Ken Larsen's web site - Chapel Hill Issues


This is an attempt to briefly document and prioritize the main issues that face Chapel Hill.  In the interest of brevity, descriptions are limited to 200 words.  If more words are needed, links to secondary pages are provided.  [Thanks to Terry Maguire for suggesting this approach.]

Note:  This list is my personal view of what the issues and solutions are.  It has not been endorsed by CHALT or any other political group in Chapel Hill.

Contact me if you any suggestions regarding this page.





Proposed solution


UNC/UNC Hospital's nonprofit status and continuing growth

The University of North Carolina (UNC) and its hospital enjoy non-profit status and as such are exempt from paying property taxes.  They've been buying properties, and with each purchase there becomes less tax paying property.  Geographically, UNC and UNC Hospital currently own 35% of the property in Chapel Hill. 

According to Council member Donna Bell:

  1. UNC has their own police service, so they don't pay Chapel Hill for police service.

  2. UNC has their own recycling program, so they don't pay Chapel Hill for recycling.

  3. UNC had been partners with Chapel Hill in trash pickup.

Bottom-line:  UNC doesn't get a totally free ride, but neither are they paying full fare.

(2014-9-11 Will Raymond) The combined property value of UNC and UNC medical is $ 6.8 billion.

Pursue limiting UNC's non-profit status. 

The Town should negotiate with UNC and UNC Healthcare to ensure that further acquisition of real estate in Chapel Hill is limited and that new acquisitions are accompanied by in-lieu of tax payment agreements.

See "Should Nonprofits Pay Property Taxes?" and "Squeezed Cities Ask Nonprofits for More Money".
1B (UNC) Problems caused by UNC undergraduates living off campus UNC undergraduates prefer to live off campus for a variety of reasons.  This adds pressure to the rental housing market.  Also, they need cars for off campus jobs.  Rental houses with four students and their cars has raised complaints from neighborhood associations - causing noise and traffic issues.

Daily Tarheel article
UNC officials should encourage students to reside on campus.  They have lots of dorm rooms that they're not filling.

Consider limiting the size of UNC enrollment.  If it keeps growing, that exacerbates this problem.

2A (Planning) Citizen and advisory board recommendations ignored Despite a 2-3 year collaborative process with citizens to decide on changes to the Ephesus-Fordham (EF) area, the Town Council chose not to adopt the Advisory Board and citizen recommendations. 


The EF plan which was approved (6-3) by the Council on May 12, 2014 permits 7 story buildings; however, the Small Area Plan that the public and staff approved in 2011 permitted nothing higher than 5 stories.  Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, Lee Storrow, Donna Bell, Sally Greene, Maria Palmer, and George Cianciolo were the yes votes.  Matt Czajkowski, Jim Ward, and Ed Harrison were the no votes.

A petition with 850 signatures asking for an improved Form Based Code (FBC) was ignored on May 12, 2014.

The Council approved the selling of 8.5 acres of Town property (worth $ 2M) for $ 100 without a public hearing.

In 2014, the Town Council restructured planning boards to increase the influence of the "Growth Machine" (special business interests who want Chapel Hill to grow at a fast rate).  They asked for everyone's resignation and rebuilt each board from scratch.

Read "Rubber Stamps" by Nancy Oates.
Embrace rather than erase public input.
2B (Planning) Flawed development process Historically Chapel Hill has had a land use plan which governs zoning.  The Town is departing from that and is now using other means for rezoning which has development agreements and Form Based Code (FBC).  The Council considers the  Special Use Permit (SUP) process as being too onerous and too time-consuming, but it had environment and energy protections along with ample public review.   Not using SUP has other negatives.

Version of Form Based Code (FBC) to be rolled out for EF lacks the SUP safety net.  It also doesn't provide for ample parking.  Click here for an example.

Current FBC reduces public feedback to just cosmetic issues and via the Community Design Commission (CDC).
Do post-mortems of past projects.

Restore public feedback to the process and ensure that it can address meaningful issues. 
2C (Planning) Lack of transparency Chapel Hill citizens want their government business to be conducted in the daylight and for Town policies and decisions to be followed, unless they are changed by open processes.  Policy directions have been changed without open Council debate.

Any agreements between the Town staff and developers about potential projects should be fully disclosed to the public and subject to Council action before coming into effect.

Citizen requests for public records or letters of inquiry about Town business should be answered within a reasonable time.

Council is having more and more work sessions - which are not videotaped and there is no opportunity for public comment.  They're not supposed to make decisions at work sessions, but they reach understandings.

Input from residents on various issues should be made easily accessible on the town website and Town Council members (not staff) should respond expeditiously to petitions and strong recommendations.

