It was difficult to discern the names of residents opposed to a controversial mixed-used development as they were called to the podium at Chapel Hill Town Council Monday night, because of the loud applause. Person after person called Obey Creek "a radical change," "not yet a well-developed proposal" and potentially an "undesirable precedent."
Developers hope to build Obey Creek—1,200 homes, 570,000 square feet of commercial space and a hotel—on 120 acres across from Southern Village and along U.S. 15-501, a main thoroughfare between Orange and Chatham counties.
Plan proponents say the commercial development could reduce the residential tax burden.
But many at Monday night's meeting were upset that the town was considering entering a development agreement for the project—similar to the process used for Carolina North—rather than using the standard procedures that guide the town's growth policies.
Opponents of the project contend that entering into a development agreement would lock the town into dense development at Obey Creek, a site currently zoned for low-density housing.
Council member Laurin Easthom agreed.
"Even talking about a development agreement at this point just assumes that there are going to be tons of units, and a hotel and this that and the other thing that it's not currently zoned for," she said. "I can understand where that might be a tool you might want to use if the zoning was already in place or there had been a ton of discussion and agreement in a prior small area plan, but we just can't assume that. It's just way, way too early."
When council last considered Obey Creek, it instructed Town Manager Roger Stancil to determine if a development agreement would be appropriate for the project. Stancil reported back Monday that a development agreement would increase transparency and opportunity for public comment compared with the traditional special-use permit process.
But critics objected. "Chapel Hill is not your sprawl and mall development town," said Linda Finch of Citizens for Responsible Growth, one of two groups that has publicly opposed Obey Creek. "I think we are going to lose a lot if this process is approved."
While a development agreement provided a better outcome for Carolina North, there are stark differences between planning for a UNC satellite campus and a private development for East-West Partners, which is headed by Roger Perry, former chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees.
"I don't see much of an analogy at all except complexity," Councilman Gene Pease said.
The council decided not to pursue a development agreement and left it to the staff to determine the next steps, which pleased many of the plan's detractors.
"It was exciting to see that the council heard our concerns and is working to slow the process down to include citizens in discussion," said Jeanne Brown of Citizens for Responsible Growth.