Those poor developers

In today's N&O, Matt Dees reports the breaking news that developers think Chapel Hill is too tough on them. I think that having higher standards is what makes Chapel Hill such a nice place, which is what makes people want to build here and make money on our prosperous community.

For example, how do you think Roger Perry's East-West Partners is doing on Meadowmont, The Cedars, Downing Creek, Cobble Ridge, and Westwood Terrace? In fact, look how they brag about the sidewalks in Medowmont in their web site. The "neotraditional" or "new urbanist" style of that development was first suggested by a small area plan for the NC 54 entranceway in which the Town established the goals for the site.

Roger Perry says the mere words "Chapel Hill" are enough to turn off most developers.

"You mention a piece of property here, and most people will just walk away," said Perry, a developer who nonetheless has made a good living atop Chapel Hill soil with such large projects as the Meadowmont community.
- N&O: Chapel Hill gives developers the jitters, 3/2/06

I read what Perry said, and I don't see the problem. Sure I'd like to see more businesses downtown, but where is it in our manifest destinity to build as much crap as we can possibly fit in the city limits?


Up here by Blue Cross, it does seem like it's the town's destiny to build as much crap as possible as quickly as possible. The last green space has been bulldozed to put up yet another office building--increasing, I'm sure, lunchtime business for Panera in Durham and the Loop/Wellspring three miles away since the rapid growth in business developments and residential units hasn't been accompanied by any retail food. No new sidewalks, so far. No increase in public transportation either.

The process in Chapel Hill is laborious and demanding for a good reason. We don't want our community to become another Cary or Raleigh or Durham. All you need to do is visit other cities in North Carolina for a week and then come back home. When I do that, it's like rediscovering a haven from chaos and commercial ugliness.

Is there room for improvement? Sure there is. More collaboration would be welcome, especially when creativity and innovation are at issue. And as Ruby mentioned, we might consider special treatment for certain kinds of downtown projects -- like a grocery store or a school, for example.

But for the most part, things work pretty darn well as far as I'm concerned.

in the N&O article I got a kick out of the Federated official blaming their decision not to rebuild the Village Theaters on the Town's slow pace of review. I'm sure that this decision couldn't possibly have had anything to do with the financial feasibility of building a multiplex theater at a time when ticket sales are down 12.5% since 2002. Naw - I'm sure there was no connection.

Village Theaters came up constantly at election forums. It seemed a rather weak argument to me, but it kept popping up time and time again as the persistent example that "development is too tough in Chapel Hill." I found myself in the constant (and somewhat unwanted) position of defending the town for a process I wasn't around to be a part of. It seems to me the real cause for the Village Theaters failure was a disagreement between property owners that even mediation on the part of the town could not solve.

I don't see a tough standard for developers as a negative on any town, even on the short term. Growth and a healthy economy are not the same thing, and should not be confused.


I think you have correctly identified the REAL REASON that Federated never moved forward on the Village Theaters project (as opposed to their town-bashing explanation). But I continue to think that a major reason they failed to work out their differences with the other property owners at that site was that they were looking for a way to exit their plan without losing face. They had made a big deal about how they were going to build a multi-plex in Chapel Hill because they had been here for years and they believed in its future. Unfortunately, the movie-going public has gotten fed-up with paying to see 30-45 minutes of commercials prior to seeing their films, especially when things come out so quickly now on DVD and cable. And with the new DVD rental services making it easier all the time the business model of a multi-plex theater, perhaps questionable at this location to start with, probably gives bankers a lot to think about before financing a project.

I happen to have attended most of the public meeting on the Federated issue. During the various "teste-moanies". you could read in folks faces that this had devolved more into a pissing match - that, as the Mayor pointed out several times, this was more a "business" problem between a few key landowners and tenants than some kind of uber-bashing of development by Chapel Hill's elected officials.

On development in Chapel Hill in general, over the last 26 years what I've seen is compromise after compromise, broken promises from developers and, during the late '80s/early '90s a quickened erosion in key protections chasing some mega-developments.

Folks have property rights and should be able to exercise them but we shouldn't rush pell mell to compromise others rights because we think that some big development would "get away".

During the Meadowmont "debates", it always struck me as bizarre when the argument was made that if we didn't approve it "the Perry way", we'd lose any chance for such a development. What a crock! Chapel Hill isn't East Armpit, NC, salivating for any project at any cost - Chapel Hill has a value and worth that we can leverage to get a superior deal (or at least the citizens break even on - which we haven't come close to on Meadowmont or Southern Village).

