The Chapel Hill Town Council set a public hearing date Wednesday for a new development zoning tool but left confusion and concern about government transparency in its wake.
The conditional zoning tool is commonly used by governments across the state, but in Chapel Hill, the council relies on a quasi-judicial process to rezone land and approve projects. The quasi-judicial process doesn’t let council members talk about a project outside of the public hearing and allows expert testimony but not opinions.
Meanwhile, a conditional zoning tool lets council members talk to anyone at anytime about a project. They can require advisory board reviews and also negotiate with the developer for conditions, such as land use limits or affordable housing, before making the final decision.
“It’s hard to explain it in a way that made sense to people, but this was just an alternative to the special use permit process that allows for more dialogue,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said Thursday.
“I feel like it’s more appealing to the public, because then they know that we can actually have a conversation with them if they have concerns or want to have communications with us,” she said. “Right now, they can send us emails and we can read them, but we can’t respond. That’s frustrating for a lot of people when I can’t clear up a misunderstanding or hear more.”
The idea for the conditional zoning tool grew out of the creation this year of the town’s light industrial conditional, or enterprise, zoning district off Eubanks Road. The council voted last month to apply the pilot zoning to the 12-acre Carolina Flex Park project.
The council plans to review the results next year but hasn’t identified other areas where it could be used, Hemminger said.
The confusion about the new zoning tool Wednesday, Nov. 1 started with how the idea was presented – as expanding the conditional zoning beyond the light industrial district boundaries – she said. Town Manager Roger Stancil said the zoning tool might be used in multifamily residential districts, downtown, commercial or mixed-use areas, and commercial sites along major road corridors.
Council member Nancy Oates rejected a public hearing, while expressing concerns that the zoning tool might allow more dense development next to single-family neighborhoods and create a checkbox similar to the Blue Hill District’s form-based code. Developers can build projects in that district to required standards without a council public hearing or approval.
Oates also questioned Stancil about whether the process is being rushed because of a potential project, while alluding to “credibility problems” that have dogged the council for several years.
“I was one of the biggest critics of the 2015 council packing the agenda right after the election, so they would get a bunch of stuff in,” she said, “so I’m uncomfortable with the idea that our council may be doing that as well.”
Council member George Cianciolo took issue with that characterization.
“I don’t think that there’s an incentive to push something through just to get it through simply for that, and I actually resent the fact that a fellow council member would suggest that that happened two years ago,” he said. “I think every member on this current council and the council I served on before have the best interest of Chapel Hill in mind when they make decisions.”
The council voted to hear more on Nov. 15 about where and how the tool could be used to evaluate proposed projects. Council member Ed Harrison, who had concerns about the rapid timing of a potential vote, also voted against scheduling a public hearing.
The Town Council will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, to learn more about where and how a conditional zoning tool could be used. Another public hearing on the proposal could be held Wednesday, Nov. 29.
The council meets in the Town Hall council chamber, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.