Chapel Hill works to update its land use management ordinance
It took Travis Vencel 26 months to get his Bicycle Apartments project approved in Chapel Hill.
Vencel wasn’t the first developer to stumble through the traps of the town’s lengthy development process — but he might be one of the last.
Last week, the town launched an effort to update its land use management ordinance, or LUMO, for the first time in 10 years.
“The update is supposed to help folks better understand and better predict what development is and what is expected during the development process,” said Eric Feld, the town’s current development planner.
When developers want to bring their projects to Chapel Hill, they usually have to apply to rezone the land for their desired use. Those applications then pass through a public hearing, some of the town’s 19 advisory boards and the Town Council.
John Richardson, Chapel Hill’s sustainability officer, said the town needed to produce a code that would be helpful for everyone.
“Our development process will always take longer if it takes our people longer to understand what the process is,” Richardson said.
An expert comes to town
The town hired Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio, an Austin, Texas-based company that specializes in creating uncomplicated zoning and unified codes for cities and form-based codes for downtown areas.
“We plan to reorganize and modernize the document and make it more graphically oriented so the average person can make sense of it,” Einsweiler said. “We’re simplifying it without dumbing it down.”
Chapel Hill hopes to adopt a form-based code, which sets specific regulations for items like building height, signage standards and parking lot screening and shading.
The update to the document will include graphics and simple language to make it more readable and accessible for both the public and developers.
“The old document is just filled with jargon and very difficult to understand. This updated version will make everything visual,” Richardson said.
Einsweiler said he wants the update to fit the town’s new vision for Chapel Hill.
“If the vision of the town has changed, then the regulations need to change,” he said. “The idea here is to link these to the community’s vision.”
Four key areas
Council member Donna Bell said the town chose to initially focus on four areas to make the update process manageable and effective: codes applying to bed and breakfasts, signage, stormwater management and parking lot landscaping.
Under the current land use ordinance, bed and breakfasts are not allowed in town, but Feld said many surrounding areas allow them.
“Let’s explore this topic and see if we can incorporate these into the ordinance, so we can provide some regulatory framework for this type of use,” he said.
Feld said the current codes for signage are paragraphs of jargon. The proposed update will include figures that show exact dimensions and examples of potential sign ideas.
“As a planner, I do my best to make sure a sign is representing the values of Chapel Hill,” he said. “I want to make sure we are telling people what exactly we expect of them.”
The town’s update efforts will also look closely at parking lot landscaping and stormwater regulations.
Bell said the Town Council is also reorganizing its advisory boards to further help speed up the approval process.
“It started off with looking at boards around the development process and then looking at the goals of those boards,” Bell said. “Some of the boards either have an unclear charge or the charge was shared with other boards.”
Richardson, the town’s sustainability officer, said re-evaluating the boards is important to increasing efficiency.
“Anytime we update our vision, we need to re-evaluate the boards and commissions that support that vision and make sure they are aligned with those visions,” he said.
A thorough cost analysis determined it cost the town up to $600,000 per year to have and manage 19 advisory boards, Richardson said.
The advisory board portion of the approval process is often costly and lengthy for developers, who have to keep architects and attorneys on retainer while it is pending approval.
Though it was time-consuming for him, Vencel said he still appreciated town’s stringent approval process.
“It’s an in-depth process,” Vencel said. “I don’t think it is beneficial to developers, but you get a much better product at the end.”
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