I hear folk say that Chapel Hill is special, but their actions belie their words. I believe Chapel Hill, for many factors, is special and that we compromise at our peril - that we trade that which we should hold dear for way too little payoff.

I hope, going forward, that our community recognizes the implicit leverage this value gives us and strikes the best possible deal, within the established rules, for the citizenry.

Will, I interpret your comments to suggest that you don't believe Southern Village and Meadowmont to be significant improvements on business as usual development. If I'm reading you correctly, care to elaborate?

Will writes above:
During the Meadowmont “debates”, it always struck me as bizarre when the argument was made that if we didn't approve it “the Perry way”, we'd lose any chance for such a development. What a crock! Chapel Hill isn't East Armpit, NC, salivating for any project at any cost - Chapel Hill has a value and worth that we can leverage to get a superior deal (or at least the citizens break even on - which we haven't come close to on Meadowmont or Southern Village).

I agree with Will totally and will expand a little below.

Intellectually, the most fascinating part of the Meadowmont
debates, though it did not get much press, was a presentation
by then former mayor Ken Broun speaking in favor of one of
the MM components. Ken argued that the town should approve the project because the alternative was a
subdivision of expensive large homes. And indeed, Roger
Perry had submitted a straw-man application for such
a subdivision solely (I think) to promote the real
housing arrangement that we wanted to build and for
which he subsequently received a very narrow approval.
Ken, in his storied legal career, must have either
taken or taught a course in symbolic logic, for he gave
the council a textbook example of the fallacy of the
false dilemma, arguing for A because the only other
option is B, and no one really wants B. The dilemma is
false because there are not two ways to develop a piece
of property; there are a myriad of ways.

The town council, unanimously, agreed to send a
missionary team, headed by Cal Horton, to offer
approval of a half-sized mixed-use Meadowmont, to
Roger Perry. I speculate that Roger, knowing that
he had exactly five votes for the high-impact, full
Meadowmont, turned Cal and the council down.

I have to hand it to Roger for taking a risk. When
a developer has only a bare majority, he is always one
[death, accident, resignation, etc] of a councilmember
from losing his support for a project and thereby his

The last interesting piece of the negotiations that I'll
report now (because I have to run) is the debate
over the Wachovia Branch bank to be built at the
corner of Barbee Chapel and Highway 54. Flicka Bateman
was the swing vote on its SUP. Wachovia offered a
$25,000 donation to the county land trust as part of their
package, knowing that affordable housing was one
of Flicka's strong interests. After she (and four others)
voted for the application, even Fred Brooks, the founder
and former chair of the UNC Computer Science Dept,
and one of the most moral people I have ever met,
wrote a letter to the editor that this action was simply
a bribe -- it doesn't matter whether Flicka was
to receive the money personally or whether it was donated
to one of her favorite causes -- it's still a bribe.

Patrick, improvements upon, as Joe points out, a much worse alternative - probably ;-)

The best possible deal in terms of shifting costs to the tax payer, fulfiling the publicly stated (though not contractully agreed upon) goals vis-a-vis environment, sustainability, transportation, etc. - no.

Two simple examples of "bent promises": one, during the Meadowmont "debates" we were assured that the incredible verdant entrance (an irreplaceable asset) we had coming into town would be preserved - a buffer maintained - and the only way you'd know Meadowmont was there was a modest sign; two, connectivity to the Town was a major issue for Southern Village, an issue addressed by the developer commiting to a greenway between SV and Town.

Where do you think we stand with those assurances today?

Do these "flies" outweigh the "ointment"? If your using a relative measure based on other NC developments, say Cary sprawl, and discard the history, and wipe the images of the land before it was carved up, probably seems a good deal - a good deal, I think you'll agree even by that relative measurement, that could've been better.

It would be cool if the VillageProject assigned metrics to its CN proposal, Meadowmont,SV and other more pedestrian developments that would allow us to do an apples-to-apples comparison of tax, environmental, transportation, etc. consequences. Have you guys thought of doing that?

Joe and I had many public discussions on Meadowmont during our years together on the council. I was one of the five who voted for Meadowmont.

The issue of the strawman alternative (having another Pinehurst sprawl vs. intensive mixed use development) was one question we grappled with, but from where I sat it wasn't the key driver by any stretch. The real issues involved a much broader debate about density.

