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Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!

By Jeanne Brown

My mother-in-law was a real estate agent in California. So when it came time for my husband and me to buy a home, she reminded us of one of her Golden Rules of Real Estate: “Caveat Emptor” – “Let the buyer beware.”

From that rule came our list of important considerations for house buying. We avoid busy streets and ensure that neighboring lots are zoned for residential use. We research school assignments carefully and my husband drives his route to work at busy times.

Within seven months of moving to Chapel Hill, we were informed that our children would be redistricted from one school to another. During our nine years in a suburb of Boston, the schools had only one minor redistricting, so we hadn’t understood the real estate agent’s strong emphasis on the importance of walk zones. Lesson learned.

Even more surprising to us, however, was a carpool conversation last spring in which one of the children lamented the proposed Obey Creek project that would place an eight-story hotel in his backyard. His parents had evaluated their home purchase carefully. They were reassured that the property was zoned for low-density housing and protected as part of the Jordan Lake Watershed Area.

Imagine their surprise when they discovered that a developer was proposing that this property be rezoned to allow the densest Chapel Hill development yet. And surprise turned to dismay as the Chapel Hill Town Council allowed concept-plan negotiations to begin at 1,200 condos, a University Mall-sized shopping center and an eight-story hotel. What happened to beginning with the zoning regulations and Small Area Plan? Under those guidelines, the yardstick for evaluating this project would have been 120 homes and environmental protections.

During my five years in Chapel Hill, I’ve noticed a trend toward consideration and approval of projects that require re-zoning and Special Use Permits. An example that is currently before the town council is the Aydan Court project, which is scheduled for a vote on April 25.

Although the projects differ in scope, there are many similarities between Obey Creek and Aydan Court:

-The properties are environmentally sensitive areas that have been given special designation by the town.

-Both properties were set aside as buffers to higher-density development

-Both properties are located at an entrance to Chapel Hill. Proposals for smaller developments on both sites have been denied by the town council in the past few years. In both cases, the reasons for denial included the inconsistency with the zoning and the environmental impact.

-Both properties are gateway properties to Chapel Hill.

-The property buyers knew full well that these properties were zoned for low-density housing.

-Both proposed projects include condominiums, despite the glut of condominiums already on the market and those already approved but not yet built.

During the Nov. 8, 2010 town council meeting, the council agreed that “the days of ad-hoc decisions” are over. Since then, initial committees have begun forming to begin the Comprehensive Planning process . Aside from allowing discussion on issues of zoning, land use and density, this process affords us an opportunity to address two other issues and thereby strengthen the Comprehensive Plan, helping future councils guide growth and protecting the interests of homeowners and landowners.

First, as council member Ed Harrison pointed out on April 9, “There are no requirements in a Comprehensive Plan. It needs more specific policies” so that the same document can’t be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Second, a stronger set of guidelines and procedures should be developed for the Concept Plan process to prevent the all-too-familiar scenario in which the council finds itself backed into a corner by a developer who has met the council’s checklist but whose project is clearly at odds with the goals of the Comprehensive Plan and the wishes of area neighbors. For instance, in the case of large developments, the process should include a walkthrough of the property and surrounding neighborhood. Doing a walkthrough before giving feedback to developers would allow the council to guide development in a more meaningful way and lead to suggestions that meet everyone’s needs.

Please encourage the town council to refrain from approving Aydan Court, Charterwood or other high-impact, ad-hoc zoning requests until the Comprehensive Planning process has been completed. The developers are being included as a focus group in the process, which will allow us to work together to create a common vision for Chapel Hill. You can send your e-mail to mayorandcouncil@townofchapelhill.org

  1. Julie McClintock

    Thanks for making a cogent case for improved Town review procedures and updating our Comprehensive Plan before taking on new developments in Chapel Hill . A process has already begun that will engage the community in a new vision for our Town and will include all community members, including developers.