A redevelopment project on 1200 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. was approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council at a Wednesday meeting despite criticisms that it didn't align with the Town's land use goals.
The decision comes largely due to threats of residents being evicted by the developer if not approved.
The council voted 5-3 in favor of the project’s rezoning proposal, which paves the way for developer Stackhouse Properties to build a new gas station, convenience store and multi-story self-storage building on the 13.9-acre site that it has owned since 2018.
The site is home to the nonoperational Marathon Service Station and the Tar Heel Mobile Home Park. The development will preserve the 73 existing homes in the park for at least 15 years, and the 16 homes located where the storage facility will be built will all be relocated on-site.
The council previously voted on the proposal in its first reading on Feb. 24, where it voted 5-3 in favor of the project but didn’t reach the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass. In Wednesday’s meeting, only a majority vote was needed for the proposal to pass due to changes in the council’s procedures.
Due to the concerns the council had raised about the project, the developer announced in Wednesday’s meeting that they will be reducing the size of the proposed self-storage unit by 10,000 square feet and freezing rent rates for residents until April 1, 2024.
Residents of the park largely agree that the project is not ideal. But, they have accepted it as their best chance to get to stay in their homes. In December, they received letters from the developer stating that if the project proposal wasn’t approved, the park would be closed and residents would be forced to find another place to live.
Council members have also voiced their disdain for the project, agreeing that it doesn’t align with the Town’s long-term land use goals and criticizing the developers for their manipulative tactics.
Their differences in voting came down to whether or not they thought approving the project is the best way to protect residents in the park. Five of them — Allen Buansi, Michael Parker, Tai Huynh, Karen Stegman and Mayor Pam Hemminger — did.
Parker said one of Chapel Hill's core values is the preservation of neighborhoods and communities.
“This mobile home park, as well as all the other mobile home parks in Chapel Hill, are neighborhoods, are communities, and we owe them the same level of protection that we would afford to any other community or neighborhood in this town that was under any kind of a threat that would require them to leave their homes,” he said.
Council members Hongbin Gu, Jessica Anderson and Amy Ryan all voted against the project, expressing frustration that they were placed in this situation. Gu was concerned about what precedent approving the project would set for other “predatory” proposals.
“The residents, who are very important members of our community, are put in a horrible position, no matter the outcome,” Anderson said. “And that shouldn’t be acceptable to any of us. We didn’t do our jobs.”
Gu brought a petition before the council early in the meeting that would adopt the use of restricted residential zoning to protect manufactured home residents. The council did not accept her petition, with council member Allen Buansi saying that such a zoning strategy would not ultimately protect residents.
Gu has also questioned if the Town could expand its eviction moratorium to include the mobile home park. Hemminger clarified at the meeting that local governments cannot stop evictions from happening or stop a mobile home park from shutting down.
Council members said creating a plan to protect vulnerable residents and prevent a situation like this from happening again, such as turning their manufactured home strategy into a funded action plan, should be a priority moving forward. Huynh said they should also make sure communities of color are included in land use decision-making and are not spoken for by others in the process.
“Let’s take this experience and let it spur us into meaningful action in ways that help us mitigate and avoid this situation in the future,” Anderson said. “Since it’s coming at us again and again and again, no matter what else we fill our agendas with in the meantime.”