It’s Time to Stop, Look and Listen on Light Rail Project

dolrrouteMap of proposed light rail project that serves only a tiny corner of Orange County. The developable  land served by the light rail line is almost all in Durham County. Light Rail will steer investment away from Orange County, hurting our tax base and employment opportunities.

It’s time to stop, look and listen because Orange County’s bill for the light rail project connecting Duke with UNC hospitals has just doubled — resulting in increased property taxes — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our County budget will be on the hook for cost overruns into the future putting our schools and social services at risk.

♦  On Monday, December 5th the Orange County Commissioners will meet in the Richard Whitted Building in Hillsborough to discuss the GoTriangle funding request.  If you wish to ask the Commissioners to delay any commitment to additional funding for this project until a proper cost benefit evaluation, scroll to the bottom of this article to sign the petition. ♦

GoTriangle has finally recognized that this regional transit authority will need more funding and that it’s not coming from the state of North Carolina. GoTriangle is asking Durham and Orange counties to makde up the difference!  For a start they are asking the Orange County Board of County Commissioners for an additional $40 million in funding, raising the local contribution from 25% to 40% of the overall project cost.

All this assumes that the state legislature grants full funding of 10% and that the project, which is only 30% engineered, will come in on budget- it’s aready gone up and they have not even started the design work.

In addition, GoTriangle has requested that an additional $20 million be diverted from sidewalk/greenway projects to the Light Rail project.

GoTriangle representatives explained that the increase in funding is intended to cover a $250 million funding gap created by a decrease in state contributions from 25% to “up to 10%”, as well as interest costs associated with a mismatch between the timing of funds from the Federal Transportation Authority and construction.

Unfortunately, missing from GoTriangle’s presentation was information about a number of other important financial factors which will, very likely, mean that the project cost (and Orange County’s share) will rise even further. These include:

  • Rising interest rates
  • Rising constriction labor costs
  • Uncertainties about federal contributions
  • Lower sales tax revenues than expected
  • Possibility of less than 10% state contribution
  • Amount of cost overruns the county must absorb

Note: Assuming the revised budget is $1.87B, then there is already an increase of $520M (+38%) over the earlier 2012 estimate of $1.35B … and they haven’t even finished designing the project!

See article by Tammy Grubb in Chapel Hill News, Orange, Durham asked to spend $175 milllion more for light transit and Commentary by Orange County Chairman Earl McKee,

Everyone wants better transit, and Orange County voters approved a local tax in 2015 for improved transit.  But the money raised is going overwhelmingly to funding light rail studies, while shortchanging investment in the practical public transportation that we need here in Orange County.

Why should County elected officials reevaluate the light rail project now?  The cost of the project may have exceeded any perceived benefit and would reduce funding for important Orange County priorities:

  1. A viable Chapel Hill transit system which better serves Chapel Hill and which can be expanded into rural areas where UNC workers live;
  2. Future funding for Bus Rapid Transit, sidewalks, and bikeways;
  3. Maintaining excellence in our public schools which have been hit hard by state cutbacks; and
  4. Moderating tax increases to keep living in Orange County affordable.

The County Commission have not said where they would find the funds for the additional funding for light rail, but most likely it would come from new property taxes –  estimated to rise by 10 cents if the carrying costs of the bonds just passed are factored in.

When we raise taxes we make it more and more difficult to make living in Orange County affordable. Taking on this heavy light rail commitment for the next ten years would squeeze our public school budgets just when the state has cut funding for public schools,  forcing our county to make up the difference with property tax revenue.

Before the Commissioners commit to any more County money they must:

  • Understand how the additional commitments would impact future Orange County school budgets and other priorities for housing, affordability and transportation.
  • Do an evaluation by an independent auditor of the figures GoTriangle presents, as well as the benefits and costs of the light rail project in the light of the cost increases.

♦    Sign the petition asking the County Commissioners to hit the “pause button”

You can send an individual emails to the Board members to reinforce concern and/or opposition to county dollars being spent on the Light Rail project here:

You can see all letters in the Commissioner public record here.


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Downtown Chapel Hill Needs Good Design

Ned Crankshaw Event

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Chapel Hill Celebrates Arbor Day – Are We Still a Tree City?


Chapel Hill Celebrates Arbor Day on Nov. 18

Despite a thoughtful tree ordinance, the practical impact of recent town decisions has brought down many of our trees.  Now when former residents return they notice higher buildings and fewer trees.  Is the Town loosing the most iconic signature image that has made our Town remembered as a nice place to be?

Here is the Town’s Press Announcement      Post Date:11/07/2016 11:29 AM

“The Town of Chapel Hill’s annual Arbor Day celebration will be held at 10:15 a.m. Friday, Nov. 18, at Southern Community Park, 100 Sumac Road.

Sarada Dudley Brown and Shelby White’s second grade class from Scroggs Elementary School will participate and help plant an ‘Happidaze’ Fruitless Sweetgum.

Mayor Pam Hemminger will read the Arbor Day Proclamation and accept the 2015 Tree City USA Award from a the County Assistant Forest Ranger of the North Carolina Forest Service’s Orange County Office. 2015 was Chapel Hill’s 17th consecutive year as a Tree City.

To be named a Tree City, a town or city must meet four core standards set by the National Arbor Day Foundation: maintaining a tree board or department, having a community tree ordinance, spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry and celebrating Arbor Day….

