. The $1,184 paid to Gephart Marketing perhaps covers signs that appeared late in the campaign promoting a block of incumbents and Michael Parker (the cost for those signs did not appear on the financial reports of any of the other candidates). And the $6,638 to Targeted Persuasion for single-color campaign signs seems quite high. Maybe it covered her direct mail and phone bank as well, as neither was disclosed in her financial reports.

In the campaign, all of the candidates came out in favor of transparency, and Bell espoused voter-owned elections. How can the Board of Elections and our own town policies ensure we achieve our goals of transparency and integrity?
– Nancy Oates

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UNC-Chapel Hill Professors Blast LGBT Discrimination Law

News and Observer, Chapel Hill, March 29

A group of 50 faculty members from UNC-Chapel Hill issued a statement Monday opposing the state’s new law on LGBT discrimination.

The professors stressed that they weren’t speaking on behalf of the university, which has not taken a formal position on the law. The statement called on legislators to repeal the law, which was approved in response to a Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

“The recently passed House Bill 2 makes it impossible for UNC-Chapel Hill and its surrounding communities to protect valued faculty, staff, and students from discrimination simply because of who they are,” the statement said. “We are gravely concerned that House Bill 2, and the disturbing message it sends, will make it difficult for Carolina to find and retain the best faculty, staff and students.”

Among the notable names who signed the statement: UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Dean Barbara Rimer, Kenan-Flagler Business School Dean Douglas Shackelford, Department of Religious Studies Chair Randall Styers, religious studies professor Carl Ernst and former School of Law dean Jack Boger. Read more here

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Proposed Senior Residences on Estes Drive

Site Plan for Chapel Hill Senior Residences

The Chapel Hill Senior Residences is the first proposal under the Central West Small Area Plan.  Last year, Hawthorne Developers, a Vancouver Washington company specializing in senior housing, started talks with the Town staff and presented a concept plan to the Town Council. Hawthorne has completed  nine similar projects in North Carolina, and is represented in this area by Ken Griffin and Associates.  Both companies met with area neighbors in the pre-permit phase to answer questions.

What’s proposed? The  proposed Senior Residences is located on the corner of Somerset and Estes Drive, close to the corner of Estes and MLK Road, at the entrance to the Somerset – Huntington Drive neighborhood. Some neighbors like the concept of a facility for seniors, and such uses were discussed during the small area plan discussion. However, it’s not clear whether the density proposed for this location would meet the criteria in the small area plan.  The project would be a 136-unit, 3-4 story building with 90+ parking spaces  on only 6.5 acres.  Each suite will have a bedroom and sitting area, and no kitchen.

The project could cover nearly all of the wooded tract, leaving little room for existing trees. The proposed Senior Residences will abut Phillips Middle School and the school/town tennis courts and is immediately adjacent and in front of an older Chapel Hill neighborhood with large lots and tree lined streets.

The trajectory of this proposal has been difficult and confusing for citizens to follow because of the absence of an available zone for senior residences, and the project’s location in the Airport Hazard Overlay Zone. At a public hearing earlier in the year,  the Council altered the underlying density ratios which would allow such a facility to be built in the Horace Williams Airport flight path.

What happened at the March public hearing?  At the March 21, 2016 public hearing, the Town Council approved the ordinance change which will allow allow densities similar to downtown anywhere the Council approves a senior residences permit. The final amended resolution also specified that full kitchens could be included by the applicant.

During the discussion, Council members Jessica Anderson and Nancy Oates explained to their colleagues that the Hawthorne proposed project was not an apartment complex, but a facility geared toward seniors who have given up driving and cooking full meals.

Council member Nancy Oates opposed the ordinance change explaining that she did not want a developer to be able to use this senior living zoning for regular apartments that would be geared toward seniors who still drive and would be inviting their (driving) friends over for visits. She was concerned that that this new zoning will be used to allow extra-dense apartment complexes that will bring with it extra problems, such as increased traffic and unneeded luxury apartments.

Council member Jessica Anderson also opposed the ordinance change because it does not represent a shared vision for the town nor address potential unintended consequences. “I don’t believe we should create zones that don’t send signals to developers, neighbors, and the community at large about what we want to see and this zone was passed in order to afford flexibility for whatever projects might come before us. I’ve advocated for a comprehensive plan to address issues relating to elder care and aging in Chapel Hill instead of waiting to see what projects come along in the future, which may or may not address our needs and desires as a community.”

The ordinance change created a new use  – that of senior residences. It’s possible that other council members didn’t understand the need for a very narrowly defined zoning because these views did not carry the day. Council member Michael Parker preferred a less restrictive definition of kitchen types, so as to provide more flexibility for future projects he said.

