Chapel Hill Town Council Talks Climate Plans, Punts Action to Later Meetings


By James Kiefer

Wednesday evening’s Chapel Hill Town Council meeting featured more discussion than action as council members heard updates regarding local initiatives to adapt to climate change, along with University of North Carolina’s latest plans for growth. The body also extended several public hearings to its October session.

After fielding petitions from citizens ranging from a proposal to rename streets whose names bear echoes of the Confederacy to descriptions of the communal benefits of splash pads, community resilience officer John Richardson presented a pulse check on Chapel Hill’s Climate Action Implementation Plan 2022-23 fiscal year.

Climate and college

Initially adopted in April 2021, Richardson stated that one of the plan’s main goals is for Chapel Hill to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Council allotted $470,000 for a Climate Action Fund in June as part of the Town’s 2022 fiscal-year budget.

Richardson explained that some efforts being pursued by the town deal with issues such as environmentally-friendly construction and energy plans, developing electric vehicle infrastructure for public transport and the Town’s vehicle fleet, responsible water usage and building overall resiliency as the town shifts to newer energy models.

Highlights from the plan include the following:

  • Identifying which communities are bearing the heaviest impact from climate change;
  • Planning for and installing upward of 46 EV charging stations;
  • Putting into service three electric buses and ordering up to seven more;
  • Exploring mobility projects that don’t necessitate a vehicle.

Along with his presentation of the Plan’s high-level goals, Richardson shared slides of dozens of smaller actions Town of Chapel Hill departments are taking as part of the Implementation Plan. Councilperson Michael Parker asked Richardson whether funding for the current plan is adequate, to which Richardson responded that, along with the Climate Action Fund, there exist other sources of funding in the Town budget on which he can draw.

Councilperson Jessica Anderson also asked Richardson how the work to meet the Plan’s goals is being distributed across departments, especially in the Town’s Office of Sustainability. Richardson stated that the Town is in the process of recruiting a second person to assist with project management and that implementation of the plan will be spearheaded by the Office of Sustainability.

“What I feel particularly good about with implementation is that this really is an organizationwide effort,” Richardson stated. “I know that we’ve been talking about [wanting] sustainability and climate action to work that way. I think that this plan has really helped us solidify that… and make it clear that there are so many people doing so many things that help us move things forward in the right way.”

In a similar vein, UNC Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Piehler shared a few slides regarding how the university’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined between 2007 through 2020.

Piehler gave special attention to 2020’s emission figures since the COVID-19 pandemic cleared out many college campuses, which played a role in decreasing the university’s overall energy needs, he said.

The meeting then pivoted away from climate-related concerns as Evan Yassky, UNC’s executive director for facilities planning and design, listed off multiple construction projects being undertaken by the institution. Items currently underway include the Curtis Media Center and a generator plant and surgical tower for UNC Health. Yassky also noted construction of an open space area focused on honoring historically Black fraternities and sororities.

“There’s not a whole hell of a lot to like with this proposed project”

Board members also weighed in on a proposed residential development that sparked conversation about housing issues facing the Town.

Dan Jewell of Coulter Jewell Thames P.A. previewed a concept plan for the Lullwater complex located at the intersection of Adair Drive and Old University Station Road. The initial draft calls for over 300 units with a mix of apartments and townhomes priced to be affordable to those earning mid-range incomes.

During the public hearing, several citizens stated that the proposed location is a poor choice for the project due to a lack of existing development, hard-to-manage land and the proximity to Interstate-40. Speakers also expressed concern about the project’s impact on a nearby mobile home community, and whether or not such a large development would benefit those residents.

Town Council candidate Robert Beasley commented by phone that the developer’s plans seem out of sync with Chapel Hill’s housing needs.

“Looking at the developer’s proposal, it doesn’t address any of the housing priorities in Chapel Hill,” he said “[A report] called out the need for affordable housing at 80% [area median income] and under, and the need for missing middle [housing]. … and this proposal only allocates 15% of its capacity for missing middle [housing] and none for affordable housing.”

Councilperson Amy Ryan criticized not only the proposed location, but the concept design as well, calling it “a bunch of big buildings in a sea of concrete parking.”

“I understand that we’re maybe going to have things developing around it,” she said. “But if this area develops parcel by parcel by parcel with no coordination, there’s nothing stopping everybody from wanting to build the same thing there, and what we’re really trying to do is create placemaking. To be honest, I have very little interest in granting entitlement on this land for a project like this.”

“There’s not a whole hell of a lot to like with this proposed project,” Parker added. “The affordable housing proposal is totally inadequate and not even worth discussing… It really fails at a number of levels. I think it needs an awful lot of work.”

Councilperson Allen Buansi also said the location seemed lackluster and mentioned that Chapel Hill should be prioritizing housing for those earning 50-60% of area median income — i.e., for those earning $37,000-$44,000. Mayor Pam Hemminger voiced her concerns about egress, and stated that Chapel Hill is looking to create more home ownership opportunities, not more rentals.

Council voted to transmit comments to Jewell, the applicant, and ended the meeting in a closed session.

Other business at the meeting included:

  • Tabling discussion of public parking opportunities in the town center for later meetings;
  • Declaring Sept. 15 – Oct. 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month;
  • Proclaiming Sept. 17-23 as Constitution Week;
  • Extending the public hearing on a modification of the Glen Lennox Development Agreement to Oct. 13;
  • Extending the public hearing on short-term rentals in the Blue Hill district to Oct. 27.
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