Arbor Day was set by the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2000 as the first Friday after Nov. 15. Each year the Town celebrates trees at its Arbor Day ceremony by planting one or more trees at a Town-owned facility such as a park or entryway. Last year a Red Maple tree was planted next to the Town’s Housing Department offices where Tanyard Branch Trail crosses Caldwell Street.

Chapel Hill contains a diversity and abundance of trees. Its residents have had a long love affair with trees dating back to 1889, when cutting down a tree in town was punishable as a misdemeanor and carried a $20 fine.”

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What’s Your Vision for Chapel Hill?


People have often expressed criticism of the new style of development in Chapel Hill and the questions often asked are: “Why is Chapel Hill approving such huge monolithic buildings?”and “Why aren’t we building new projects that fit into the college character we love about Chapel Hill?”

At Festifall, we conducted an informal visual preference survey. We presented two images, the first a rendering of what the adopted form-based code is actually producing in Ephesus-Fordham, namely the 90-ft Alexan apartment building on Elliott Road.  The second image is a streetscape rendering from the Ephesus-Fordham small area plan that shows what the district might look like after redevelopment.

We asked viewers to place a sticker next to the image that better matched their vision of the kind of new development they would like to see in Chapel Hill.

Image #2, featuring wide sidewalks with canopy trees and 2-3 story buildings that reveal a broad expanse of sky and abundant natural light, was overwhelmingly preferred to the much larger, fortress-like structure in image #1.

The Form Based Code District governs nearly 200 acres including Whole Foods, O2 Fitness, Eastgate and Rams Plaza.

CHALT will continue to advocate for making changes to the Code that will make our town livable.

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Town Council and County Approve $4M Subsidy for Wegmans

C.H.A.L.T. is glad to see retail coming to Chapel Hill instead of more luxury apartments. However, what caught the public by surprise at the recent public hearing was the size of the incentive package that the Town Council and Orange County Commissioners had negotiated.  The incentives proposal came to the council with just a few days of notice to the public and the terms of the deal were negotiated in closed session.

To understand more of the details and how the subsidy offer came about, view the video presentation to the County Commissioners by County Economic Development Director Steve Brantley.

The Council approved the incentives package unanimously but Council members Jess Andersen and Nancy Oates raised a number of hard questions about the $4M price tag.

John Quinterno wrote  about the economics of the move in this letter to the Editor of the Chapel Hill News.

The Durham Herald writes about this new approach to economic development in this October 30th article, Chapel Hill Changes Strategy To Retail.

 Two earlier articles in the Chapel Hill News follow.

 #1 Chapel Hill leaders sign on with county for $4M Wegmans incentive,

The Town Council voted unanimously Monday to endorse a $4 million tax incentive partnership with Orange County to land Wegmans Food Market. A concept plan is online now.  Read entire article here.

#2 Orange Co. board supports $4M incentive for Chapel Hill Wegmans, Chapel Hill News, Tammy Grubb

The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to move ahead with a $4 million incentive for Wegmans Food Market. The incentive would be paid to Wegmans using its future property and sales tax revenues, starting in the second year. The county would pay up to $800,000 a year for five years.

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Ephesus Church Road Closure Leads to Significant Detour in Chapel Hill Starting Nov. 1

eph-church-detourNorth Carolina Department of Transportation officials will be closing part of Ephesus Church Road in November to address flooding issues – but the closure is frustrating nearby residents.

The closure will be near the intersection with Tinkerbell Road, close to Ephesus Elementary School.

Town public works director Lance Norris said the plan is to “replace an existing undersized and dilapidated pipe” to address “the flooding issues that have been occurring on Ephesus Church Road”.

But the plan was announced on short notice, and that’s frustrated both residents and officials.

Mayor Pam Hemminger said the work has been delayed in an effort to establish an alternate traffic plan.

“It’s great that they want to do it, but they didn’t give us a heads up and just closed the road down,” Hemminger said. “That’s not really going to work until we know how to detour. So we’ve delayed it just for a few days while we can get some detours.”

Town officials said they did not receive any prior notice regarding the DOT’s decision. Council Member Ed Harrrison said when he raised the issue in a meeting, he was told the DOT “assumed their staff had told the town”.

Hemminger said despite the short notice and the inconvenience, the work will take place.

“We’re working with [the DOT], there will be some rerouting, but its going to be inconvenient for a lot of people until about the end of December.”

With the slight delay, construction is now expected to begin on November 1and will last until December 22, weather permitting.

Read the original article on Chapelboro here.

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The Story of Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek

In 2014, the previous Mayor and Council adopted a new zoning code that governs real estate development in the 200-acre Ephesus-Fordham district. Among the flaws in this code is the lack of any vision for creating a central community amenity that will attract people to the district and help spur commercial revitalization at the Franklin Street and 15 -501 gateway to Chapel Hill.

The new Mayor and Council are seeking ways to fix the Code.  One aspect which has not yet been tackled is the concept of a community amenity.  The city of Charlotte’s recent restoration of Little Sugar Creek inspires us to create these public spaces which draw people to our town.

Join us 5:30 pm, Wednesday October 26, to learn how Charlotte, North Carolina, turned an eyesore into a community treasure.

Microsoft Word - LittleSugarCreekEventFlier.docx

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“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.
 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.

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