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Thursday, February 19, 2009

To connect or not to connect? Carrboro considers the question

Posted by on Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 3:31 PM

“We’re Carrboro,” said Alderwoman Jacquelyn Gist. “We’re not Sim City.”

Gist brought up the urban-planning-on-steroids gaming phenomenon to illustrate her long-standing opposition to the town’s Connector Roads Policy.

“It looks great on paper, but does it really make sense?” she said. “You have to be able to look at these things in reality as well as in a planning textbook.”

The policy, adopted in its current form in the mid-’80s, mandates that new developments extend their roads, where possible, to connect with existing roads, thus fostering “a sense of connectivity and unity to the town as it grows.” The idea came from New Urbanism, a school of thought in planning that condemned the gridlock and mechanization of modern cities, and sought new strategies to ease traffic and encourage alternative forms of transportation.

“If you have cul de sacs, people in the cul de sacs do really well, because they drive everywhere but they aren’t affected by any of the traffic they create,” said Charlie Hileman, chairman of Carrboro’s Transportation Advisory Board. “The principle is, you open things up. It allows for different forms of transportation, reduces fuel use and creates a more cohesive environment for the community as a whole.”

However, Carrboro’s implementation of this ideal has run into a few speed bumps (known as “traffic calming devices,” by New Urbanists) over the years; neighborhoods and roads have proven difficult to adapt to the policy because of topographical features, environmental concerns or resident outrage. Most recently, the connector policy has come under fire because of its proposed implementation in the Claremont and Colleton Crossing developments, both under review by the Board of Aldermen. Claremont and Colleton Crossing are being designed in accordance with town regulations to create multiple street connections to existing subdivisions.

Residents of those older subdivisions are far from pleased with the town’s policy, which will likely be the main topic of debate at the next aldermen meeting on Feb. 24, when the board is scheduled to hear public comment on the latest proposals.

“If Carrboro wants connectivity, it should be bike trails, not more traffic,” said Mari Weiss, who lives in Highlands, a neighborhood that would likely see a sizeable increase in vehicular traffic if the connector policy is enforced. Weiss complained that the stated goals of the policy would actually backfire in her neighborhood, filling its narrow subcollector roads with a high volume of traffic and making Highlands less safe for pedestrians.

Weiss isn’t alone. Scores of residents of Highlands and other north Carrboro subdivisions showed up at a Jan. 27 public hearing on Colleton Crossing and Claremont to complain about the Connector Roads Policy’s implementation in their neighborhoods. The uproar was enough to inspire Alderman Dan Coleman to write an editorial on the policy in the Feb. 5 issue of the Carrboro Citizen, and for the board to vote to reconsider its approach to connectivity.

“The results are mixed,” Coleman said of the policy. “There’s a fruitful discussion that the Board of Aldermen can have as to whether our implementation is best at meeting those goals, or whether we can fine-tune the policy to perhaps create less distress among neighbors.”

Gist said she feels optimistic.

“I’m beginning to see some movement in that direction,” she said. “This board is a lot more pragmatic than the board four or six years ago.”

Both Colleton Crossing and Claremont are large enough to create a significant volume of new traffic through neighborhoods they connect to. Colleton Crossing, a 39-home development, is anticipated to link to Carolina Commons, a proposed development, in the process connecting Highlands with the nearby Fox Meadow subdivision. A traffic study conducted by MBI, Colleton’s developer, predicted an increase of nearly 900 car trips per day on the subdivisions’ narrow roads. This is problematic because the roads in Fox Meadow and Highlands were built to the Orange County’s standards, not Carrboro’s more stringent requirements.

“Traffic would spill into a long distance of substandard roads,” Hileman said. “We didn’t like that.”

Hileman said the board recommended the developers of Carolina Commons and Highlands share the cost of installing sidewalks on the existing roads, though he admitted such an improvement would likely be very expensive.

Weiss said she’d be content if Carrboro would simply allow Carolina Commons and Colleton Crossing not to connect, leaving Highlands to contend only with the Carolina Commons traffic.

Claremont is even bigger. The subdivision’s developer, Parker and Louis, has already completed three phases off Homestead Road; phases four and five would include 69 single-family homes and 27 townhomes.

Developer Adam Zinn said he thinks the board should reconsider the policy.

“There’s nothing controversial in [our development] except the connectivity issue,” Zinn said. Zinn, who manages Parker and Louis with his brother, Omar, is awaiting the board’s approval to break ground on Claremont’s newest phases. “Our job as developers is to follow the ordinance, which we have done. But I think the ordinance needs to be updated.”

In the past, the Board of Aldermen has granted exceptions to the policy for environmental purposes. It has also allowed developers to connect neighborhoods via walking and bicycle paths, rather than full-scale roads. Residents of Highlands and Wexford (the subdivision that would be affected by Claremont) have pushed for such exceptions. But Coleman stressed that amendments to the policy are made on a case-by-case basis. He declined to comment on whether he expects for the board to pass any exemptions on Feb. 24.

For now, north Carrboro residents will have to live with the uncertainty. Coleman said the board is unlikely to consider any permanent amendments to the connector policy before next winter.

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