Conservation and evolution

At their meeting tonight, the Chapel Hill Town Council will be considering 4 possible Neighborhood Conservation Districts, covering Coker Hills, Greenwood, King's Mill, and Pine Knolls. Tomorrow the Planning Board will discuss the NCD process in light of the fact that at least two more neighborhoods are requesting them.

I've written before about the many concerns I have about this process. What is the best way to preserve the character of our beautiful older neighborhoods, while still allowing a moderate amount of well-managed change that is necessary to keep our community healthy and affordable as we grow?


I think it seems pretty clear that Coker Hills doesn't want a NCD. And, unless I misunderstood, neither does the Planning Board.

I also have to say that it seems the planning (Board) leading up to this meeting seems excellent. Most of the "problems" seem easily fixed through minor language changes. Good job.

Okay, I misunderstood how the Neighborhood Association President was saying. Wow, there are some hard feelings here.

I didn't see the meeting--but I know quite a few people who live in Coker Hills who DO NOT want to have the neighborhood designated NCD.


From what I saw, the neighborhood seems pretty split. The Neighborhood Association President was seeming to say in the beginning that there was no need for the NCD, because the covenants already were more than adequate. But, then went on to say they wanted the NCD overlay with the covenants?
Most of the speakers who came were those who stood against the NCD, and they were logical and passionate in their opposition. I hate to see that something like this has caused such a rift in the neighborhood, especially because as I write this I realize two of our friends are moving to the same neighborhood!

I'm curious what you all think about the Need for NCD's.

With Northside, there was, I believe, a compelling Town-wide interest in preserving the neighborhood. Is this the same, or is this a case of folks wanting to stave off change once they themselves are accommodated?


If the town council believes that high density is the best growth pattern for the town, what purpose do NCDs serve? Aren't they a mechanism for preserving against density? Isn't it a bit ironic to promote density in newer neighborhoods but not older ones since it's the older neighborhoods that have the largest lots?

In several of the presentations there were big empty plots of land that appeared, even to me, to be a siren call for developers. The Coker Hills development seems to lack that.
I don't think there is anything wrong with preserving the older neighborhoods as is while at the same time asking newer neighborhoods to be higher densities with more greenspace surrounding and throughout. I worked on Key Biscayne for awhile and they had the problem that CH is trying to avoid. There would be some cool old funky S. Florida houses, then right next door a mansion whose walls went right up to the property boundaries. CH could learn a lot by looking at coastal development, because it is only a matter of time before we reach the state they have. I have lived in three high-growth beach communities and they all go through the same process of sprawling out, then tearing down and sprawling up. Eventually, CH and OC will have to sprawl up, whether it is in 20 years or 200 years. I believe it would be better to beat it to the punch and save large areas of green space NOW with high buildings AWAY from downtown. Like MLK/I-85 and Eastgate area.

I liked the comment last night about not liking "pre-emptive zoning regulations". There is no imminent threat to Pine Knolls, or Coker Hills, or Morgan Creek. Greenwood I don't know much about, but just because "they've got theirs", is that really a reason to force all properties to look the same?

John McPhaul said it well in one of the Morgan Creek meetings - "why not let the marketplace decide what people want in a neighborhood?"

Remember the big fuss when that big house was built by the crook on North Lakeshore? I think it was ugly (out of place) until the landscaping grew in a little bit, but today you hardly notice it. You would think they would be asking for an NCD if it was as big a deal as was made of it at the time.

I also have no idea why we continue to pay consultants when the TC almost certainly has their minds made up on almost all of these issues. What a waste!

It's not all about aesthetics. There's neighborhoods, like mine, where I could bulldoze my house, build 3 on the lot and start a chain of dominos falling as my neighbors have to deal with the tax consequences of what I did.

Will -

I don't really see anything too terribly wrong in tearing down a house and replacing it with another (or two or three) as long as the zoning laws in that neighborhood say the lot is large enough. In an R-1 residential zone, for example, the minimum lot size is already nearly half an acre. Are you saying an NCD should prevent a property owner of a 1.5 acre lot from subdividing it if he/she chooses to? Wow. That sounds something like elitism to me. Glad to hear you have a house in such a nice neighborhood -- sure wish I could afford to live someplace like that. Alas, with NCD's in place, I doubt I'd ever be able to.

But then, you already have yours, so there's no need for you to worry.;-)

From above:

“why not let the marketplace decide what people want in a neighborhood?”

