CH council draws crowd for land use hearing


By Adam Powell

CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill Town Council came one step closer to overhauling parts of its land use regulations Wednesday.

The council held a long-awaited public hearing on text amendments to its land use management ordinances which were first presented earlier this year.

More than 40 people signed up to speak about the amendments during the meeting’s public comment period, with a mix of those for and against the changes that would limited more-dense housing types in some single-family neighborhoods.

Supporters stressed the increased housing opportunities and infrastructure improvements the changes will bring, while detractors insisted that the only beneficiaries of more residential construction in Chapel Hill will be land developers and home builders. 

“I’m opposed to relaxing zoning in our neighborhoods,” resident Naomi Slifkin said. “Please don’t call me exclusionary because I’m opposed. The only people I want to exclude from our neighborhoods are developers and corporate investors.”

Both the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce and local Sierra Club have expressed support for the proposed zoning changes. 

“National Sierra Club policy advocates for local governments to increase the supply of missing middle housing using existing urban infrastructure,” said Kathy Kaufman, representing the Orange-Chatham chapter of the Sierra Club. “We want to emphasize how the densification of housing to allow less driving is a critical environmental and climate issue.”

Prior to the public hearing, town planners Anya Grahn-Federmack and Tasmaya Lagoo explained to council some of the key differences in the text amendment from prior council readings in January and April. 

Specifically, the town wishes to increase the maximum size of accessory apartments from 750 square feet to 1,000 square feet, as well as remove the town’s density restrictions measured by the number of units per acre, and instead focus on development standards and dimensional standards such as heights, setbacks, and floor area.

In addition, the amendments would introduce a new use: the single-family-plus cottage.

“We want to make sure that two-family uses, including attached units that are like your traditional duplex or detached units, are allowed in all our residential zoning districts,” Grahn-Federmack explained. “We also want to create opportunities for the administrative approval of three and four-family developments in those zones have already allowed this use. This provides us an opportunity for traditional triplexes and four-plexes, which would have the attached units, as well as smaller cottage courts that we heard there was an interest in providing.” 

Chapel Hill is already underway in its steps to create transit-oriented development throughout town, but the planners suggested additional steps and considerations for the future, including programs that incentive construction of income-restricted affordable housing units, zoning map amendments that will allow more density, as well as an expedited review process for pre-approved housing designs that are brought before the council.

Council member Jessica Anderson, a supporter of the zoning changes, fought to hold back tears as she discussed how a lack of local housing had directly impacted her family.

“My dad moved here with dementia [in 2015], and we could not find a place for him to live until he died,” she said. 

Council member Adam Searing suggested that the changes will not create their intended result. 

“My position on this is pretty simple. I think we should do what works, and not what we wish might help,” he said. “This proposal just doesn’t apply to many people in Chapel Hill. And many neighborhoods. If you live in any kind of a neighborhood with covenants, like Meadowmont, Southern Village, The Oaks – any neighborhood even that’s been built in the last 20 years or so, they’re going to have some of these covenants in it. And they’re exempt.” 

Disclosure: Adam Searing is a former member of The Local Reporter’s Advisory committee and a monthly donor.

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