Nearby neighborhoods objected to any kind of density -- mostly as the result of Pinehurst NIMBYism and elementary school safety issues. Crossing Highway 54 is not safe for school children now . . . nor was it then. And regarding the risk of Meadowmont to property values in Pinehurst . . . give me a break.

The nexus of transportation management and density was tougher. In my distorted recollection, Chapel Hill greens hadn't fully jumped on the density bandwagon yet . . . and if they had, they didn't want to see density in this location because it would terrorize an overgrown meadow. I personally wanted more density in all categories of uses than we eventually ended up with -- to support more transit options -- but I sucked at making that case. When all was said and done, I supported what Perry proposed because I saw it as the best hope for maximizing the intensity of development on that land. If I had to do it again, I'd hold out for even more density -- with more housing designated as affordable. (I was late jumping on that bandwagon.)

I'm sure we all have different views of what really happened during that Great Debate . . . and this is pretty much all I care to say about it . . . except for one more thing. I think Meadowmont turned out okay -- and certainly doesn't suck nearly as much as most development.

I have a quick there any point at which the town's ability to restrict development ends? Going back to the Meadowmont example, if the town had said "You can't develop this land because we want it to stay a pristine meadow" could Perry have sued?

In other words, roughly, how does the law in North Carolina balance the rights of someone to develop their own property versus the right of a town to control the kind of development that happens inside of it's borders.

Purely from driving by on 54, Meadowmont seems to be about as good a deal as one could have hoped. I agree with James on that front. Also the folks I know that live there seem to enjoy it.

What confuses me about this discussion is the rural buffer. I was under the impression that the local greens as James calls them want to concentrate urbanization inside the buffer. But then I hear the complaints about Meadowmont and Southern Village, the tone of animosity toward developers in general and the worship for neighborhood conservation districts. It all seems a little contradictory to me. I suppose this another of Joe's false dilemma's but if the town's keep throwing up roadblocks around development, doesn't that just push more growth outside the buffer?

A possible indication that developers might be straining to see how far they can "stretch the limits" and then fall back on the "you wouldn't want the alternative" defense is this: over the last three months three projects with approved final elevations came back to the Community Design Commission with applications for revised elevations. The only problem was they had already built the buildings with the non-approved changes. I won't go into details about some of the lame excuses (e.g., the Homeowners' Assn. architectual review committee likes it better this way!) but suffice it to say that it creates a very difficult situation: (1) deny the application for revised elevations which would punish the developer (they could appeal to the Board of Adjustment but would probably lose) but would potentially cause inconvenience or harm to other parties (tenants or residents already in the buildings under temporary certificates of occupancy) who were unaware of the violations; or (2) spend a lot of time working with the developer to find a less-than-ideal solution which is better than #1 but requires a lot of additional time from Town staff and CDC members.

The CDC is working to find ways to head these situations off before they happen and it is possible that the surge in identified violations is a reflection of tighter inspections, but I think that it also reflects a willingness of developers to see just how much they can get by with.

Jim, while I wish there was more of the old verdant corridor, more woods and general and a higher density of expensive Meadowmont villas on the OC-side of the line, you're right that Meadowmont could've sucked quite a bit more ;-).

With your new eyes, how would you weigh in on Perry's new University Motel rework?

Chris, I strongly believe in property rights, so there is a limit.

When a developer comes forward with a SUP, for instance, they're asking to "draw outside the lines." It could be a good thing, it could be bad. Either way, they're asking for a variance, which I think, allows the town to ask for a variance in turn.

Now, I imagine as a fiscal conservative, you don't believe its very responsible to shift costs onto the taxpayer that the developer should bear. How far would you go to protect the taxpayer? What leverage would you use - moral suasion?

Will, I agree that there's always room for improvement in development. If there's a place I've been to in my life that's been developed in the last few years that couldn't be improved, I can't think of it.

That said, I have a very different view of the entry to town from 54. By bus or car, I come home on NC 54 towards Glen Lennox from I-40 every evening, and the road is so dysfunctional on so many levels that I find it impossible to appreciate any aesthetic qualities the roadway may have.

Two things have made NC 54 almost completely useless to non-auto traffic:

1. NCDOT's roadway design
2. Large buffers at the sides of the road setting development far back.

While buffers can achieve many things, including noise reduction at certain places, they just as often further exacerbate the separation of uses inherent in most land use planning and thus encourage more auto travel.

