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Plans for American Legion land move forward after years of contention


After a year of controversy and dissent, the Chapel Hill Town Council decided to purchase the American Legion land on Dec. 5 for $7.9 million. The decision was met with both community support and dismay. 

The town’s decision to purchase the 36.2 acre property came after months of negotiation

“It’s the largest tract of property that’s flat left in Chapel Hill,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said. “With the density in the Ephesus-Fordham area, there is the ability to do something that really fits the community and allow us to make our own destiny.”

In November 2015, the town was presented with the opportunity to purchase the land but waived its right of first refusal in a closed session meeting — which upset some local residents. 

Joan Guilkey, a former member of the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Commission, said the town’s comprehensive parks plan details the need to use the American Legion land to expand Ephesus Park. 

“I was very, very angry when I found out all this had happened behind closed doors and essentially went beyond the master plan,” Guilkey said. “The Legion was a very difficult organization to work with on this and very tough negotiations occurred.”

Chapel Hill resident David Schwartz was concerned to hear that decisions were made in closed session without public notice.  

"What happened in this case was that the council made a policy decision: They weren’t in closed session to discuss how much they were going to pay, but, rather, whether or not they were going to make an offer on the property," Schwartz said.

"Many of us felt this issue should have been a matter of public discussion. The fact that they had made a decision that was in conflict with the town’s formally adopted land use plans without any public input seemed, to many, people to have been inappropriate."

The Legion signed a contract with Woodfield Acquisitions LLC in September 2015 to build luxury apartment units, a plan largely opposed by members of the community. According to a letter to the town from the American Legion, the Chapel Hill Town Council had 60 days to accept the offer.

When Hemminger took office in December 2015, she discovered what had occurred between the town and the Legion. She said she felt the land could be used for things better than apartments and began negotiating with Woodfield and the Legion. 

After months of negotiations, the land was purchased by the town for $7.9 million in December and will be paid in a series of three installments. Of the total amount, $3.6 million will be paid at closing (which has to occur on or before March 31, 2017) with funding coming from the excess money in the town’s funds balance. 

Guilkey said that Hemminger has done well with the land acquisition given that the controversy was handed down to her without much input.

"We’ve been very pleased with the response from the new mayor and were very pleased with her negotiations with the Legion that were extremely difficult," Guilkey said. "They didn’t want to talk to her at all, and the manager went in and did the talking on behalf of the town. It reminded me of talking with a cold war nation or something, it was just amazing."

Chapel Hill Town Council member Nancy Oates said the town council discussed selling off a portion of the land along Legion Road for commercial use. If the land fetched a high enough price, it would go toward paying off the parcel and making a cost-effective park. 

“This was something that the prior council had said we couldn’t afford to buy and then we had a nice confluence where, all of a sudden, we did have the money at the same time that American Legion said they would sell it to us,” Oates said. 

Despite voting against the purchase due to a surprise amendment proposed at the Dec. 5 council meeting, Oates said she is very much in favor of the town owning the property. 

“It’s a big piece of land and I like the fact that there is undeveloped land there," she said. "There is a need to have some sort of unstructured space in town, a place where you can explore and get lost a little bit.”

The town will officially close on the land by or before the end of March. Until then, town staff are assessing the land for development possibilities and restrictions. 

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Guilkey said options are wide open for ways to combine park space with commercial uses. 

“The land isn’t big enough to do everything that everyone is talking about, but we could make a well-designed green area,” Guilkey said. “We could put a soccer field in there, a gymnasium, tennis courts, those sorts of things. We’d rather it be something pretty and something that is useful to the town, and if it brings in tax dollars, all the better.”

Hemminger said she plans to create a process to bring community members' ideas to the table.

“I want us to spend the time on the American Legion to do it right,” Hemminger said. “For that to work, I want a comparison of town needs and goals that we have, and I want us to spend the time and the energy on creating something that really matches the community needs. And I don’t know what that looks like yet.”

Despite the progress, some were upset with how quickly the purchase evolved. 

Diane Willis, a Chapel Hill resident who lives near the American Legion property, said that she and the rest of her neighborhood were extremely upset when they first heard that the land was to be used for apartments. Now that the land is owned by the town, she wants to see community involvement in the planning process. 

“I don’t have a high level of trust because of the shenanigans they’ve done before,” Willis said. “The town is supposed to start a community planning process, which is another thing that isn’t written in black and white. Hopefully, we have learned some lessons and from now on, the public will be involved.”

Despite past frustrations, Willis said she is optimistic about working with the town.

“We put a big push to make Woodfield go away, and various people came out with different ideas about things to put on the land and then the mayor, in a work session, asked people to dream about what they wanted to see on that property,” Willis said. “I really hope that people participate — when things drag out and drag out slower and slower, people tend to lose focus and support. But people are genuinely happy that it’s turning out this way.”