We’ve moved to our new site

February 26, 2010

Check out today’s post and comments at http://www.chapelhillwatch.com.

Can’t see the canopy for the trees

February 25, 2010

The town might have the oddest definition of “tree canopy” I’ve ever heard, if I understand the discussion that came out of the Town Council meeting Monday night about modifications to the tree protection ordinance. To my mind, tree canopy would be tall trees with lots of leaves forming, well, a canopy – an umbrella-like top. Providing shade. Rustling in the breeze.

But no. If you want to get a good idea of what the town considers tree canopy, drive out to East 54 and look around. See the pond? See the Bradford (someone at the meeting Monday night called them “Bartlett”) pear trees? See that rolling grassy area? Well, the town has decided that all that constitutes open space, which it considers the same as tree canopy.

Huh?

No shade. No rustling.

You’d think you would need to have a tree somewhere nearby to have an area qualify as tree canopy. But that’s not the case. In fact, you could plant the top of your building with grass and have that contribute to the calculation for tree canopy. And East 54, by town standards, has 50 percent tree canopy.

Now an area such as University Mall has only about 15 percent tree canopy. That’s easy to understand, since there are a lot of parking spaces there. But if the mall went ahead with improvements to the site, it would have to meet the town requirement of 50 percent tree canopy. Which means planting the equivalent of all the parking area in trees to meet the requirement. The mall would not have any parking to offer shoppers, but it would have a nice show of Bartlett, er, Bradford pear trees.

Sounds like the town must clarify its definition of tree canopy if it’s going to head in the direction of a tree protection law that makes sense.

–Don Evans

Distractive driving

February 24, 2010

The biggest roadblock to a townwide ban on motorists using cell phones while driving seems to be the issue of enforcement.

The Town Council learned Monday night that any cell phone law it passed would be very difficult to enforce. It’s not just that an officer would have to see someone using a cell phone while that person swerved or crossed the center line. Anyone who was stopped for suspicion of using a cell phone would just claim to have been calling 911 or trying to report an emergency. And officers can’t just charge someone they’ve stopped who happens to have a cell phone in the car – it’s not like having an open alcohol container on board.

Also, campus enforcement would be tricky. But there you’d find more students walking while distracted than driving while distracted.

I agree with Council Member Jim Ward that a statewide public awareness campaign should be the next step to take.

Six states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from using hand-held phones. But as Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, pointed out at the meeting, the real danger comes from what he called “cognitive distraction.” In other words, it’s not so much  driving one-handed while holding a cell phone in the other that’s causing people to drive erratically as it is their brains focusing on the phone conversation rather than their 2-ton machine while hurtling down the road.

Bottom line: Let’s engage those brains to reduce the number of “distracted” drivers. It’s pretty dumb to drive a 2-ton vehicle without applying all your faculties to operating that vehicle safely. And it’s very difficult to legislate against stupidity. So let’s take the slow approach and educate rather than legislate.

–Don Evans

A well-treed community

February 23, 2010

Chapel Hill’s reputation as a community of tree-huggers took a beating last night as citizens speaking against proposed changes to the tree protection ordinance far outnumbered those supporting a new law.

A few Town Council members took credit for leading the charge for change after Jim Heavner took advantage of a loophole in the town ordinance by clear-cutting his lot on Gimghoul Road before applying for a building permit to construct his new mansion. The proposed ordinance up for discussion at Monday night’s Town Council meeting was produced by town staff and an outside consultant based on a vision of “no net loss of trees.” The proposed ordinance laid out tree canopy goals of between 20 percent and 60 percent, depending on the size of the lot and whether it was residential or commercial property.

The proposed ordinance requires owners of a half-acre or larger property to hire an arborist and apply for a permit before removing any tree that might knock it below the 50 percent canopy required. The 58 percent of residential properties in town smaller than a half acre would be exempt from the permit requirement.

