Chapel Hill needs parks and housing. Council decides Legion site can meet both needs.

A vote Wednesday night will make it possible one day for people to live within walking distance of a park built on a “gem” of largely undeveloped land in the eastern part of Chapel Hill.

The Town Council’s 8-1 vote set aside up to 9 acres of land at the former American Legion site for affordable housing, while leaving about 27 acres to combine with the adjacent, 12-acre Ephesus Park on Ephesus Church Road.

The combined park property would create a nearly 39-acre community park, including an 8.6-acre, undeveloped buffer of woods around a stream on the Legion site. The town doesn’t have any money yet to build park amenities.

Council member Jessica Anderson said the council’s decision is a compromise that will build a healthy community with green spaces and housing for everyone. Council member Camille Berry agreed, noting that while she initially supported selling off a portion of the land to pay for the park, she has since changed her mind.

Berry was the former executive director of Durham Central Park, 5 acres in downtown Durham “that was reclaimed wasteland.” She said she doesn’t want to make the same mistakes and doesn’t want to miss an opportunity to create housing for people who need it.

“One thing I regret is that we made that five-acre (Durham Central) park beautiful, wonderful, and the housing that went up around it is so expensive,” Berry said. “We have the opportunity to turn this gem into something that we don’t have to fear.”

Council member Adam Searing, who voted against the plan for a park and housing, said he understands why some residents are skeptical. The town has had plans for years to build more parks, tennis courts and fields, a new skate park and an adaptive playground, he said.

“If we can’t turn a spade full of earth for a desperately needed skate park that our kids have been asking us for a decade and that every other single community around here has done, how can we expect you, as the people in Chapel Hill, to trust us on the council that we’re somehow going to build an amazing park on what’s left of this property,” Searing said.

The town of Chapel Hill bought the American Legion Post 6 property on Legion Road in March 2017 and is planning what will become of the land when the Legion moves to a new home.
The town of Chapel Hill bought the American Legion Post 6 property on Legion Road in March 2017 and is planning what will become of the land when the Legion moves to a new home.

Heated conversation about park, housing

The council initially declined to purchase the American Legion land in 2015, but reversed that decision in 2016 after voters replaced the mayor and three of eight council members.

The town bought the land for $7.9 million, using cash and voter-approved parks bond money that had been designated for other projects. The council at the time discussed the possibility of building a park, as well as housing and potentially some retail on the site.

The pandemic delayed the conversation, while residents who had long envisioned a park on the property mounted volunteer efforts to clean up invasive plants and existing trails. In June, five council members submitted a petition to restart the conversation.

The Legion Property Committee, appointed in October to study the options, recommended on Nov. 22 that the town build housing and a park. The report was presented last week at a public meeting, where 37 people shared their vision for the site.

At least two petitions were submitted to the town, including a Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) petition signed by more than 700 people that demands the town only build a park. A different petition, launched by the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition, was signed by over 900 people to support construction of both a park and housing.

The conversation reflected a deep divide in the community and in conversations about how the town should grow. Anderson took the opportunity Wednesday to urge everyone to also consider how they talk to each other.

“It doesn’t matter at some point what this ends up being if we can’t in some way work together on these types of issues and care about each other, even when we disagree,” Anderson said. “I’ve heard of people heckling their neighbors over this issue. I went to a vigil for child who was hurt in crosswalk, and one of my neighbors heckled me from streets away over development.”

Public divide, future of pond

On Wednesday, more than 50 people spoke before the council’s decision, some of whom appeared confused about what exactly the council was set to approve. There are few details about the project at this point, because it is just getting started. Many more public meetings and hearings will be held before anything is built.

Laura Wells, executive director of HOPE NC, said the Legion site is the perfect place for housing that is walkable and that can serve a diverse population of people who need shelter.

“I’ve heard in several of these meetings I’ve attended that there is plenty of other land where affordable housing can be developed, but I can attest that this is not the case,” said Wells, who is co-chair of the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition. “HOPE has been looking for many years to find the right property to develop affordable housing for people of all ages and abilities, and while there is land, not much of it is very near public transit and walkable.”

Anne Brashear and her husband, Bill, who got permission from the town at the beginning of the pandemic to clear invasive vines on the site, had a different opinion. More than 80 volunteers have come out since they started working at the site to help, including a group of young people who built a Monarch butterfly garden, Anne Brashear said.

“Open and wooded space is essential for mental health, but also with all of the new development in this area and with low-income and affordable housing already down Legion Road and in the neighborhood, it is a social justice issue,” she said.

Others were specifically concerned about the future of a 3-acre pond where some, including Searing, recalled learning to fish as children. The pond does not provide stormwater control for the site and has an earthen dam in need of critical repairs.

The pond will be drained regardless of what is built to determine its water source and shore up the banks, Mayor Pam Hemmiger has said. That process could take at least a year, including nine months to allow stormwater to find its natural course across the site.

Hemminger has said it could cost at least $500,000 to drain and rebuild the pond or to fill it in and create more developable land.