By Nancy E. Oates
Chapel Hill Town Council approved the rezoning application for 1200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. at its March 10 meeting by a 5-3 vote. The vote tally held the same as at council’s Feb. 24 meeting. Because rezonings require a three-quarter majority to pass on first reading, council had to vote again on the matter at its next meeting, at which time it would need only a simple majority to pass. No council member changed his or her vote at the second reading.
In each of the two votes, Mayor Pam Hemminger and council members Allen Buansi, Michael Parker, Karen Stegman and Tai Huynh voted in favor of the rezoning, and council members Jessica Anderson, Hongbin Gu and Amy Ryan voted against it.
The rezoning to Neighborhood Commercial-Conditional Zoning District and Office/Institutional-2 Conditional Zoning District from Residential-4 and Neighborhood Commercial means that Stackhouse Properties can add a storage facility to the 14-acre parcel that now has a mobile home park and a shuttered gas station on it. Stackhouse also will enlarge the gas station, which it could do without a rezoning.
To win approval for adding the storage building, Stackhouse agreed to keep Tarheel Mobile Home Park on the site for at least 15 years. Stackhouse agreed to additional concessions before the second vote, including reducing the size of the storage facility by 10,000 square feet from the requested 134,400 square feet; freezing rents for the next three years; keep rents within 5 percent of market rate and reassessing that rate every two years. The prior agreement was to keep rates within 15 percent of market rate and reassess every four years. Stackhouse has not raised the rent during the prior two years it has owned the property, according to Dan Jewell of Coulter, Jewell, Thames who represented Stackhouse at the council meetings.
Even so, council members, regardless of whether they for or against the project, said they felt manipulated by the rezoning request. Tarheel Mobile Home Park has occupied the site for more than 30 years and is currently home to 73 units. The original special-use permit allowed up to 83 units, and that provision remains in the new agreement.
Chapel Hill, like Carrboro and Orange County, has no plan to protect mobile home park residents from being ousted by development. Chapel Hill has at least four mobile home parks that were on the edge of town. But as the town grew and redeveloped, they now sit on prime real estate, and some property owners have had offers to buy the land for top dollar. Jewell said Stackhouse had received a similar offer and would likely sell if council didn’t approve the storage facility that would make the investment profitable.
A statement released by the mayor’s office after the vote said: “Unfortunately, in North Carolina, local governments have no authority to stay evictions and no power to force a landowner to keep a mobile home park open.”
Neither Stackhouse nor Jewell responded to requests for comment before the first vote.
Council has long been aware of the vulnerability of mobile home parks, which are home to modestly paid residents, many of whom are essential workers. The Northern Area Task Force report from 2007 recommended conducting “a census of mobile home parks in order to provide for increased affordable [housing] opportunities if those sites are redeveloped.” In 2018, council wrestled with a rezoning request that would displace 33 mobile homes at a park along Weaver Dairy Road. That developer withdrew the rezoning application in the face of council concern about the displacement. But council didn’t follow up with a plan for safeguarding mobile home parks going forward.
At the beginning of the March 10 council meeting, council member Hongbin Gu petitioned council to consider a restricted residential manufactured home zoning district in order to stabilize the market from excessive speculation from developers, but council did not accept the petition.
Later in the meeting, during a status report on the town’s affordable housing efforts, council asked town staff to make planning for mobile home parks’ future a priority.