Orange County

Chapel Hill council could take a look at contentious preschool plan

The Chapel Hill Planning Commission approved the 9,000-square-foot Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool plan in January 2017.
The Chapel Hill Planning Commission approved the 9,000-square-foot Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool plan in January 2017. Contributed

The Town Council’s decision Monday to consider more parking for a new preschool on Mt. Carmel Church Road is an opportunity to fix the problems that the project’s approval earlier this year may have created, Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

“I just think we have an opportunity to have a better outcome,” she said. “Even if it’s lipstick on a pig, at least it’s a better shade.”

The town’s Planning Commission approved the 9,000-square-foot Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool site plan with 23 parking spaces for a lot northeast of the Mt. Carmel-U.S. 15-501 intersection. The project was not large enough to require Town Council approval.

Neighbors appealed to the Board of Adjustment, which added requirements for 31 parking spaces and limited the school to 80 students and 20 staff members. The school could expand its enrollment if it seeks a revised site plan, the board said.

Project officials appealed that decision to Orange County Superior Court, claiming the board didn’t decide if the neighbors had legal standing to file an appeal. The court will decide whether the board should have gotten involved, and if it should, whether the board had the authority to limit the number of students and staff.

Meanwhile, project officials are talking with the town about a special-use permit for 47 parking spaces, as a way to ease traffic and safety concerns. The council was asked Monday to waive the school’s $8,930 SUP application fee.

The council voted 6-1 to waive the fee and asked staff to set up a meeting of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, project officials and neighbors.

Council member Nancy Oates dissented, saying the council should not consider the special-use permit.

“The preschool has come up with this plan. I don’t think it’s a good plan at all,” she said. “If it turns out not to be good plan, then it’s up to the preschool to walk it back and to fix it.”

Several neighbors shared their concerns Monday, including Monte Brown, who said the real problem is that the Planning Commission’s decision was based on misrepresented facts and old traffic data.

“We need the analysis and the data, and do it right,” he said. “Go back and find the leverage to do it right.”

Traffic already backs up a nearly half a mile on Mt. Carmel Church Road at rush hour, from U.S. 15-501 to Bennett Road, neighbors said. The suggestion that parents could turn left from Bennett Road and then right into the school isn’t practical, they added, because of the already dangerous Bennett Road intersection.

Neighbors also doubt the school will cap enrollment. Brown noted state preschool rules require 25 square feet per student, meaning the planned building could hold a few hundred more.

There have been contradictions, neighbor Terry Vance noted. Project officials told the NCDOT in February 2016 there could be 85 to 90 students and 20 staff. However, an April 2016 memo asking to waive the town’s traffic study said there would be only 80 students and 8 to 10 staff. Town rules would have required a traffic study if 20 staff members were taken into account.

A project official told the Planning Commission in January that there’s no plan to expand the school, but enough land for it to grow.

“My point is we should not set in stone a faulty process, even though it’s costly and time-consuming to change it,” Vance said, “because this would be a terrible precedent for the future, and the dangers involved would include the preschool parents, the staff, the children, and all the people in our neighborhood.”

The council cannot revisit the Planning Commission’s decision, Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said, but it can negotiate for other conditions in the SUP process and work with the NCDOT to improve the road in the future if necessary.

Asking taxpayers to fix the problems is not a great solution, Council member Jessica Anderson said. She expressed frustration at the limited answers available.

“I feel a little stuck,” she said. “I understand what I’m getting, and I understand why the neighbors are not pleased. This is not good.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Other news

▪ The Chapel Hill Town Council approved a $107.3 million budget for next year that provides more money for affordable housing and increases the annual stormwater fee by $6 – to $32.15 per 1,000 square feet of impervious surface, such as roofs and driveways.

The property tax rate was reset to 50.8 cents per $100 in property value. The town’s property tax bill for someone who owns a $350,000 house would be $1,778.

The council will consider additional money for affordable housing June 26.

▪ The council approved a resolution of support for the Paris Accord’s global climate change goals. The action was in response to President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw from the carbon emissions-cutting agreement.