2D (Planning) Poor decisions During the Ephesus-Fordham decision process the Town Council exhibited poor negotiating skills:

They sold 8.5 acres of land (worth $2M) for $ 100 to DHIC.

They permitted developer Lee Perry (son of Roger Perry) to build up to 7 stories without getting anything in return.

They permitted the owners of Park Apartments to build up to 7 stories without getting any affordable housing in return.

They promised that the Town would pay for roads to service the new development. 
The Town Council should not allow greater density or provide amenities (roads) to developers without getting concessions from them.  For an example of how this is done, see this excerpt from the book "Happy City".

2E (Planning) Protect small businesses EF was up-zoned with no consideration for the small businesses currently there.

Small businesses are leaving Chapel Hill, because rents have been raised 15 to 20%.  Upzoning has this consequence.  Upzoning was done to get more tax base, but what good does that do if businesses then flee?
2F (Planning) Lobbying by developers, Chamber of Commerce, and other special interests who argue that  Chapel Hill must "grow, grow, grow".  [This is called the "Growth Machine".] The Chamber of Commerce and the Town staff think that if more mixed use is added, we can grow our way out of our problems. 

The Chamber of Commerce is heavily supported by developer Roger Perry.
We've asked the Council and Town Staff to do financial analyses.  When they did one on EF (using crummy figures like citing Greenbridge as a comparable) it was found that EF wouldn't make any money for 20 years.
2G (Planning) Downtown Durham is doing things well; downtown Chapel Hill is not (Will Raymond 2014-9-11) Downtown Durham has free parking, ample green space, playgrounds, free bus service, public services are downtown, and they've reused old buildings instead of tearing them down. Follow Durham's lead.
2H (Planning) Infrastructure needs to be improved before new development is approved. Roads and recreation aren't being maintained. Good maintenance of existing infrastructure should be a high budget priority.
2I (Planning) There is too much misunderstanding,  contention, and mistrust over the design of planned developments. Click here for an example of a "bait and switch" tactic that the Town leaders used. For future projects, the Town needs to migrate to 3D design that gives viewers a "virtual reality" way of exploring what has been designed.  Verbal and text descriptions with 2D drawings are woefully inadequate and result in massive misunderstandings and antipathy over what a project will ultimately become. 
One product that looks worthy of investigation is SketchUp for Urban Planning.
2J (Planning) Piecemeal planning Our previous comprehensive plan, which covered the whole Town, has been replaced by piecemeal concentration on future focus areas.  This leaves out Town-wide attention to traffic, transit, stormwater and flooding. We need real comprehensive planning.
3A Fiscal The Town has allowed large liabilities to build up with no plan to cover them:

$ 56M in unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities (UAAL).  See page 97 of Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for fiscal year ending June 30, 2013.

$ 161M in CIP (Capital Improvement Program) requests that the Town hopes to fund over the next 15 years.  For details, click here.

Increasing transit costs.  We can't afford to repair/replace 40 old buses.  We don't have money to grow transit to meet new needs.  Federal and State funds for this purpose are shrinking.  We're approving new developments, but we don't have the money to serve them.

Unknown costs to resolve flooding and traffic issues.

School district budget outlook looks bleak.

Presumed underestimates of Ephesus-Fordham road and services costs.

Low commercial tax base (Chapel Hill is 18%; Durham is 40%).

The Town gave away 8.5 acres of land (worth $ 2M) for $ 100 to DHIC for affordable housing.

The Town spent a considerable amount of money on out-of-town consultants in 2013 - $ 240K to develop FBC for EF.

(Sept 8, 2014) Tom Henkel submitted a petition to the Town Council that presented apparent fiscal mismanagement by the Town Manager Roger Stancil.  See 13:48 to 17:50 of the video of the September 8, 2014 Town Council meeting.

(Sept 12, 2014) Chapel Hill News story: "Town Manager defends fiscal management".
Town needs to develop a strategy that will grow high paying jobs.  We're just building mixed use - which gets you nothing.  Town leaders should seek commercial, research, and light industrial development.

Address the non-profit issue.

Prudent spending (e.g. use local consultants, cut funding to low priority items).

Develop a realistic funding plan for the transit services needed to prevent traffic gridlock.

Do a "development impact analysis" on each proposed future development.

Reduce frequency of recycling.

Improve accountability.  Budget review plans should be open to the public.

There needs to be realistic plans for funding retired employee health costs.

Improve maintenance of infrastructure.
3B (Fiscal) Tax base - Property taxes are too high Chapel Hill has high taxes compared to other towns in NC.

