GOVERNMENT; GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
By Michelle Cassell
CHAPEL HILL — A group of Chapel Hill homeowners are pushing the town to abandon plans to allow small multifamily developments in single-family neighborhoods while council members and environmental groups support the measure.
A March 10 letter to the council from William Brian of Durham’s Morningstar Law Group asked the town to respond to its signers’ opposition to the amendments to the town’s land use ordinance.
The text amendments would apply the concept of “gentle density,” focusing on attached housing with a scale similar to detached homes, like townhomes and condos.
Brian’s clients, Derek and Louise Winstantly, owners of the 1927 Milton and Cary Hogan House, are asking the town to stop the proposed land use management ordinance amendments. More than 100 other property owners in the area signed on in support.
“Everyone that owns a home in Chapel Hill will be affected,” Brian said. “The only people unaffected would be those living in planned developments. The historic district and many areas in Chapel Hill that do not have homeowner associations would all fall under the zoning amendment.”
“Our Clients and the other people who support this letter recognize the need to increase the supply of available affordable housing. However, increasing the number of housing units in Chapel Hill by eliminating single family zoning so that the characters of traditional neighborhoods near campus are destroyed by duplexes, triplexes and townhomes will not lower housing prices,” the letter reads.
The letter notes the town wants to make the change via text amendment rather than by rezoning which “raises interesting legal issues.”
“It is a clear attempt to slip this new zoning philosophy by most people affected by it without them noticing,” Brian said in the letter. “Our clients and other folks paying attention to what is going on in Town Hall are aware of this threat to their property. Hundreds of other families are unaware and will not become aware of the duplexes and townhomes being constructed across the street from their houses.”
“There are a lot of districts of Chapel Hill that are not necessarily historic. They are just neighborhoods, some older and very moderate ones. Folks living in middle-class environments may not even know this is happening,” Brian told TLR.
Up to this point, the homeowners have not taken legal action. The letter requests the town abandon the amendments or “initiate a formal rezoning of all properties affected.”
“I, too have many questions about what is being proposed. A work session on this topic has been scheduled for April 10, at which time I look forward to talking through the issues that have been raised by so many,” Mayor Pam Hemminger wrote in a statement to TLR when asked about the letter. “For now, it is best to refrain from commenting on legal arguments as they are outside my scope as Mayor.”
The text amendment would add new zoning to allow for missing middle housing, such as duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in existing neighborhoods. Those changes could increase population density, which carries environmental and transportation benefits. The town says this is a step toward eliminating racial affordability barriers created by single-family zoning.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission’s Green Growth Toolbox, an exhaustive list of resources to help local governments create environmentally sound policy, pushes for more density as a method to minimize human impact on wildlife.
Council Member Karen Stegman supports the text amendments. In her March 14 newsletter, Stegman said, “It allows a range of housing types with more modest and more affordable choices.”
“This is one of many policies and tools that the Council has been working on for several years…to move us forward in a more sustainable, equitable way.”
Council member Tai Huynh told TLR that he supports everything Stegman says in her newsletter regarding the zoning amendment.
“I was one of the council members who petitioned staff to do research, and this was one of their recommendations,” Huynh said. “Council member Stegman was one of the people that co-signed with me on that petition.”
“I think one of the benefits that the folks aren’t talking about necessarily is how strongly the Biden administration supports this and how they will be implementing that support in how they fund local communities from the federal level,” he explained.
Huynh told TLR that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will prioritize funding for communities that undergo this change.
‘If we do this, we are going to be one of many communities that do this, obviously,” he added.
The national Sierra Club adopted an urban infill and smart growth policy in 2019 to guide local activists and advocates choosing smart growth over sprawl as a potent decision city and local governments can make to protect the environment and health of their communities.
The organization asserts that more density added to already developed neighborhoods will minimize sprawl by increasing a mix of uses close to each other such as new homes, amenities, transit options, and services tight to encourage walkability. Ultimately the alternative zoning proposes protecting more open space by building on less.
The Orange-Chatham group of the North Carolina Sierra Club has not endorsed the text amendments formally, but chair Melissa McCullough told TLR there are meetings in progress to give their recommendations to the council.
In a public hearing held on Jan. 25, McCullough made the council aware of Sierra Club’s national policy in her public statement she provided TLR.
“It discourages single-family-only zoning, noting that it costs cities more in infrastructure and services while increasing vehicle miles traveled and emissions (hence more climate impacting). The guidance recommends increasing Missing Middle Housing types: These house-scale buildings fit seamlessly into existing residential neighborhoods and support walkability, locally-serving retail and public transportation options,” McCullough wrote.
A vote on the zoning amendment will be addressed by the town council in May.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As assignment editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.