What’s next? When the Town Council adopted the Central West Small Area Plan, they made it clear that all projects within the planning area would be required to go through the special use process. Hawthorne has not yet applied for a permit.  When they do, staff will review the specific Senior Residence proposal, work with the developer to refine the proposal, and prepare a special use permit for Council consideration. Then all interested citizens can study and comment on the plans. Citizens have expressed these concerns:

  • Provide buffers and transitions to neighborhoods
  • Appearance and setbacks along Estes Drive
  • Meet on-site stormwater challenges
  • Address traffic and turning movements safely on Somerset and Estes Drives, and pedestrian and vehicular safety near Phillips Middle School (located just next door)
Site Plan for Chapel Hill Senior Residences

Site Plan for Chapel Hill Senior Residences

Cary Senior Residences, Hawthorne

Greensboro Senior Residences

Raleigh Senior Residences, Hawthorne

Raleigh Senior Residences

Recent news articles:

Council Changes Land Use Rules, Chapel Hill News, Mar 22
Developer Floats Idea of Senior Residences, Chapel Hill News, Mar 24

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Chapel Hill Revisits American Legion Land Use

Durham Herald
by Katie Jansen, March 18
CHAPEL HILL — The Chapel Hill Town Council took a step back at a work session this week to discuss possible uses for the American Legion property in the town.

Some residents expressed anger about an agreement reached in closed session between the former council and potential developer Woodfield Investments, which passed up the town’s right to buy the 36-acre property from the American Legion and opened the door for a proposal to build up to 600 apartments on the property.

Mayor Pam Hemminger said the work session was being held to take a look at the situation differently and to gauge interest from the council in pursuing other options.

“There’s going to be some major development…that will add more people and businesses to this side of town,” Hemminger said, adding that the town already has 6,500 approved residential units in the pipeline.

Hemminger said she wanted to hear thoughts on what the town could need before deciding to forgo trying to purchase the land. Read entire article here for $1.

Other articles of interest.

Chapel Hill Weighs Future of American Legion Post, Chapel Hill News, Mar 17

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Developers Funded Bulk of Kleinschmidt Campaign

kleinschmitThe Herald-Sun | Alex Dixon
Chapel Hill incumbent Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt (left) checks return results at his elections results party. Kleinschmidt lost the Nov. 3 race to new mayoral candidate Pam Hemminger. The Herald-Sun | Alex M. Dixon

by Katie Jansen, March 16, Durham Herald

CHAPEL HILL — Recently filed campaign finance reports show that during his 2015 campaign, former Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt accepted more than $10,000 in donations from individuals associated with the real estate development sector (details listed below).

The $10,584 in donations was detailed in Kleinschmidt’s year-end report filed Feb. 22 — nearly a month after the Jan. 31 deadline. It listed contributions ranging between $150 and $336 from employees of Chapel Hill-based developers such as East West Partners and Eller Capital Partners, and from out-of-state developers like Trammell Crow Residential and Caves Valley Partners.

Many of these donations were dated during September or early October 2015, while others aren’t dated at all. But none of the donations were mentioned in the pre-election campaign finance report, which was intended to include any donations received before Oct. 19. Read full article at Durham Herald here for $1…

Our summary:  Over 70% of Kleinschmidt’s total contributions (over $50.) totaling $10,584 came from developers or developers’ family members on the year-end report. The list of contributions by company follows:

  • $672 from individuals who work at GHK Developments, Inc., the firm behind two Walgreens locations in Chapel Hill — the one on the corner of Franklin Street and Estes Drive and the one on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Weaver Dairy Road.
  • $1,830 from individuals — or their spouses or other family members — employed by Trammell Crow Residential, a real estate developer working on Alexan Chapel Hill, a 265-apartment complex located on Elliott Road that is slated to be completed this December.
  • $2,352 from individuals — or their spouses or other family members — representing East West Partners, the Chapel Hill-based developer behind several projects in town, including the highly contested Obey Creek, which was approved by the council last year.
  • $3,360 from individuals — or their spouses or other family members — who work for real estate developer Caves Valley Partners.
  • $912 from individuals who work at Eller Capital Partners, the firm that controls several Chapel Hill apartment complexes.
  • $336 from an individual who works at Scott Murray Land Planning Inc., a firm that has helped with many development projects in Chapel Hill.
  • $336 from an individual who works at Markel Eagle Partners, a real estate asset manager.
  • $536 from individuals representing Resolute Building, a contractor that has been involved in several Chapel Hill projects, including East 54 5000.
  • $250 from an individual representing Ballentine Associates, a land planning and land surveying firm that was involved in Southern Village and Meadowmont.
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