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Conservation petition debated at Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board meeting

The Chapel Hill Environmental Stewardship Advisory Board chose to edit a petition regarding stormwater management ordinances in the Ephesus-Fordham district to incorporate concerns about development Thursday night.

The petition, spearheaded by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, calls for the reinstatement of a Resource Conservation District in Ephesus-Fordham. The RCD ordinances regulate stream buffers, water quality and preserve green space. They would override provisions in the district’s form-based code, which was designed by the town in 2014 to encourage new development.

The environmental stewardship board is the third board to hear the petition, but the first to withhold direct endorsement and to create their own memo. The Stormwater Management Utility Advisory Board and the Parks, Greenways and Recreation Commission approved the petition and will communicate that to the Chapel Hill Town Council.

“It’s not necessarily a choice between economy and the environment,” said Melissa McCullough, member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission. “As someone in the biz, we like to think that there’s not that false dichotomy."

The Ephesus-Fordham district takes up about 163 acres characterized by three shopping malls and difficult traffic. In 2014, hoping to attract developers who would transform the district into a more community-friendly space, the town designed a new zoning district which left out the previously in-place RCD regulations.

Joan Guilkey, a CHALT member, said in an interview that the conservation district was necessary for best stormwater management practices.

“We are making improvements in the form-based code,” she said. “The RCD will make it clear what can and cannot be built and how close it can come to the stream.”

In the absence of the resource conservation ordinances, developers look to the Jordan Lake Nutrient Management Strategy, or Jordan Rules, to govern water quality in the district. The Jordan Rules designate 50 foot buffers around stream banks. A Resource Conservation District designates a minimum of 150 feet.

Development in the district is also limited by the floodplain of the Lower Booker Creek watershed. The RCD would further limit development, which some members of the environmental stewardship board disagreed with.

McCullough, a non-voting member of the board, said that Ephesus-Fordham is nearly all impervious surface, so it is an unpleasant, unproductive place that does not support the tax base. The town designed a form-based code to solve this issue, which would still allow for developments like a retention pond to manage stormwater.

Discussions of the RCD have a sense of urgency as the town attempts to come to a decision, while developers seek to work in the district.

Ram Realty Services, a Florida-based agency with an office in Charlotte, presented development prospects for Ephesus-Fordham to the Community Design Commission at a Dec. 15 meeting. The group has yet to submit a formal application.

One of the projects would be to build a five- to six-story apartment building where the Days Inn currently stands. The apartment would have easy connectivity to the Village Plaza shopping center and a bike path.

David Klepser, director of development at Ram Realty Services, told the Community Design Commission members in December that the agency is aware of their site constraints, including the Booker Creek floodway area and the Jordan Rules.

“We are mindful of that and will be looking at how we can accommodate that,” he said. 

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