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Drive-thrus, building heights and more: Clearing up some local policy misconceptions


As Chapel Hill and Carrboro's populations increase, so do questions and misconceptions about affordable housing, stormwater management and zoning.

Here are the answers and clarifications to some of those questions, concepts and misconceptions.

What's the deal with drive-thrus?

In Carrboro, there are three zoning types where drive-thrus are allowed, but only if the property receives a special permit from the town council.

Those three zoning types are primarily found along N.C. Highway 54 and Fidelity Street, and drive-thrus were banned in downtown business-zoned areas in June 1998 to promote pedestrian uses and preserve Carrboro's small-town feel.

In Chapel Hill, food service drive-thrus are allowed with a special use permit, conditional zoning agreement or town council approval, depending on the specific zoning type. In many cases, after a 2023 change, permit applications for drive-thrus would only need to go through the Town's Board of Adjustment rather than the town council.

In much of downtown Chapel Hill, though, a site must be rezoned to be allowed to have a drive-thru. The Town's ordinances are more lenient for drive-thrus at banks than food service establishments

 In 2022, a Cook Out with a drive-thru was constructed on South Elliott Road, and the Dunkin’ on East Franklin Street was approved for a drive-thru after several years of anticipation.

“The goals of [downtown Chapel Hill] are to create a more traditional downtown that’s walkable and not dominated by curb cuts and parking and all these things that are made for cars,” Andrew Whittemore, associate professor at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, said. “And not allowing drive-thrus is kind of part of that.”

What are the Town's building height requirements?

The two most common zoning types throughout Chapel Hill are R-1, which are generally single-family residential areas with three units per acre, and R-2, residential areas with four units per acre. These districts cover the majority of the town, and have their own set of building requirements. Zone R-1 allows buildings to reach 40 feet in height, and R-2 zoning has a height maximum of 50 feet.

Downtown Chapel Hill, though, is mainly zoned for TC-2 and TC-3, which have building height limits from 44 feet to 120 feet.

There has been debate over the construction of taller buildings in these zones, especially about a 2023 proposed development at the East Rosemary Street and Henderson Street intersection and the East Rosemary Redevelopment Project, which broke ground in September 2021. The project will bring a 238,000 square-foot wet lab to the 100 block of Rosemary Street, and the building — and its adjacent parking deck — will be seven stories tall. 

Whittemore said, because Chapel Hill has historically been a small town, people are not used to a lot of activity and congestion.

“Sometimes, a lot of activity is exactly what people want, and in other cases, it’s not,” Whittemore said. “You’re gonna have this tension around that, but it’s fundamentally politics."

What’s going on with affordable housing?

In 2010, Chapel Hill enacted a policy for new residential developments: in proposals with over five units, 15 percent must be considered affordable — meaning they cost no more than 30 percent of a household’s income.

Developers are able to challenge this as long as they make a payment to the Town in place of the units. Delores Bailey, executive director of EMPOWERment Inc., said this payment would be turned around and put toward affordable housing.

Bailey said, according to surveying by the County, families that have the most unanswered needs are those making below the area's median income. She said there is about a 1,200-unit gap for those residents.

“Even if you’re talking about a person who makes 60 percent AMI, which can be a person who has a voucher — we’re talking about a man or woman that makes $7.25 an hour — there’s no place they can find to live in this area,” Bailey said.

Organizations such as EMPOWERment Inc., Community Home Trust and CASA are working to close these gaps in affordable housing availability, and the Town has also approved affordable housing projects on its own land.

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How is the Town handling stormwater and flood prevention?

The areas in Chapel Hill that surround creeks are highly prone to flooding, especially Umstead Drive, Eastgate Crossing and Chapel Hill High School.

There has long been conversation and concern surrounding the Town’s stormwater management efforts, especially in neighborhoods such as Barred Owl Creek in Carrboro, which does not have a homeowners' association to rely on.

In recent years, the Town has implemented policies such as the Flood Damage Prevention and Resource Conservation District ordinances. These policies include requirements for developments to reduce flooding, Alex Carrasquillo, the Town's public information officer said in an email.

The Chapel Hill Town Council will also vote soon on an increase to stormwater requirements for new developments.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly portrayed the drive-thru policies and regulations of the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Drive-thrus are permitted uses under some zoning types in Chapel Hill and Carrboro — they are not wholly banned. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

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