Would that encourage us to become a community of scofflaws who remove a tree struck by lightning without first hiring an arborist to pronounce it dead? Would we foster snitches, realistically the only way the town could uniformly enforce such a law? Could the well-treed entrepreneurs among us sell canopy rights to residents with Midwestern roots who value vast expanses of sun-splashed lawns and gardens?  Would the town play the role of extortionist by demanding a fee of $1,000 per tree below the required canopy minimum? Would Bradford pear trees that don’t provide shade qualify as canopy trees while property owners be forced to remove 100-foot-tall loblolly pines (which might or might not be considered a suitable canopy tree) and replace them with hardwoods? Would the planned renovation of University Mall have to sacrifice all of its parking spaces to comply with the canopy requirements?

The proposed changes sparked enough questions to overwhelm council members, who instructed the staff to take another stab at an ordinance that wouldn’t “regulate to the extreme,” as Council Member Matt Czajkowski advised.

The staff will report back on May 24.

— Nancy Oates

Down the road

February 22, 2010

I guess you could call it the warning bell. On the Town Council’s Consent Agenda for tonight’s business meeting is commitment of town money toward the cost of putting sidewalks along the Weaver Dairy Road widening project.

Yes, first efforts seem to have begun in the long-aborning state project, which would three-lane the 2.74-mile length of the road from N.C. 86 to Erwin Road and extend Weaver Dairy to connect with Sage Road. Trees along the road across from Timberlyne shopping center have started coming down. A map (http://townhall.townofchapelhill.org/agendas/2010/02/22/5e/5e-1-area_map-weaver_dairy_road.pdf) of the project shows a diversion of Weaver Dairy southeast of Silver Creek Drive to allow the extension to join up with Sage Road.

The $13.5 million project, which the council approved in 2001, will include one travel lane in each direction with exclusive turn lanes and a center turn lane. The plans include bicycle lanes, bus pull-off areas and raised center median areas for pedestrians and landscaping. The estimated cost of the sidewalks is approximately $302,684, with Chapel Hill picking up the tab for $121,074 with a combination of state funds and town bond funds.

The extension would cut through a wooded area near Silver Creek Drive and the backyards of a whole lot of homeowners’ properties near Carriage Circle and Carrington Drive to the north and River Birch Lane to the south and come out between the entrance to Covington Place and River Birch Lane. Those residents are in for a messy couple of years.

And that link-up of Weaver Dairy with Sage is going to result in one busy section of roadway, with three outlets within a couple hundred yards of one another.

Construction is expected to start in September/October.

–Don Evans

The usual suspects

February 19, 2010

Some nitwit phoned in a bomb threat against the Greenbridge construction site on Thursday. Chapel Hill police responded to the report and work was suspended at the West Rosemary Street site.

According to a news release from Greenbridge, the threat didn’t affect the project’s schedule – only caused a two-hour delay in starting the workday — and the construction is on course to be completed in the spring. The two buildings, one of which is 10 stories, will include 97 condos, 35,000 square feet of retail and office space and two floors of underground parking.

It’s at least the second time someone has done that – a bomb threat was called in last August. Who could possibly be so upset with Greenbridge as to phone in a threat?

Could it have been someone from RAM Development, jealous that Greenbridge is on schedule and RAM ain’t even close? The Greenbridge Web site says the project is located in the heart of Chapel Hill – maybe someone took exception to that geographical inaccuracy? Student protesters could have done it — can everyone with UNC-NOW account for their whereabouts Thursday morning (then again, 7 a.m. is pretty early for your typical student)?

Maybe a construction worker who didn’t feel like coming in early yesterday? Perhaps a disgruntled Northside neighbor, concerned about the disappearing black neighborhood and its history as well as escalating tax values? Bill Strom? St. Joseph CME Church? Maybe the deer, frustrated that they can’t get to the vegetative gardens on the roofs? Racists for Greenbridge?

Frustrated graffiti artists? The nearby funeral home that has lost business due to the project’s incursions? Conservationists angry that the majority of the building’s energy will be coal-generated? Somebody from Houston, miffed that Greenbridge builder Tim Toben dissed the Texas city when he touted his project early on? Rep. David Price, because Toben gave twice as much money to the John Edwards presidential campaign as he did to Price’s re-election effort? Someone on the UNC Energy Task Force, jealous that Toben was selected to lead that group? A disgruntled shopper, upset that the condos run between $300,000 and $1 million? The person who came in 16th on the list to apply for one of the affordable condos?