Left only to the marketplace, developers would build only
huge houses (more profit per house). And in those
older, near-to-campus neighborhoods, many of these
largest homes would be rented to large groups of UNC
students, generating house forms that are
out-of-character with the neighborhood, house uses that
are out of character, and large numbers of cars.
I invite you to visit the western end of Coolidge Street
to see this in spades, by a developer named Zalman
Joffe. He has now done this in three older neighborhoods
and is starting in another, making enemies at every
step. I'm not against UNC students
living in neighborhoods; there are many very nice
students living near me, and when I was in grad school
both at Duke and at UNC, I lived in older neighborhoods
and interacted very well with the rest of the residents
there. But it can be done very badly, especially when
the landlord rents to a pre-arranged group of male
undergrads (e.g., sports team, fraternity house) who
behave with an alcohol-fueled pack mentality. All I
need to say about that is "Duke Lacrosse", even ignoring
the rape charges.

There seem to be many interpretations of what NCDs are or what they do. What they are SUPPOSED to do is establish some guidelines so that older neighborhoods can can manage growth, not stop it. As Chapel Hill's population increases, we will all have to start figuring out how to live in closer quarters - the alternative is sprawl and most of us don't want that.

I still believe that there is a way to grow this without destroying what makes our neighborhoods great. However, I'm afraid that if NCD advocates try to use them to stop all change, we will lose another useful tool and the entire community will suffer for it.

Charles, just pointing out there are many types of reasons for NCDs, many which have nothing to do with aesthetics.

How would you deal with the tax consequences when your home, let's say you owned for 20 years and planned to stay in for 20 more, rapidly increased its tax valuation, not because the house was intrinsically more valuable but because your neighbor redeveloped their lot with 2 or 3 houses?

I live in a neighborhood that has a great rural character - one I hope my neighbors and I can preserve.

I also live in a neighborhood with quite a few longterm residents - residents I'd like to have the choice of keeping their homes over flipping their houses to pay the tax bill.

I agree with Ruby that NCDs offer one way to manage growth, not to stifle it. In my neighborhood's case, we rely on our covenants to "protect" the neighborhood from large distortions in its character. Not everyone has or can keep covenants (mine are running out in a few years).

James Barrett states:

John McPhaul said it well in one of the Morgan Creek meetings - “why not let the marketplace decide what people want in a neighborhood?”

Actually, James, the answer is simple: some of us want to live in a neighborhood, not in a marketplace.

Notice that McPhaul, who imposed Creekside on our neighborhood, doesn't live in it....

-- ge


Several of the neighborhoods currently seeking NCD status already have covenants on their land. I assume they are trying to use the NCD as the mechanism for enforcing those covenants instead of the courts.

If NCDs were applied only to neighborhoods that do not already have covenants, I would support them--like in Northside.

NCDs are absolutely not a tool for enforcing covenants. That's what homeowner's associations are for.

Terri, you continue to post things that indicate that you either do not listen to or do not beleive anything I say about NCDs. As the Chair of the Planning Board right now, I do have a bit of insight into the situation. I'm sorry my explanations don't fit into your established view of things, but it just feels like you're wasting everyone's time (including your own) by repeatedly bringing up these patently false arguments.

And now I'm wasting time by responding.

Ruby--please point me to the tthread where you explain the difference between an NCD and covenants. FYI, I haven't seen that explanation--despite your belief that I just choose to not believe what you say.


Covenants are rules (setbacks, building heights, allowability of fences, etc) that neighborhood associations establish for their own neighborhoods. They are only enforceable by the neighborhood associations using civil courts. They are not enforceable by public government. If someone chooses to ignore a neighborhood's covenants the neighborhood association would have to go to court, using their own funds, and file a civil lawsuit to enforce the covenants.

NCDs are overlay zones that have a legal status and can be enforced by the local government. The purpose of an NCD IS NOT to enforce covenants and, if that is the neighborhood's goal, it is an inappropriate use of an NCD. In some cases the stipulations of an NCD might be similar to or identical to those of existing covenants but it is not meant to be an enforcement tool for covenants which a neighborhood does not want to expend its own resources to enforce.

This is a brief (and probably incomplete description) but I hope it helps.

How would you deal with the tax consequences when your home, let's say you owned for 20 years and planned to stay in for 20 more, rapidly increased its tax valuation, not because the house was intrinsically more valuable but because your neighbor redeveloped their lot with 2 or 3 houses?

