GOVERNMENT; GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
By Adam Powell
CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill Town Council met this week to receive guidance on a heavily-debated set of zoning text amendments that could affect where different types of housing may be built or converted throughout the town.
The discussion was the evening’s only agenda item, as the council focused in for two full hours on a controversial subject that could fundamentally change the way the town approaches residential development in the coming years.
“I know this is a big topic for folks. And we are all trying to learn as much as we possibly can,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said at the start of the work session, adding that the item will come back before the town council at a public meeting for comment and input later this year. “We need to acknowledge the fact that we need more housing in Chapel Hill.”
Chapel Hill’s new Planning Director, Britany Waddell, explained to the council the amendments are a major element of completing the town’s community framework. She indicated that it is one of several initiatives underway aimed at improving and increasing the Town’s supply and diversity of new housing.
“It should be noted this framework is intentional about supporting a mix of housing to meet Council’s interest to produce a sustainable and accessible community for all,” Waddell explained. “Staff has heard interest in creating more affordable and attainable housing units. Zoning alone cannot regulate housing costs. And to do so requires this initiative to be coupled with additional strategies that go beyond planning and land use policy, such as grant funding and private-public partnerships.”
Town Planning staff member Anya Grahn-Federmack explained to the council that Chapel Hill needs to increase its rate of residential housing production by approximately 35%, or roughly 500 units per year, in order to keep up with anticipated local need. Studies have also indicated that the town needs to improve the range of residential properties being constructed.
“There’s little variety in what we’re building,” Grahn-Federmack explained. “We’re very good at building detached, single-family homes, and we’re very good at building large apartment complexes. But not much in-between. So there’s many needs going unmet. We need to diversify the housing stock by including missing middle density [construction], both for renters and for property owners, and both on large infill sites, as well as smaller infill sites within existing neighborhoods.”
The proposed changes are intended to preserve existing uses within Chapel Hill’s Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCDs), to allow administrative approval for small, multi-family developments of up to four units – also known as “fourplexes” – in zones that currently allow between three and seven units, to allow site plan approval by the Town’s Planning Commission for cottage courts, and to impose standards to ensure that any new development is compatible with the town’s existing communities.
“The intent right now is very much to preserve the status quo in neighborhood conservation districts. We’re working out the mechanisms, but that’s certainly the intent behind the proposal at this time,” Senior Planner Tas Lagoo said.
The changes will not make single-family homes non-conforming or prohibit single-family developments throughout Chapel Hill, nor will it eliminate single-family residential zoning altogether. It will not supersede existing restrictive covenants and entitlements within existing neighborhoods, and it will neither guarantee affordable housing, nor prevent student rentals and the local rental market that comes with it.
The recommendations have been scaled back somewhat. The original amendment proposals included adding new missing middle housing types in most residential zoning districts throughout Chapel Hill for triplexes, fourplexes, and cottage courts. The proposal that was presented on Monday evening called for the addition of those types, including cottage courts, only in those higher-density parts of town that already allow between three and seven units on a lot.
In addition, the new proposed adjustments call for accessory apartments for cultural and institutional facilities, along with places of worship.
“Staff anticipates that some of these types of uses could add several housing units as an accessory use. Staff would have to flesh this out a little more and determine how many units this would be,” she said.
Under the current proposal, duplexes would be permitted in all residential zoning districts throughout Chapel Hill, and cottages could be permitted to be built in compact lots in R-1 (residential) zoning districts. The town is also proposing an administrative approval process for triplexes and fourplexes in those areas throughout Chapel Hill that currently allow between three and seven units.
Staff is also proposing neighborhood compatibility standards for triplexes and fourplexes. The standards would require buildings within 150 feet of the proposed site to be compatible by regulating factors like building heights, roof forms, street setbacks, building orientations and entrances, building materials, and parking.
Grahn-Federmack mentioned that the earliest the Planning staff could return to the council for a public hearing would be May, with possible action for the Council as soon as June.
But the mayor and town council hinted that the process may take a little longer — as they look for more answers and community feedback — before any final decisions are made.
“We like the direction you are headed,” Hemminger said to the planning staff. “We like some of these things. We still have some questions and concerns. We’d still like to hear from folks.”
“The proposal originally had been calling a public hearing the first meeting in May, and then a vote in June. We may still be on that track. I don’t know. We haven’t had that conversation yet,” Hemminger added in response to a question from council member Adam Searing about the timeline.
“I support cleaning up and refining [the town’s land use management ordinance], missing middle, moving forward with the changes proposed,” council member Paris Miller-Foushee stated. “I think our entitlement process needs to be very streamlined, and minimal as possible in terms of advisory boards.”
Council member Camille Berry said there is real fear in the town about what will pop up in neighborhoods.
“And I can appreciate that,” she said. “So I would love to hear ways in which the community can be involved in their neighborhood, if that is possible. I think that would be really helpful in allaying fears. The other thing is helping us to understand what guardrails can be put into place. So that we know what we have at our disposal to implement, to keep it from being a rampant explosion of development in my neighborhood.”