Who knows? Could have been anyone, right? But my money’s on the deer.

–Don Evans

A better class of deer

February 18, 2010

I hadn’t noticed the deer chowing down on what’s left of my yard in some weeks, and I wondered whether some calamity had befallen the herd. Of course, they’ve pretty much stripped my yard clean. All that’s left are a few nubs of plants, so there’s not much to beckon them to revisit. Still, even during winter they seemed to make a pass through the yard once a day.

I knew that Chapel Hill Town Council had not approved an urban archery program to thin the herd, so it couldn’t be that the deer were making themselves scarce because they don’t like sharp, pointy things being shot at them.

There has been a lot of snow on the ground; could that have affected their feeding patterns? The last time I saw them was during the first big snow storm a few weeks ago, and the accumulation and swirling flakes didn’t seem to spook them or inconvenience them in any way. In fact, I saw several lounging in the drifts, seemingly oblivious to the cold and the wet, gazing languidly on the winter beauty surrounding them. Thick hides, I thought.

So what could have happened to the deer? Now I think I know where they’ve gotten off to. They’ve decided to go all upper crust on us and have migrated to Governors Club to lusher pickings.

But the deer may have bitten off more than they can chew. Those folks in the GC don’t play around – when they see a problem, they attack it head-on. Faster than you can say, “Urban archery,” the GC Property Owners Association has gotten permission from the state to cull the herd. That’s right, while Chapel Hill is still talking about how to handle the town’s very real deer problem, the upper class enclave to the south has launched a search-and-destroy mission. All the deer had to do to get those well-to-do folks in the GC to go all Rambo on them was to start going back for seconds and thirds on the gated community’s landscaping and ornamental plants. Hell hath no fury like a nibbled estate.

The problem as I see it is that once the deer realize they are dealing with a less tolerant group of humans, they will decide that, even with the meager pickings left in Chapel Hill, it’s a whole lot safer here. They’ll migrate back into the neighborhoods where they are most comfortable and get back to ravaging the ecosystem. I’m sure the council will still be discussing what can be done long after the herd has settled back into these nice, friendly environs.

Life’s great when you’re a deer in Chapel Hill!
–Don Evans

Road work

February 17, 2010

There was a lot of concern about traffic corridors voiced Monday night at the Town Council hearing on the long-range transit plan – but not on the corridor you might have expected.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard/N.C. 86 corridor had received the most attention in recent years because it was to provide primary road access to UNC’s Carolina North campus. A lot of thought has gone into what effect that huge project would have on adjacent roads.

So it was a surprise when Carolyn Elfland, associate vice chancellor for Campus Services at UNC, added a wrinkle to all the transit planning that’s going on. She told the council members the state has held back funding for Carolina North and is shifting money to UNC development along the N.C. 54 corridor. It’s a state budget thing and has forced UNC to prioritize plans for the N.C. 54 corridor and slow down development of Carolina North.

“UNC owns a lot of land off N.C. 54,” Laurin Easthom reminded council members.

UNC Health Care has a big presence in Meadowmont. The Friday Center is just across the road. UNC Hospitals is building a new medical imaging center at the corner of Country Club Road and N.C. 54 and also has two separate undeveloped 1-acre plots in Meadowmont.

Council member Jim Ward was concerned about the focus being shifted to N.C. 54, and he was adamant that the MLK corridor was just as important as that roadway that heads east out of Chapel Hill. He pointed out that the distance from Interstate 40 to Carolina North would be the same whether one traveled to it along MLK or N.C. 54. Sally Greene echoed those sentiments, saying that a strong MLK was essential.

Sure, it’s important to keep an eye on the regional picture. But traffic concerns along N.C. 54 – from road capacity to dangerous intersections to development pressures — will take center stage next week. There’s a Feb. 25 public workshop at the Friday Center that will look at planning for the N.C. 54/I-40 corridor. The session is to start at 5 p.m. and last until 8. If you’re interested in adding to the debate, you should stop by.

–Don Evans

Can we drive this magic bus?

