Orange County

Opposition to building site could force Chapel Hill preschool to close

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 Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool, which has served area children since 1960, could close soon, its executive board says.

After a more than year-long legal process since the town’s Planning Commission approved a 9,000 square foot site plan, the Board of Adjustment postponed a hearing this week that will delay the process even further.

With a tight construction timeline, the school could close after a lease expires in December. The board has been hoping to start work on a new building to replace the two spaces it now rents.

“We really want to begin construction,” said Aaron Bachenheimer, a parent and executive board member. “We want to work with the town. We want to be good neighbors.”

Neighbors have contested the development of the lot northeast of the Mt. Carmel Church Road and U.S. 15-501 intersection, citing traffic and safety concerns. The original approval expired, and the commission denied an extension.

The preschool then appealed to the Board of Adjustment, arguing that town rules also allow the town manager to grant the extension. The board will now hear the case on June 7.

But that might be too late.

The preschool currently rents space at the Church of Reconciliation and at the Community Church. The lease for the latter ends in December, and the tenants can’t renew because the church has expansion plans of its own.

That same month, the preschool will have to begin paying a loan “whether we’re in the new building or not,” Bachenheimer said. “We cannot financially afford the principal and the interest of the loan and rent in two places.”

The school estimates construction would take about 10 months.

Nearly 1,500 people have signed a petition to keep the preschool open.

Jennifer Hoponick moved to Chapel Hill in 2015 and waited months to find a spot in a school for her sons, Maddox, 5, and Isaac, 3.

She looked for specific things: green space, good teachers and healthy food. Pregnant with her third child, she’s concerned she’ll have to leave her full-time job, if the school closes.

“Your job is to determine what is Chapel Hill as a town and a community,” she told the Planning Commission on Tuesday. “Is Chapel Hill a town and a community where people like me will want to move to in the next five years, or is it … for retired folks without young children?”

Even neighbors opposed to the project praised the school for its history.

“From the beginning it has been a model preschool, a model of inclusiveness. It’s not racist. It’s not homophobic,” said Vivian Foushee, who asked for the denial of the extension. “It’s sensitive to individual students’ needs with excellent dedicated teachers and loyal parents and students.”

The number of traffic incidents in the area is greater than the state average, and rush-hour traffic already already backs up a nearly half a mile on Mt. Carmel Church Road, neighbors said.

The commission denied the extension, saying it needed better information on traffic, the preschool's enrollment and parking spaces.

Meanwhile, in December the school filed for a special-use permit because with added parking the new development would exceed 40,000 square feet, the threshold requiring a permit. The process is underway but the preschool doesn't need it to break ground. If the preschool can get an extension of its original site plan approval, the two processes can be aligned so everything is built simultaneously.

Bachenheimer said the next move is to present the appeal next month, but with the school’s future in peril, some parents have begun considering their options.

“If I had to find a new preschool in I’d have to quit my job and reevaluate how we do things in the family,” said Katie Lucas, a single mom of a 3-year-old girl at the school.