In November 2015, the Town Council decided in closed session to forego a 2005 council resolution that allowed the town the “right of first refusal” for the American Legion Post 6 property located on Legion Road. While real estate transactions are allowed to occur in closed session, the Town Council went far beyond that constraint.
During closed session, they authorized the Town Manager to sign a contract with a potential developer of this land, Woodfield Acquisitions LLC, that says when the permitting decision is made the developer will build a road through town park property emptying onto Ephesus Church Road between the ball field and tennis courts next to one of the school playgrounds. These are negotiations that should be public and held during a public hearing process. We believe these actions taken in closed session are unethical and are likely illegal as well, and they deserve public discussion and scrutiny. If illegal, the actions are a violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.
The American Legion’s letter alerting the Town of its right of first refusal was dated September 30, 2015. The election was on November 3, and then Council apparently rushed this action on November 9 in closed session – before the swearing in of the new Mayor and Council members.
The North Carolina Open Meetings Law permits closed meetings only for limited specific purposes. There is no reason that the actions taken should not have been discussed in an open public session. By choosing to meet in closed session, the previous Council circumvented an important public policy discussion about whether 600 more apartments should be considered, especially in light of the fact that Chapel Hill already has more than 5500 apartment units approved and in the development pipeline.
Brief History. Back in 2005, the owner of the property (the American Legion Post 6) was concerned that the Town might designate the property a future school site, which might have complicated the owner’s ability to sell the property in the future. In exchange for not exercising its right to designate the property a school site, the town received the right of first refusal to purchase the property if and when it was offered for sale.
The property is currently appraised at $2.4 million. At some point the property owner entered into negotiations with a Raleigh developer with the assistance of the Town’s economic development officer, Dwight Bassett. The potential developer, Woodfield Acquisitions LLC, offered the American Legion $9 million for the property *IF* the town rezones it to allow at least 400 dwelling units to be built on the site. The owner then offered it to the Town for $9 million. The Town declined to purchase it for that amount.
The developer, who does not own the property, then entered into negotiations with the Town and agreed to build a road and a trail on the property *IF* the Town permits it to build at least 600 units. See a concept map found on the last page of the September 2015 letter to Stancil. The new agreement is memorialized in this 11-20-2015 Agreement Manager Roger Stancil signed.
Any negotiations between the Town and a developer about public benefits to be provided as a condition of rezoning should be conducted out in the open as part of the open Special Use Permit process with opportunity for public input, not in private between staff and developer. There would have been specific objections made, for example, to a road being placed between the ball field and tennis courts, to one of the school playgrounds, and on town park property.
The open public process could also have begun a discussion about the best use for the town of the American Legion property if any zoning change is to be made. Possibilities would include public amenities such as parks, new retail, or permanently affordable housing for public employees. We do not need more market rate housing.
Council members who signed off on the contract should be asked to explain why they considered it appropriate to authorize staff to negotiate concessions with the developer without any public notice or input.
Learn more about the proposal and let the Town Council know what you think. The developer is marketing his concept at an upcoming meeting to persuade the Town to permit construction of 400 – 600 units on the site. A community meeting is scheduled for January 13th, 6 – 8 pm, at the American Legion, 1714 Legion Rd, and it will hosted by John R. McAdams Company, representing Woodfield Acquisitions, the potential developer.
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Documents released from closed session:
See Town web page here.