In the spirit of avoiding false choices, the answer is certainly not to say "no more buffers, build everything as close to the road as possible," but I'd love for our communities to explore the idea of maximizing interchange while minimizing impacts.

Patrick, I guess I'm an old fogey on HWY54. When I first came to Chapel Hill, 54 was the modest road connecting Raleigh and points East. I-40 was a couple dots on a DOT map.

Here, just a few miles before you entered campus, was a beautiful swath of bucolic landscape - drawing and welcoming you into the center of our community.

I still see it (in my minds eye) as it was, not the dysfunctional mess it is today.

It's unwieldly development should serve as a cautionary tale.

Here's one of the most interesting development
projects that we faced when I was on the council.
It should generate some discussion here.

There used to be an eyesore near Eastgate called the
Tar Heel Motel, and it would better have been called
the "no-tell motel". It was built years ago in a flood plain,
between the bypass and Booker Creek and it did its
small part to contribute the the flooding in eastern
Chapel Hill. In about 1995, a developer applied for
an SUP to replace it with a Days Inn. The developer
argued (correctly in my opinion) that there was a lack
of affordable hotel rooms in town and that the Days Inn
would be more attractive than the
Tar Heel motel. Addressing the stormwater issue,
the developer proposed to build a detention pond so that
the water runoff would be less after the Days Inn was
in place than with the current TH motel.

Most environmentalists stood against the Days Inn, arguing
that the amount of impervious surface would increase
(it would) and the flooding would as well (debatable
by the engineers). Glenn Phillips, an engineer
for Bruce Ballantine and Associates, stated (correctly
in my opinion) that the runoff that the
site contributes a very small but positive amount to the floods.

I voted for the Days Inn, expressing that while the
flooding was a serious problem for those
downstream from the site, any of three options
(leave TH motel, build Days Inn, buy the lot and convert
it into a park) would not significantly change the
flooding. Certainly a Days Inn, not exactly a
Taj Mahal, would be better than the TH motel.
The permit passed with a split vote and I caught
some grief from the enviornmentalists.


You've described very well the dilemma I've seen many Council members face: how much is enough? Most projects start off not offering enough and it is only through the give-and-take of the CH approval process that projects become at least acceptable. Outstanding is an adjective that I would say rarely get applies, unfortunately.

Even on those occasions when projects seem to start off on a better foot (decent buffers, underground parking, minimal impervious surface) they seem to morph into something less as the developers begin to figure out that being "good" has a cost. Even UNC cut back on its "green" parking decks on the recent main campus expansion when it realized the extra costs associated with building structures to support the added weight of the "green" attributes.

The newly-proposed Greenbridge project on Rosemary is another example. The developers are trying to produce an energy-efficient building with a large affordable housing component. However, in order to do that they need height to capture the solar energy benefits. But height in this area presents a problem because of the nature of the adjoining neighborhoods. As Kermit says "It's not easy being green". (nor socially responsible I might add). But then again, as I like to tell our students, "If it were easy, someone would have done it already".


As a citizen I have to applaud that decision...the Tar Heel Motel was truly an eyesore and I've had relatives stay at that Days Inn.

Can someone explain what a SUP is? does that stand for Special Use Permit? And is it required anytime a developer wants to build something?

What SUP, Chris?


Yes, SUP stands for Special Use Permit and under Town ordinances it is required for most projects, including a project that would change the use of a property (e.g. Chapel Hill Kehillah), but there are exceptions (e.g., single family homes).

Special Use Permits are generally required when a developer wants to do something that's not already permitted by law on a property. It's not like the Towns are forcing them into this awful, expensive negotiation. If you are are asking for permission to do something extra from the Town, the Town gets to ask for some things too.

Most plans are actually improved by the suggestions of the staff and citizens who review them as part of this process. So developers actually can benefit a lot from it as well.


A special use permit basically means the developer needs to negotiate more with the town before getting a construction permit. On the one hand that negotiation means the town gets to ask (with authority) for amenities like open space and affordable housing that cannot be required by ordinance. On the other hand that negotiation means the developer is at the mercy of town staff and elected officials. I heard one developer at a meeting with Carrboro town staff say, you can ask for this but all it means is that houses I build will be more expensive.

