Bill Christian has spent almost five years waiting to build Charterwood, his mixed-use development. But, like many developers, he has had to combat a daunting town-approval process.
At Monday night’s Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, the council voted against a rezoning request and a special use permit for Charterwood. The council rejected similar applications in March.
“We think that we have given the town an excellent proposal and it got turned down,” Christian said. “It’s been pretty difficult.”
Christian and his associates had modified their building plans with the help of town staff, the Northern Area Task Force and suggestions from neighbors in surrounding communities.
But at the meeting, council members spoke of concerns with the development’s environmental impacts, building height and proximity to the street.
During the meeting, Town Council member Gene Pease raised questions about the town’s planning approval process, which can be lengthy and complicated.
Chapel Hill is currently reviewing 27 development proposals — several for other large, mixed-use projects like Charterwood.
“It’s not a fast process,” Town Council member Penny Rich said. “We have high standards.”
Officials said a new review system and changes stemming from Chapel Hill 2020 could speed up the process, while creating developments that serve the town’s best interest.
The town’s approval process can take anywhere from six weeks for small subdivisions to nine months for larger projects such as Greenbridge Condominiums, according to Development Manager Gene Poveromo.
The road to approval begins with meetings with town staff and land use regulators, and a concept plan review from the Town Council and other committees.
After a series of other meetings with the town, a final public hearing where community members can comment on the proposal is the last step before approval.
For Larry Short, developer of the proposed Shortbread Lofts development, the approval process has also been a long one.
Short’s application, which town officials are still considering, has been in limbo for four years — but he said he still supports the procedure.
“I would say the process is thorough, and it overall benefits the quality of the development,” Short said. “Ours has had some hiccups.”
But Christian said the long process discourages people from owning businesses in the area.
“It already has hurt the town,” Christian said. “The real estate market is already risky enough, because it is so closely tied to the economy, to also have to deal with this process.”
Ruby Sinreich, a former member of the Chapel Hill Planning Board, said all aspects of the process have a purpose.
“Maybe in the past few years Chapel Hill has become more crowded, so proposals are bigger and more contentious,” she said. “But the process keeps Chapel Hill a pleasant place to live.”
Changes to the system
The Town Council proposed and implemented a new joint-review system last year to shorten the process — but the new plan has received mixed reviews.
In the new system, all relevant boards meet to discuss and vote on the proposal at one time.
Short said it took longer to schedule a time when everyone was available for the meeting than it would have taken to meet with each board individually.
But Rich said she likes joint-review because she was able to hear all boards speak at once.
“I don’t go to every committee’s meetings, I’d be dead if I did,” Rich said. “But I think some of the boards took issue with it because it didn’t flow well for them.”
Jon Keener, the development manager of 140 West Franklin, said he wishes he could have had a joint-review meeting when he was in the process of getting approved.
“That would have been a great experience as far as streamlining goes,” he said.
Town Council member Matt Czajkowski said he hopes Chapel Hill 2020 — the town’s long-term comprehensive plan — will go even further in cutting the time the review process takes by outlining specific criteria for developers and businesses looking to move to the town.
“Ideally the outcome of 2020 is that we know what we’re looking for and have the courage to say we’re confident in our vision and there are certain areas that we’re going to zone for certain things.”
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