I also live in a neighborhood with quite a few longterm residents - residents I'd like to have the choice of keeping their homes over flipping their houses to pay the tax bill.

I think Will's post captures several problems with the NCD debate at once. (this is not to pick on Will's content- he's just responding to the general discussion, and what the general discussion is not prompting people to address is where the problems lie)

First, Will's concern above focuses on preventing rapid escalation of tax values of existing homes as a reason for implementing NCDs. However, when I went to the meeting Monday night, in addition to echoes of Will's comment, I heard several comments from NCD advocates who liked the idea of NCDs because it would improve or assure the likelihood of their property values increasing. In a hot real estate market such as Chapel Hill, I struggle to see how these points of view are not in direct conflict with one another.

Second, the NCD debate keeps us thinking about growth in a piecemeal rather than comprehensive fashion. Let me offer another take on Will's post above- how would you deal with the tax consequences when your home in a non-NCD neighborhood rapidly increased its tax valuation after your town instituted several NCDs designed primarily to slow growth and change? Since your neighborhood was one of the remaining locations without NCD regulations, growth pressure that would previously have been spread over a wider swath of town is now focused on the few areas with lower levels of regulation for development-- which means increasingly scarce opportunities for growth, which means developers will command even higher premiums for those limited areas where development can occur.

More on the piecemeal vs. comprehensive problem: Orange County is currently studying Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) and has posted a handy FAQ about that effort. Note Question 3:

Q3. What is the potential for receiving areas within Orange County?

A3. Part of the purpose of the Orange County Transfer of Development Rights Feasibility Study is to examine potential receiving areas. The exact location or characteristics of receiving areas will not be determined until the third Phase of the project. However, we have developed some concepts of potential receiving areas based on discussions with County staff and interviews:

4. Redevelopment/infill inside the Towns of Hillsborough, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Mebane; and

Looking down from the bird's-eye view, we have a county-level effort working to identify areas that can receive redevelopment and infill, including in-town neighborhoods in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough. At the same time, we have a local NCD process whose most likely outcome is to add another layer of regulation to some neighborhoods that will limit opportunities for redevelopment and infill. In my mind, it might make sense to hold off on instituting any new NCDs until we hear from the TDR task force.

The NCDs are turning out to be different beasts than originally anticipated. As you might remember, I suggested that after Northside, that might be the case.

Given the problems with either approach, I wonder if there's yet another way we could look at preserving the unique and valuable character of our town. Any suggestions?


Covenants are also attached to property deeds of land not governed by a homeowners association, especially older neighborhoods established prior to the rise in popularity of homeowners association. According to the Carrboro planning staff, the covenants on my land take precedence over zoning restrictions. So while the town allows home-based businesses, our covenants do not. So if anyone wanted to enforce the covenants, the businesses would have to close--despite the fact that the town allows them. But as you say, enforcement would have to come through private suit in the courts--not a great vehicle for neighborhood unity.

In my neighborhood, it would require more than 50% approval by every landowner in this development to change any aspect of the covenants (according to our neighborhood lawyer). What happens to deed-restricted covenants under NCD--which is another form of zoning as I understand it? Do the covenants still take precedence if they aren't legally changed?

Patrick--I went to the public hearing on transfer of development rights. The consultants and Orange County planning staff were emphatic that any initial rollout of a TDR program would be within county-governed areas only. The towns are not under consideration as 'receiving' sites at this time--unless something has changed since last week.

Terri, I have not been to any of the TDR meetings. However, whether parts of the towns are designated receiving areas in the initial phase or later phase of any rollout is immaterial.

If one local policy effort is trying to identify areas for infill growth in Chapel Hill while another process is trying to identify areas to prevent, or at least significantly limit infill growth in Chapel Hill, we should acknowledge that tension and think about how to address it.

To put it another way- if receiving areas for the towns is not off the table, but proposed for a "second rollout" of TDR if it proves successful in the County jurisdiction, will adopting 3 NCDs in the meantime create a gold-rush style stampede for NCD status by many other neighborhoods in town before those receiving areas in the TDR process get identified?

If it's not obvious, my biggest concern here is the macro effects on affordable housing in Orange County. If anyone can explain to me how NCD implementation is NOT going to make the affordable housing problem in the area worse, I'd love to hear someone make the case.

Patrick, I would argue that NCDs are a way to allow more density through moderate development in a neighborhood while protecting its character. At least that's what I thought they were when I voted for them, but the neighborhoods asking for them clearly think otherwise.


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