First installment for American Legion property comes due

It’s smart to plan ahead before making a big purchase. Chapel Hill didn’t do that when it decided to buy the American Legion property for $7.9 million, and now Chapel Hill taxpayers are paying the price. The parks and recreation facilities we thought we were getting when we voted for bonds in November 2015 will be postponed indefinitely, sacrificed for the purchase of the American Legion property.

Flush with $3.6 million in surplus in fall 2016, Town Council decided to rush ahead with the purchase of the longtime home of American Legion Post 6, a 35-acre piece of property. Post 6 had an option with a private developer, who planned to put housing on part of the site and agreed to work with the Town to program part of the site as a public park. (Use of part of the site to expand the adjoining Ephesus Park is a long-time Town goal.) However, even more housing near what is now called the “Blue Hill District” was too much for some Councilmembers. Instead, Town Council decided, it made sense to buy the property.

But the Town only had $3.6 million in cash, less than half of the total purchase price – where would the rest of the money come from? There were several potential sources identified, including a sale of a portion of the land – but that’s difficult to do without even a preliminary plan for the site, and that won’t be ready until after this year’s deadline for the first installment payment. Town Council could have budgeted for the expense out of general government revenues, but it decided not to do so. The fallback funding source was the parks and recreation bond approved by voters in November 2015, a bond intended for different, specific purposes.

When Town Council was debating whether to put a parks and recreation bond up for a vote in 2015, there was great clarity about why the Town would make this investment. About $3.4 million was earmarked for a cultural arts building, and $3.6 million for administrative space for the parks & recreation department, which is currently housed in dilapidated trailers near Community Center Park. The remainder of the $8 million bond would go towards park renovations and expansion.

These projects weren’t just picked out of a hat. The Comprehensive Parks Plan was developed following an extensive public process including an inventory assessment, needs assessment, financial analysis, town-wide surveys, public meetings, and interviews with community leaders. This feedback was distilled into community priorities and incorporated into the plan. Town Council adopted the plan in May 2013. In the document, only purchase of “part” of the American Legion site was listed as a possibility, and only in passing. For land acquisition between 2013 and 2022, the plan allocated only $4.5 million towards land acquisition, with the largest outlay being 20 acres for a “Community Park” for a total of just $2 million.

That’s why when Town staff described the projects which would be funded with bond funds in the 2015 referendum (page 68 of this document), the materials linked the bond funding to top priorities in the comprehensive plan. Anyone attending the Town Council meeting got that same message, as this slide from the presentation to Council made clear.

This past December, Town Manager Roger Stancil informed Council that spending the bond money on the American Legion property would delay the cultural arts and administrative building projects indefinitely. To be fair, at this point the Town doesn’t have much choice – it doesn’t make sense to sell part of the land without a plan, there’s no surplus to be spent this year, and the Town certainly can’t default. So the items that can be sacrificed without legal ramifications, such as the cultural arts center, will be sacrificed so the dream of an American Legion park can live.

All of this comes on top of the other issues with the purchase of the land – property that could be earning tax revenue for the Town but that the Town now has to maintain. Moreover, before this actually becomes a park that people can use, the Town will need to invest a lot more money on this one site, on top of all of the Town’s other capital priorities such as remediation of the coal ash pile at the police station headquarters, construction of the municipal services building, and extension of the Bolin Creek trail under Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The lack of affordable housing is another key community priority, and this week the Town Council is considering a bond of at least $10 million to support affordable housing issues. This is an admirable goal which we fully support, but it’s another drain on the Town’s funds. A win-win would be to use a portion of the American Legion site for affordable housing, making the affordable housing funds go further since there’s less land to purchase. Neighbors have protested this idea loudly, however, and several Town Council members have shown no appetite for upsetting the people who want a park.

Chapel Hill residents are at the point where we own land, but don’t have the money to pay for it, and this Wednesday documented Town priorities are going to be pushed aside to pay the bills. Town Council has put itself in a tough situation and has only itself to blame. Next time, if there’s a budget surplus, our representatives should use it responsibly, not rashly.


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