A deep dive into the proposed changes for Chapel Hill’s LUMO

We are excited (!) Chapel Hill could soon embrace much-needed missing middle housing by amending the Town’s Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO).

Two proposed amendments could speed up the development review process for projects with a substantial number of affordable units and allow different types of housing that are often more affordable than the standard large-lot, single family homes.

Now that we’ve had time to digest the proposed changes — and muddle through several dozen comments on NextDoor in response to our first post on the subject — we have a few ideas to both strengthen the proposal and to limit the likely opposition to denser housing in town, as has been the case for decades.

Key Point: The amendments propose two distinct, but related, changes

There are two proposals in the mix. Both are intended to facilitate more housing and different types of housing to meet the needs of diverse households in Chapel Hill. The Town can vote to adopt both, one or the other, or neither.

Key Point: One amendment creates an expedited development review process for projects with 30% or more affordable units.

The first proposal introduces an expedited development review process for projects dedicating 30% (or more) of proposed units as “long-term affordable”. Long term is currently defined by the Town as 30 years for rental units and 99 years for for-sale units. This first amendment encourages housing affordability in a few ways:

Eligible projects will be exempted from concept plan review

Though well intentioned, the Town’s current development review process is confusing, costly (in both time and money), and inefficient, increasing the cost of development, which is passed on to renters and home buyers.

Adjusts the timing of technical review

The review of some development regulations would occur after project approval, rather than before. This doesn’t change requirements – the developers still must comply with regulations – but it does reduce the developer’s need to provide highly technical (and expensive) documentation without any guarantee that a project will be approved. This reduces risk, and reduced risk reduces development costs. These savings are passed on to renters and home buyers and are critical to providing affordable homes.

Reduces parking requirements and relaxes parking lot design regulations

Every parking space a developer must provide adds costs to the project and reduces space that could otherwise be used for additional housing units.

Creates a Town staff design review team, including the urban designer, sustainability officer, transportation, and planning staff, to review proposed projects:

This team replaces the all-volunteer Community Design Commission (CDC), which we’ve written about before.

Key Point: The second proposed LUMO amendment encourages the development of more diverse housing types.

This includes duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes – the latter two not currently allowed in Chapel Hill – in most residential neighborhoods. It also includes design standards to ensure new projects look similar to single-family homes. The second amendment supports housing affordability by:

Allowing housing units that are more economically and environmentally efficient than single-family homes

A diversity of housing types spreads land costs across multiple units, lowering the cost of each unit. Multifamily housing units also share walls, reducing construction costs for developers and energy costs for residents.

Allowing diverse housing types “by-right”

The amendment would make it just as easy to develop duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes as it currently is to construct single-family homes. This saves time and money by eliminating the need to negotiate every project with council for conditional zoning approval.

Our Take: The proposed LUMO amendments are a BFD for Chapel Hill.

Before discussing our ideas, we want to first thank town staff for the tremendous amount of work that went into these proposals – this is a true gamechanger. The proposed amendments could help reestablish Chapel Hill’s position among America’s most progressive and inclusive small cities.

 

 

Key Point: The proposed amendments aren’t perfect – and that’s okay! 

Housing development is complicated – and so is developing town codes to incentivize the types of housing we want to see. It’s going to take some time and tinkering to get it right. But we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

We encourage our readers to not only support these proposals but to think of them as long-term pilot projects. Rather than opposing the proposals out of fear of change or the unknown, let’s all commit to helping town council and town staff refine the proposals in the coming years.

The lesson of Blue Hill  – the last significant change to our development codes – shouldn’t be that we never try again to change how we develop, but rather that we should quickly identify and fix problems that inevitably emerge when big and important changes like this are made.

Actually, in some ways, we don’t think proposals go far enough. But that’s OK! Better to start slow and move cautiously than to make too many changes at once.

Key Point: The proposed amendments aren’t a gold rush for developers

These are important changes for the town to make, but if they pass tomorrow it will likely take years to see a meaningful increase in housing production as a result. Land is still costly in Chapel Hill and hard to come by, but not expensive enough to justify the demolition of existing homes to be replaced by duplexes or quadruplexes.

In the short term, these proposals are more likely to do two things:

  1. Make development approval easier, faster, and less costly for projects that are 100% affordable – such as Jay Street or Peach Apartments
  2. Make it easier to build smaller, less expensive multi-unit projects like triplexes and quadruplexes.

Our Final Thoughts 

If you are worried that the charming old home down the street will be torn down for a triplex, you might want to consider the current risk to your neighborhood if we remain an exclusive, low-density town: that home will be torn down and replaced by a McMansion.

Streamlining the review process for affordable housing is a no-brainer. But we should streamline the review process for ALL housing.

Despite these changes, we will still see large market-rate rental projects proposed in town. Demand for housing in the Triangle is not going away anytime soon and small multifamily won’t be enough to meet the demand. Brace yourselves.

Think of most any old neighborhood you like walking around in the U.S. If it was built before cars took over, there’s probably a building that looks like this one in Charlotte. It’s nothing fancy, it’s not scary, and it has more than 4 units. Starting with quadruplexes is fine but we could easily enable 6 or 8 unit buildings that will easily fit in here.

As several NextDoor posters pointed out, Chapel Hill is chock full of HOAs and historic districts and “Neighborhood Conservation Districts” (NCDs) that overlay existing zoning districts, placing additional restrictions on what can be built in particular locations. (For instance, these ideas would be a no-go for 106 Kenan Street, currently an empty lot.)

Not every neighborhood in Chapel Hill could replace single family homes with duplexes or triplexes even if they wanted to! Many Chapel Hill neighborhoods are subject to restrictive covenants dictating that only single family homes can be built. (If we could go back in time, we’d eliminate those covenants, many of which were initially created specifically to keep Black people from moving into white neighborhoods. These covenants can no longer be enforced, but the demographic makeup of many of these neighborhoods has not changed much, if at all, over time).

What’s next?

We expect a lot of people to weigh in on this to the Mayor and Council in the coming weeks. You can too. Here’s our guide for how to write to them. (And if you’re writing to them, you might consider submitting a letter to the DTH or N&O as well.)

We also encourage you to email us (triangleblogblog@gmail.com) or tag us on Twitter (@triblogblog) if you see misinformation on this topic circulating.