February 16, 2010

One point that couldn’t be missed from last night’s Town Council public hearing on transit is that there are likely to be a whole lot more buses rumbling back and forth along Chapel Hill and Carrboro streets in our future.

Planners expect that by 2035 there will be about 30 percent more people living in Chapel Hill-Carrboro – from a current population of 70,000 to a projected population of 100,000. The Triangle will grow, too, and a lot of those people will come to Chapel Hill-Carrboro daily.

Getting people into and out of the towns will require major changes in how town transit works. Given how much the reality of light rail lags behind planning, despite planning group meetings and federal funding, and that bicycles and just plain walking remain righteous talking points and not practical realities, those buses are what residents can expect to ride.

Planners see six gateways at the entrances to the towns that would be in essence terminuses for dropping off riders and picking them up to take them to jobs and classrooms on campus. The planners expect 100,000 riders per day — the equivalent of moving both communities each day. That’s a lot of bodies. Going to require a lot of transit packages, aka buses.

And that’s where Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, comes in. BRT uses expanded or enhanced types of bus service, much like light rail without the rail. BRT technology applies light rail concepts to bus service, such as exclusive roadways, high-capacity buses, high-frequency service (rush-hour frequency of 7 to 10 minutes with extended hours into evenings and weekends), buses separated from traffic with separate roadways, and buses that only run on a line, not circuitously.

Of course, federal and state funding will be crucial to adding those buses, and that’s a pretty dicey proposition given that state of the economy for now and into the next few years. But I’d expect buses to be a whole lot less expensive that a light rail system.

Bus routes that carry more than 3,000 riders a day can justify a higher order of transit. The Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and N.C. 54 corridors already qualify. So if you need to get into town and you see a bus coming, better hop on board. That light rail is going to be delayed.
–Don Evans

Stonewall

February 15, 2010

Town manager Roger Stancil, town attorney Ralph Karpinos and town mayor Mark Kleinschmidt are giving government workers a bad name.

A couple weeks ago, I sent an e-mail to the three asking what it would cost the town to walk away from the contract with RAM Development for the 140 West Franklin project.

A few days later, Carol Abernethy, Stancil’s executive assistant, sent me a link to the agenda item on the town Web site pertaining to 140 West Franklin, saying that the town manager had requested she e-mail the link to me “concerning the status of this project.”

I sent an e-mail back to her, explaining that I had that document, and repeating my question. She apologized and said she would “have to ask them again,” and assured me that someone would get back to me soon.

A week later, I received an e-mail from Bruce Heflin, assistant town manager, with links to the same documents. “I hope this is useful to you,” he wrote cheerily.

I wrote back, explaining that it wasn’t, that his link took me to documents already available to the public, and that I’d looked them over weeks ago. I repeated my question.

I’m still waiting to hear from him, and from Karpinos and Kleinschmidt, too, for that matter.

You’d think I was poking my nose into their personal brokerage accounts the way these three have avoided answering the question. These three would not have been hired if they truly are as clueless and inept as they come across. I have been a mother long enough to recognize that they don’t want to answer my question. And that makes me want to know the answer even more.

Disclaimer time again: I’m not a lawyer, so the following is based on my layperson’s understanding of the contract. If RAM does not meet its deadlines, the town has an out to not follow through on its obligation. However, the N.C. General Assembly took that option away from the town by passing Session Law 2009-406 that extends by three years construction permits active between 2008 and 2010. Now RAM does not have to begin construction until June 27, 2013, and the completion date has been extended to June 27, 2015. If the town were to back out before June 27, 2013 — “default” is the legal term, I believe — it looks to me like the town would have to reimburse RAM for everything RAM has invested so far. But not being a lawyer, I don’t know for sure. Hence my simple question to the town attorney and the mayor, who is a lawyer, and the town manager, who should have a pretty good idea of the town’s liability in any of the contracts it enters.

Kleinschmidt may have been able to bat away the $750,000 the town has spent so far on 140 West Franklin, calling it “inspiration” as he did during the campaign. That no one is trying to downplay the town’s liability now makes me think we’re in too deep to back out without a whole lot of pain.

— Nancy Oates