The current wave of development is overwhelmingly high-priced residential apartments, with small amounts of retail. This kind of development barely pays for itself, if at all.
Town leaders should instead seek commercial, research, and light industrial development that will bring in tax revenues much greater than the associated Town costs.
3C (Fiscal) Impact fees are too low.
Ed Harrison says there are none ... other than those assessed by OWASA and the School Board to new homes.

In the case of Ephesus-Fordham, no impact fees were assessed.  Historically, if a developer wishes to build in a town, the developer pays for roads, infrastructure improvements, a nearby park, etc.  This was not done.  Instead the Town was conned into believing that a tax windfall would result and that that was enough to welcome the development.  This was the "logic" behind TIF financing.
Ensure that impact fees are high enough to pay for the true costs of any new development.
3D (Fiscal) Equitable tax assessment Chapel Hill should work closely with County tax officials to review tax evaluations to spot inconsistencies and errors and to ensure that all property owners in Chapel Hill are paying their fair  share of taxes.
3E (Fiscal) Privatizing of government property and outsourcing of government services (David Schwartz) There's a disturbing trend to want to privatize government property and outsource government services. For example, the fiscal impact analysis for Obey Creek assumed that the developer would take responsibility for road maintenance and solid waste collection. This enthusiasm for trying to address our fiscal challenges by eroding the public sector seems short-sighted. 
4A (Environmental) Stormwater Click here for pictures and stories on flooding.

A lot of development is planned for the upstream portion of the Booker Creek watershed:  Carolina North, Central West, Charterwood, the Courtyard, Southern Human Services on Homestead Road, and others.  This will add over 3 million square feet (70 acres) of impervious pavement surface.

Click here for a UNC web site entitled  "Water Quality & Quantity Impacts of Urban Form".  It's a fine series of papers which document what works and what doesn't.
Do a complete analysis of the Booker Creek watershed.

Town needs to periodically remove fallen trees and trash from streams.

Home owners need to help make Town aware of stream and sewer blockages.


Consider following Raleigh's lead and buy up flood-prone properties and convert them into parks.  See this story.

Private companies which provide flood protection (e.g. FloodSafe).

The Town should follow the example of Raleigh and Greensboro to adopt future conditions flood plain mapping and use this information to guide growth.
4B (Environmental) Protect green space High rise buildings are popping up everywhere ... dwarfing or displaying trees.

Ample green space isn't being added for new developments.

Chapel Hill should parallel new development with provisions for additional parks and public open spaces to assure the quality of life for future residents. Partnerships should be sought with relevant institutions and agencies (e.g., Triangle Land Conservancy, UNC).

Consider daylighting Booker Creek.  It passes under Eastgate Shopping Center.  Turn this into a park with density well back from the flood zone but centered around this space.  That's what San Antonio did and created a tourist attraction called Riverwalk.
Staff Response: Stream daylighting with added riparian
buffers and floodplain restoration has the potential to
improve water quality and provide flood mitigation, as well as provide aesthetic and community interaction benefits.
The draft ordinance does not preclude, or otherwise impede
the daylighting of Booker Creek.  However, there are many constraints to daylighting of
urbanized streams. Many of those constraints are present in the area of the Shops at Eastgate. The constraints include finding a funding source to address the cost of land acquisition (daylighting would require demolition of a large portion of the Shops at Eastgate parking area and some of the buildings); excavation and construction costs (including the possible construction of a bridge); as well as addressing utility and traffic conflicts.
4C Environmental preservation Attempts are continually being made by the "Growth Machine" to develop green space.  One noxious but failed attempt was to do away with Chapel Hill's Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCDs).

High priority should be given to generating comprehensive traffic/transit, stormwater and flooding, environmental preservation and residential/retail development supply and demand (already existing and planned) BEFORE more new developments are approved.

Preserve NCDs; create more NCDs.

4D (Environmental) Toxic waste (Nick Torrey) There's a large unlined coal ash dump under the police station that's polluting Bolin Creek.  It needs to be removed.  Click here for the story.

(Sept 9, 2014) New tests show no ground water contamination.  However, the new tests employed a very fine filter  ... which may explain why nothing was detected.  The first two tests (with a less fine filter) showed pollution.
Click here for a page on the Town's web site that explains what the Town is doing.
5A (Livability) Affordable housing (AH) Rising rents and housing costs push low income people out of Chapel Hill.  Many of our town police officers, firefighters, and teachers can't afford to live here.

2014-July 25 Commentary by Ellie Kinnaird.

Housing Choice Vouchers are being rejected by landlords.

The Town Council rezoned Ephesus-Fordham without requiring any affordable housing.  This was a lost opportunity.