The outfall from it all IMHO is that only the large, wealthy developers can afford to do business in either Chapel Hill or Carrboro. Everytime they have to redraw their plans, it costs them money. In additional to the capital outlay for redrawn plans, they also have banks and backers looking at those costs and wanting their payback sooner rather than later. For small developers, getting that financial backing is harder and harder to acquire due to the extended length of the negotiations required to get an SUP. When they are required to dedicate 40% of their land (the basis for their land loan) to open space, it reduces their capital recovery ability. etc. etc. Not a good thing in the eyes of financiers.

So while requiring developers to be responsive to town needs and interests is a good thing, right now it's having the negative impact of keeping out small developers who might be more likely to live in the community and have a greater personal investment in developing to suit the needs of the community. Then we end up with large scale developments like Southern Village and Meadowmont. It's a big-box like situation where bigger is required for cost effectiveness to the individual but has negative long term effects on the community as a whole. This is my opinion only based on my active development watching of the past couple of years.


Joe, great description of the Tar Heel Motel situation except that it would only be fair to point out that the person you describe as the "developer" was the first generation immigrant owner/operator of the motel.

That did not make a difference from a legal point of view, but I think a lot of development issues get down to the difference between those who want to build and run versus those who want to build and then live here with the consequences of what they have built.

In this regard, I believe the Days Inn shows that the owner was someone who intended to live with his actions and that the development is a vast improvement over the previous building. I do not know the owner, but I expect that he is justifiably proud of his hotel (although newer residents of Chapel Hill might have to have known the Tar Heel Motel in order to fully appreciate the situation).

Also note that procedurally, the issue was whether to use a loophole in the RCD ordinance which said something like "however where equal or greater governmental interests are met by waiving portions of this ordinance, the Council shall use its discretion in granting such waivers." The provision had never before been used and to my knowledge has not been used since (maybe it doesn't even exist?)

On the green space from SV to town. There is a green space between all of S.V. and 15-501 that you can only see through in the winter. Unlike Meadowmonth, you can barely tell S.V. is there except at the lower entrance and because of the hill structure, you have no idea of the size from 15-501. All you can see are a few houses. There is a wonderful trail that begins at Scroggs, is wooded, and continues through the neighborhood, down through a truly wooded green space with NO houses and ends at 15-501/Culbreth. From there you can blame access to CH on DOT or the town or whoever is responsible for the lack of sidewalks, cross-walks, and bike lanes onto campus. I walk to and from work every so often and you end (in several places) walking through people's muddy front yards. Now all of these houses seem to be rentals so i guess no one is too upset, but the whole situation stinks. And, I don't see how that is S.V. fault.

There are more people out walking, biking, running in S.V. than probably anywhere else in town. The parks are jam packed with families every night, as is the square. For all of you that like to bash S.V., I would suggest taking a drive through some cool summer night at about 5:30. I think you would be amazed that it is more of a village than downtown has been since the 50s (based on accounts by my postdoctoral advisor of parking at an angle downtown to use the only payphone in C.H. and the streets being quiet and wooded with birds chirping and the whole bucolic scene).

Robert, I'm quite familiar with S.V. - the before and after ;-)

I agree they've done a pretty good job of "buffering" S.V. from 15-501 and parts of Dogwood Acres. Considering its former beauty, I'm curious how it'll look when reforested to that original level decades from now.

As far as the greenway/trail - I'm refering to the original discussions back in '96. Some of that's covered here,here,and here, for instance. Actually, there was quite a bit of discussion on how to "tie" S.V. into the rest of Chapel Hill - maybe Joe C. will read this and throw his two cents in (he was there for part of what Werner called "the largest and most complex development ever considered by the Council." Those were the days ;-)!

Will, we need an overpass tunnel complete with FieldTurf, glass enclosure, benches, etc. : )
You could run it from S.V. up up up and over 15-501 to deposit it right into the Merritt's parking lot. Then I could walk to get a BLT.

This query opened with "the breaking news that developers think Chapel Hill is too tough on them."

Scott Maitland raises an alarm bell in Wednesday, March 15 CH News (link below) when he makes the point that "...In the case of Parking Lot 5, the system of checks and balances is non-existent because the Town Council IS the developer..."

What's up with that? See complete article at:

He ends with
"Contrary to town-wide understanding, the development on Lot 5 is not a done deal. The actual approval process starts on March 20 at the Town Council meeting. Please attend or contact Town Council members and let them know how you feel. Come by Top of the Hill and sign the petition against the development.

Doing something or walking down a sunny Franklin Street will be another quaint memory of Chapel Hill."

Any guiding thoughts on this?

laura at butter1234flites dot com (no numbers)


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