Q # 9 Is Form-based code applicable to Chapel Hill?

The Town has hired a consultant to revise the Town’s land use ordinances. He recommends “form based code” for the Ephesus Church – Fordham focus area and other areas of Town to replace the special use permit and public hearing system of review. Please discuss the good and bad points of this proposed new method of development review.

George Cianciola   A form-based code system, as being proposed for the Ephesus Church-Fordham focus area has the advantage of providing both citizens and applicants alike a clear idea of what the community wants to see be developed in a particular area. For instance, it can describe for an area what its future development’s mass should be, what its heights should be, what its setbacks should be.  What it doesn’t usual do is define what a development’s design should be and, in Chapel Hill, that could be a serious drawback.  The best laid-out and functional project will not be well-received if it does not ‘fit’ the area because of a less than desirable design.

I like the potential for clarity that form-based code can provide but I believe that we need to figure out where the design review might fit in and how that can be accomplished while maintaining the efficiency of such a system.

Ed Harrison   There are many unanswered questions about how we would proceed with this. As usual, I’ve researched the experience of other communities. The most readily available example is the experience in Durham’s Ninth Street District, which I’ve so far reviewed with applicants and neighborhood advocates – both unhappy with it.

Most notable “good point”: a much shorter development review process, which matters much  for projects of significant public benefit with tight exterior time constraints (e.g. proposed affordable housing on Town land). A Special Use Permit (SUP) can take a long time – but it’s increasingly puzzling to me why a project which may have less than an hour of Council hearing and discussion takes more than 6 months to be approved.

Most notable “bad” point: the significant reduction in public/Council review of specific development proposals. Our balky SUP process at least facilitates consideration of how a proposal matches our community priorities and values as shown in the comprehensive plan. Others: no clear way to rezone only limited parts of the district; no obvious rationales for proposed specific standards, which often seem arbitrary; no minima for vegetated area percentage; no addressing (even by reference) of tract-by-tract stormwater management, since an overall area plan for that does not yet exist.

Loren Hintz   I have attended a number of meetings and studied documents about from based code. The current special use permit does allow the town to obtain some social benefits from new developments which the form based code does not permit. Also the current method allows a large amount of public participation. For most of the town I think special use permit process (but with a shorter time line) is appropriate. However, I think a carefully written form based code for the Ephesus Church- Fordham is appropriate with the modification of required analysis by a Community Design Review Board. This area is already very developed and difficult to navigate. I accept the argument that form based code will help it to become a better place in appearance, bike and pedestrian access and a boost to our economy. The Community Design Review will allow some public input which I believe will be useful. I don’t think the area needs the traditional site by site permit process. I also think that although we will not be able to require all of the desired social benefits, some, such as transportation, will be implemented because they will be advantageous for the success of the project. Finally, I think that over the long run this area, when developed, will actually generate more revenue for town projects such as affordable housing.

Sally Greene   The advantages of form-based code to developers are that it gives assurance that they can anticipate costs and timeframes for their projects: and time is money. The advantages to the community are that creating the form-based code itself is a community process in which physical features of size and scale, etc. are determined. The community is the driver of the form. The disadvantages are in the public benefit part of the equation. Because the forms are just that—formulaic—there is no room to negotiate for benefits such as affordable housing or energy efficiency.

In Ephesus/Fordham, it makes sense to try this approach, for two reasons. One, we need every tool available to attract quality commercial/residential redevelopment. Two, we have a good chance of replacing a lot of the affordable rental that we’ll lose with the closing of Colony Apartments if we have the DHIC tax-credit project, which is in this area; also there is potentially another affordable residential project that is in the pipeline. So, thinking of the area as one whole, we can have an affordable housing solution and use form-based code. But I would want to be very careful about where else we were to use it.

Gary Kahn  The good and bad points should be discussed at committee meetings.

Paul Neebe    The good part of form based code is that a developer knows what the town wants in advance and can decide if they want to bring their project here.

The bad part about the current planned form based code is that it is too generic and doesn’t address many of the needs of Chapel Hill. For example: Form Based Code should have something that says a developer needs to yield to proposed Greenways.  Another example, is that form based code should include a bicycle track (separated from traffic) and not just say that the complete streets program will take care of this.  Of course these are my focus areas and I know there are other examples that need to be included in this form based code, if it is ever to be used with a beneficial effect on Chapel Hill.

Amy Ryan  There are good reasons for Chapel Hill to make its development review more efficient – our current process is expensive in terms of staff time, advisory board time, and development costs.  It also allows projects to get far along in the planning process before the public has a chance to weigh in on them, which reduces the effect and impact that community members can have on change in town.

It makes sense to me to plan proactively for the kind of growth, with meaningful citizen input from the beginning. But changes to the review process must be planned carefully, and I don’t support consigning project review to an administrative check-off. It’s important that we retain some public review, involving either a town advisory board or Council, and that there is still opportunity for public comment before a development receives the go-ahead.

I think a trial of this system at Ephesus-Fordham is a reasonable step to exploring new options for development review.  If it proves successful, it could be adopted in other suitable areas in town; if we’re not happy with the results, we can look for better ways to improve the process.

Maria Palmer   There are many good points to this system. The main one being the hope that the ugly eyesore that is Ram’s Plaza will become a great place to shop and live. We need to increase the amount of rental property and affordable housing as well as the commercial base. The plans seem to indicate this is possible and can be expedited with form based codes.

D.C. Swinton  At this time, I do not have much knowledge regarding this particular Town subject.  However, I do believe that all future development of Cahpel Hill lands must en environmentally sustainablha

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