It was supposed to be a simple approval — a small park, a picnic table and a playground to be located in the existing North Forest Hills neighborhood.
Yet the small project took more than a year to pass through the Chapel Hill Town Council.
Council member Jim Ward, who worked with the Parks and Recreation department to get the project approved, said he was surprised by how long it took.
“First there was a sort of knee jerk response from neighbors as if we were trying to put in a landfill,” he said. “They came up with all sorts of negative responses.”
But if history serves as any indication, this project’s lengthy approval process is anything but surprising.
Records show that Chapel Hill’s development approval process can take as much as three times longer than that of other similarly sized college towns.
Gene Poveromo, the town’s development manager, said it usually takes the council about 12 months to decide a project’s fate.
But Chapel Hill developers say the process feels too long.
“Not only does it feel that way, but it is that way,” said Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
“One of the principal complaints we hear from folks wanting to grow a business is the length of the process. They have described it as long, expensive and uncertain.”
Developer Bill Christian spent the last five years in and out of council meetings, waiting on the approval of Charterwood, a 15.7 acre development near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Weaver Dairy Road.
In September, that approval finally came.
But now the approval might be in question after a group of residents brought a petition against the development, asking for a judge to reverse the town’s decision.
Christian declined to comment for this story.
For some developers, council approval might never come.
Carol Ann Zinn, a Chapel Hill developer whose Aydan Court development was rejected by the council in 2011, learned this lesson the hard way — her development approval process meant four years wasted.
Aydan Court was a 5.8 acre residential development near N.C. Highway 54. Zinn could not be reached for comment.
“A lot of people talk about Charterwood with this problem,” said council member Matt Czajkowski. “But I think Aydan Court is a much more egregious example of a horrible process.”
Czajkowski said he was shocked when the council continually supported the project in early meetings with Zinn, explaining that those who at first offered support later rejected the proposal.
He said the problem with the process lies within the town’s policy.
In Chapel Hill, many high-density projects require re-zoning, and developers must apply for special use permits. Czajkowski said this is what slows down the process.
Poveromo said the length of the process stems from the unusual metrics for zoning that Chapel Hill uses.
“What Chapel Hill has that may be different from other communities is a threshold associated with land disturbance and floor area,” he said.
Poveromo said if a development has more than 20,000 square feet of floor area or 40,000 square feet of land disturbance then it needs a special use permit, which often extends the amount of time a developer is waiting.
A possible solution
Czajkowski said he believes the solution for the town is by-right zoning, which would allow town officials to determine how they want a piece of land to be used and then developers with similar proposals could bring projects forward for that land.
“We need to zone for what we want,” Czajkowski said. “Which apparently is pretty much what most communities do nowadays.”
Nelson said the business community agrees.
“Everyone says the current process is broken,” he said. “It’s bad for the person making the proposal, it’s bad for staff, and it’s bad for the council.”
Ward said the current process often turns council members off from development.
“I think there was a culture in Chapel Hill with the way we treat developments,” he said. “The culture was that our staff was schooled to be very, very good at being regulators of the rules and we told people what they couldn’t do.”
Ward said the council has tried to take steps toward a faster, more efficient process, specifically streamlining the citizen advisory boards’ role.
Chapel Hill has 19 advisory boards. These boards discuss specific projects to assess their effects on topics like pedestrian access and neighborhood disturbance.
Previously, the town required developers to meet individually with each board, but now developers can go before multiple boards at one joint meeting.
Poveromo said he hasn’t received any negative comments from developers about the length of the process.
“Developers, they do compare us to other communities,” he said. “But those who are familiar with the process and understand the process are not surprised by how long the process takes.”
Developer Travis Vencel, whose project the Bicycle Apartments first appeared before the Town Council in October 2011, said it’s not the length of the process that worries him, it’s the uncertainty.
The Bicycle Apartments is a proposed seven-story apartment complex on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“The answer is a process that is very time specific for both parties,” he said.
Vencel said he thinks the longest part of the process is hearing neighbor opinions.
But Nelson said this is just another flaw in the system.
“If you are a neighbor fighting a project, you have to go to so many meetings,” he said. “That’s just too much to ask of a neighbor.”
Ward said the council will continue to move toward a streamlined process.
“As the clock ticks, so does the cash register,” he said. “So we are all more sensitive to the developer and the costs to the community when our process adds time.”
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