DHIC debacle:  In January 2014 the Town gave 8.5 acres of land to DHIC for $ 100 to provide affordable housing, but in August we learn that DHIC has failed to acquire a grant that would permit them to build.  See this Daily Tarheel article.

One complication is that NC laws prohibit rent control.  See NC General Statute 42.14.1.
Microhousing (see NOMAD and this Seattle story)

Incentivize AH.  See "Happy City" excerpt

We also need a good definition of AH, as some developers say they provide AH, but it's actually middle class housing.

Repeal NC G.S. 42-14.1.
5B (Livability) Schools Chapel Hill has been growing 3 to 5% each year.  This fast growth fuels the need for new schools which necessitates frequent redistricting.  Kids lose their friends when they have to change schools.


Few possible sites for new schools.

Bus issues like breakdowns.

Teachers don't make enough money to be able to live in Chapel Hill.  They'd prefer to live in the same community that they work.  They don't want a long commute.
Most of the school issues have to be addressed at the county and state levels.

Future school sites need to be identified and obtained.
5C (Livability) Traffic
Traffic will likely become burdensome as development has been rapidly increased without consideration to the townwide traffic implications.
A Town-wide traffic study is needed.  UNC and Carrboro plans should also be included.

Copy what works in other cities and towns.  Good examples are Minneapolis and Bogata.
5D (Livability) Lack of affordable shopping There's too many fancy stores and no discount shopping.  People are driving outside Chapel Hill to do their shopping ... consuming gas and taking tax revenue with them.

Roses, Belks, and Ivey's have left Chapel Hill.

Some of our unique stores and businesses have fled to Carrboro (Cameron’s, Womencraft).

In the old days Chapel Hill had lots of stores.
5E (Livability) Parking Many people avoid downtown because there is no free parking.  There is also predatory towing. New developments need to ensure that there is ample free parking.  EF has been designed with only 1.0 parking spots per one bedroom residence.  1.5 is used in Flagstaff.

[details]  [example]
5F (Livability) Walkability, bikeability Pedestrian bridges and tunnels are needed to safely cross high traffic roads like Fordham Boulevard.

Click here for story on a pedestrian bridge that was built in Seminole County, Florida for $ 3.3M.

The Republican Party has completely defunded the state bicycle and pedestrian division in North Carolina, so we're not going to get state funding.
Developers should pay for pedestrian bridges if they want to add mega-developments.

Making them handicap accessible will be a challenge.

Click here for examples of two excellent pedestrian underpasses that the Town Council approved and oversaw.  Cheers to them on that.

Council member Jim Ward presented a petition on pedestrian safety to the Town Council on September 8, 2014.

(Chapel Hill Bike Plan) Work with NCDOT to redesign certain roads to make them safer for operating bicycles.

(Tom Henkel) What we need are dedicated bike trails alongside heavy traffic arteries that are completely separate from the roads, like the short bike trail along Raleigh Rd near Meadowmont.  It is going to cost money to make Chapel Hill truly “bikeable”.  But before we get there, we also need an education campaign on bike and pedestrian safety.  Too many drivers ignore the current pedestrian crossing areas and too many bicyclist ignore the “rules of the road” that cover them as well as cars.
5G (Livability) Homeless A lot of homeless people loiter in downtown Chapel Hill.  Some beg for money and make lewd remarks to young women.  The homeless shelter provides shelter at night, but structure is needed for the daytime lives of the homeless.
5H (Livability) Maintain + enhance Town character Our history is a story of town-gown synergy, distinctive locally owned businesses, unpretentious residential areas, and a mix of all income levels.  Recent trends have been unfavorable to our community.  These include rapid loss of affordable rental housing and of stores that sell basic needs at reasonable prices and massive redevelopment.

Recent development has focused on serving only high income people, has placed high rise buildings in inappropriate places, and chain stores everywhere.
5I (Livability) Diversity needed    


EF = Ephesus-Fordham

Book review:  "Better Not Bigger - How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community" by Eben Fodor 1999


Ann Loftin:  Why I joined CHALT (February 24, 2015)

Click here for an October 20, 2014 WCHL commentary by David Schwartz on the "Growth Coalition".

Click here for June 16, 2014 WCHL commentary by David Schwartz responding to developer Roger Perry.

Nancy Oates "Breaking inauspicious" June 16, 2014 Chapel Hill Watch

7 Reasons Why High-Rises Kill Livability

Power at the Local Level: Growth Coalition Theory  by G. William Domhoff

The Leftmost City:  Power & Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz by G. William Domhoff


Ken Larsen's home page

Ephesus/Fordham project