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'We really need both': Residents debate development of American Legion property

Cars drive down the busy Ephesus Church Road in Chapel Hill, NC on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. The Town of Chapel Hill has proposed bike lanes that would result in narrower vehicle lanes and the prohibition of roadside parking.

Debates in Chapel Hill continue over what to do with the 36.2-acre American Legion property, which includes a legion post building, a small dance studio and a 3.1-acre pond and is located near Ephesus Park.

The Town Council voted in 2016 to authorize the town manager to purchase the plot of land from the American Legion Post. Following its purchase in 2017, the Town appointed an American Legion Task Force to make recommendations for the future use of the land.

Several members of the Town Council brought forth a petition in May asking to work with an outside party to develop a portion of the park for retail or office space through a sale or lease. The petition said the other portions of the site could be used for affordable housing and a "first-class park."

In October, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger created a subcommittee to discuss and make recommendations for the council about the property.

Mayor Pro Tempore Karen Stegman said the Town’s plans for the land have evolved over time. 

After receiving feedback from the public and other council members, Stegman said she is not supportive of selling off any of the land for private use. 

Instead, Stegman said the Town Council’s plan is to keep control of the property but work with an affordable housing partner to develop a portion of the lot. 

For the rest of the land, she said she is looking to park staff and the Parks, Recreation and Greenway Commission to make recommendations to the Town Council about the Town's needs and how to accommodate different interests.

“It’s just super important that when we have that control, that we use it to meet priority needs,” Stegman said.

Chapel Hill currently has 1,156 affordable housing units and deployed $2.5 million in the past fiscal year to community partners to support affordable housing projects.

Richard Mitchell, a resident of Chapel Hill, said in a Nov. 16 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting that there is a coalition of over 1,000 people who see the land as an opportunity to be used for a park.

Chapel Hill resident and Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition member Alice Jacoby presented a petition to use the land for a park and affordable housing at the meeting. The petition said the committee expects the planning process to have established parameters to ensure that the final plan includes a park and “much-needed” affordable housing.

At the same meeting, Jacoby said the affordable housing units should serve healthcare workers, public safety professionals, service-sector staff, people with intellectual disabilities, fixed-income seniors and other community members who have faced barriers to housing.

She said the petition has been signed by 337 people at the Town Council meeting.

Creating beautiful, new community parks and building urgently-needed affordable housing are not mutually-exclusive goals on 36 acres of land,” Jacoby said. “Despite what some folks may say.” 

Yvette Matthews, a resident and community organizer for the Community Empowerment Fund, said affordable housing is a priority and that people with fixed incomes are suffering. 

“If you are working at two or three jobs and then you got to sleep in your car, then we failed the people that we are supposed to be supporting,” Matthews said.

Town Council member Michael Parker said he’d like to see land set aside for affordable housing and a park that includes passive and active recreation.

Parker said housing is getting more expensive and that people — like first responders and UNC healthcare workers — are being forced out because they can no longer afford to live in Chapel Hill.

“I want diversity," Parker said. "I want people of all socio-demographic characteristics to be able to live in Chapel Hill, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to do so.”

Chapel Hill resident and UNC professor Virginia Gray said she’s been going to Town Council meetings since 2015 to advocate for preserving the land. 

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Gray, a member of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, said some residents are unaware of the Town’s plan for the property and said the residents are frustrated that there is little room for resident input in committee meetings on the use of the piece of land.

“I think the community is engaged, it’s just the council’s not engaged with us,” Gray said.

Jane Gabin, a 40-year resident of Chapel Hill, said some residents are feeling "squeezed" by development, and that the property is one of the few places left in Chapel Hill for a park.

Gabin said she has sent her thoughts to the Town Council and that they might be starting to listen to residents. 

“I just want to know that the future of Chapel Hill is not solely in the hands of people who stand to make money off of it,” Gabin said.

Town Council member Adam Searing said that in the area surrounding the property, there are affordable housing options. He said people living in affordable housing deserve a park and that the area is in need of park space.

“Some people pit affordable housing against a great park,” Searing said. “We really need both.”

Parker said he believes there will be a resolution coming to the Town Council on Dec. 7 with information about the Town’s plans with the land.


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