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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