The spicy question of what will happen to the American Legion property in Chapel Hill—one of the last large tracts of undeveloped land in the town—continues to heat up.
In the last week, two former Chapel Hill mayors—Kevin Foy and Rosemary Waldorf—have written letters to current Mayor Pam Hemminger and the Town Council urging the town to exercise its option to buy the property.
A developer, Woodfield Investments, entered into a contract to purchase the thirty-six acres for $10 million last year, after the Town Council at the time passed on the opportunity to buy it. Many viewed that as a mistake. The land had been identified in two previous comprehensive plans as a potential site for future parkland—a scarce commodity in eastern Chapel Hill.
In light of public discontent over the land being sold off to yet another luxury housing developer, the Legion announced in September it would give the town another crack at purchasing the property for $9 million. That’s a lot of coin for Chapel Hill, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. The town had thirty days to make a decision, but has recently been given another thirty-day extension by the Legion owners. It will need to put something together by the middle of November if it intends to buy the land.
Foy, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2009, notes that the town was interested in the property back when he was mayor, but that the Legion wasn’t ready to sell and the town was not prepared to purchase. He says the town’s inability to fund the purchase last year was “disappointing, but not surprising given fiscal demands that the Council faced.”
He continues: “The ability to discuss options for the property again this year is, to my mind, a welcome opportunity that I hope you will embrace. I think it is possible that the original idea can come to fruition—the Legion and the Town can work together to keep this property what it has been while the Legion owned it: an asset to the whole Town. I encourage you to give full consideration to choices that will achieve that goal.”
Waldorf, who preceded Foy, from 1995 to 2001, was not a development-averse mayor. As mayor, she cast the deciding vote in favor of the Meadowmont project, and she is currently employed by a Chapel Hill developer, Bryan Properties. Waldorf agrees in her letter that the decision of the last council to pass on buying the Legion property was a “rational and very defensible position.”
But she goes on: “Now I think it is fair to say that circumstances have changed some. The bond approvals have given us resources to meet critical capital needs. We are investing in our connectivity projects. Perhaps a phased purchase — some money paid now and some committed a few years hence — could enable the community to secure this property for future parks and recreation needs.”
The most recent ex-mayor, Mark Kleinschmidt (2009-15), has yet to weigh in.
Foy’s letter in full:
Dear Mayor Hemminger and Members of the Council:
I am writing to you regarding the American Legion property, which I understand you might discuss in light of changed circumstances.
I was disappointed last year when the Council declined to exercise an option to purchase the property, but I recognized the constraints the Town faced. In fact, the Town faced similar constraints when the option was first negotiated. I know this because I was Mayor at the time.
The option came about because the Legion was unprepared to sell then, and the Town was not prepared to purchase. But both parties recognized that the property is uniquely situated and could continue to be a valuable public asset in the long term. The Legion leaders therefore graciously offered the Town the option to purchase the property if the Legion ever decided to sell. The idea was that the Town might be in a position to purchase the property at a later date.
So the fact that the Town was not able to fund the purchase last year was disappointing, but not surprising given fiscal demands that the Council faced. The ability to discuss options for the property again this year is, to my mind, a welcome opportunity that I hope you will embrace.
I think it is possible that the original idea can come to fruition – the Legion and the Town can work together to keep this property what it has been while the Legion owned it: an asset to the whole Town. I encourage you to give full consideration to choices that will achieve that goal.
Kevin C. Foy
Waldorf’s letter in full:
Dear Mayor Hemminger and Council Members,
Thanks for taking a few moments to read some thoughts I want to share with you regarding the Legion property.
But first, I want to thank you for your excellent work getting Wegman’s to come to Chapel Hill. I know these victories take a lot of work and do not happen quickly. I view the incentive approach as an investment that will pay dividends to the community for a long time.
When we were in Boulder, I mentioned to Mayor Hemminger that when I was mayor, I worked for quite some time on the Legion property, with the Council’s encouragement. The manager and I met with key individuals and tried to persuade them to sell the land to the town. Many meetings led to zero results. I have no memory of the right of first refusal arrangement, so that must have been after my time. My message to Mayor Hemminger was that I hope we can get some of that property for future park and recreation use.
Mayor Hemminger and I spoke Friday and I learned that she is hopeful that conversations with the Legion property representatives can occur, with the idea of securing at least some of this land for community uses. I hope you will all agree that this is at least worth exploring. The property shares a significant boundary with Ephesus Park. In addition to securing some park and open space for that part of town, the potential benefit of creating a bicycle and pedestrian connection from Ephesus Church Road to Legion Road is appealing — a key connection that would benefit many neighborhoods on the east side of town, both north and south of 15-501.
When the Council decided not to purchase the land late in 2015, I saw that as a rational and very defensible position. Indeed we did not have the money at hand, and we had some critical priorities for capital needs, most particularly modern work space for our police officers and firefighters and parks and recreation employees. The town also had priorities arising out of the 2020 process, and Council was committed to meeting those.
Now I think it is fair to say that circumstances have changed some. The bond approvals have given us resources to meet critical capital needs. We are investing in our connectivity projects. Perhaps a phased purchase — some money paid now and some committed a few years hence — could enable the community to secure this property for future parks and recreation needs. We see that the economic development predictions for the Ephesus Fordham District are beginning to come true. I know that substantial net new tax revenue from that district is committed for infrastructure work, but at some point there might be net new revenue off new Ephesus Fordham projects that could be directed to support purchase or improvement of the Legion property. Some of the Legion property could be zoned and sold for commercial development, to help fund the parks and recreation goals. Hiring a good land planner to sketch out options, including commercial on Legion Road and blending the Legion tract with Ephesus Park, would help us see the opportunities more clearly.
I know this is not easy. It is not easy to come up with money for purchase. And I realize that the property in its current condition is not usable for recreation. If the town purchases it, there will development and maintenance costs in the future.
But with Ephesus Fordham densifying according to plan, this swath of green and its pretty view begin to seem important as open space. I hope you will consider exploring some of these options.
Thank you for your service and for considering my thoughts.