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The Daily Tar Heel

SAPFO Ball Rolling; Or Is It Really?

The Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance is a somewhat controversial intergovernmental proposal that has been bouncing around the county for nearly two years.

Under it, developers looking to build residential projects would be required to get a Certification of Adequacy of Public Schools Facilities before the hard hats could get to work.

To get a CAPS, a developer would have to go before the local school board and prove that enough classroom space exists for the anticipated influx of new kids the project would produce.

The formula: single-family homes make 0.38 kids; multi-family housing makes 0.18 kids. (Admittedly, the formula will have to be evaluated and fine-tuned as new data comes in.)

Additionally, the proposal would force Orange County and the school districts to plan ahead and line up funds for a steady pace of new school construction. That way, SAPFO isn't a de facto halt on new housing developments.

At last week's session, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved a "memorandum of understanding" between the town, Carrboro, Orange County, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools regarding SAPFO. Chapel Hill's passage of the memorandum is not the same as passing SAPFO itself -- it merely lays the foundation for its eventual adoption, which could be as soon as the end of this year.

The memorandum already has been approved by both school systems. Chapel Hill is the first government body to approve it. It also must be green-lighted by the Orange County Board of Commissioners, which funds all new school construction, and the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.

If all the governing bodies sign on and SAPFO becomes a reality, it would be the first such regulation in the state. Cary has a similar ordinance in effect concerning residential construction and road capacity. However, Wake County has never signed on to it, making it moot.

For such an important issue, the vote seemed almost to slip under most people's radar screen. Unanimously passed at almost 11:30 p.m., the idea behind SAPFO has enjoyed a good deal of support. However, there are still some who question the logistics behind it.

One such person is Aaron Nelson, head of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. Nelson asked the Town Council to re-examine the capacity levels for schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. As it stands now, elementary schools have a capacity level of 105 percent, middle schools are 107 percent and high schools are 110 percent. If a development pushes the number of kids over a school's capacity level, it wouldn't receive a CAPS.

Nelson wants to see capacity levels raised to 110 percent for elementary schools, 114 percent for middle schools and 120 percent for high schools.

Unfortunately, the council did not look into the capacity issue -- much to Nelson's chagrin. Their thinking seems to be "Sure, this thing has some problems, but we need to get the ball moving now."

That ball is now in Carrboro's court.

The aldermen will have to hold a public hearing and vote on the memo soon -- and Nelson sees another opportunity to get his concerns addressed. He plans to lobby the board as they begin their deliberations.

The aldermen have voiced concerns of SAPFO's effect on affordable housing in the past. But they also seem receptive to re-opening the school capacity issue themselves.

Of course, if Carrboro wants to change capacity levels, it would probably set off a new round of deliberations within the school board and the Town Council. Getting one governing body to agree on an issue can be difficult. Getting five to agree is a civics miracle.

Maybe the ball is finally rolling on the SAPFO. But it's also possible the foot of Mayor Mike Nelson and the alderman are about to stop it cold.

Columnist Jonathan Chaney can be reached at jhchaney@email.unc.edu.

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