West Hillsborough rezoning project met with community resistance

In August, homeowners in West Hillsborough were notified of a proposed rezoning project on a 3.3-acre parcel of land, inciting frustration and resistance from within the community. 

The section of land in the proposal is located across from The Village Diner, the block of land between Benton and W. King Streets, with Collins and Jones Avenues on the opposite edges. 

Currently the land is zoned for nine to 11 parcels as single family homes, and the pending rezoning request is for higher density housing for both single family homes and townhomes, increasing the number to 18 to 20.

To develop under the current zoning regulations, only permits would be required if the aim of the company was to keep the developing property to the 9 to 11 housing limit. But now the developers want higher density housing, almost doubling the amount of housing per parcel, proposing a rezone to accommodate for 18 to 20 single and multi-family homes. The company plans to ask the Town for both the rezoning and Special Use Permit in spring 2017, which requires quite a bit more public notice and Town approvals, allowing for more public input.  

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The resounding objection isn’t to the development itself, but rather the move from a historical, small housing neighborhood, to a larger, higher density row of housing. 

The project has already received considerable public input, much of it from a group donning the name “Save West Hillsborough’s Charm,” organized to resist the higher density proposition. 

At a Town meeting in September, with about 40 West Hillsborough community members in attendance, the developers said they were going to apply and submit their permit in a week. They received continued objection by the community, and therefore they delayed their submission.

One reason this project has received so much resistance from the community is because once a rezone has been approved, the area cannot return to its previous zoning type, as that would infringe upon the property rights of the developers that purchased it. In this incidence, it happens to be that high density housing is more financially valuable than single family housing.

At a meeting on Tuesday Dec. 6, about 50 community members showed up to the Town Barn to hear Summit Design and Engineering Services, the builder of the development, present “architectural rendering and potential concept layouts” for the project. 

Though the town meetings can be summarized, there is not much official town data or documents, as an application has yet to be submitted, Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Margaret Hauth said.

Required in the official application is the basics of a site plan, including traffic studies, drawings, possible setbacks, and plans for lighting, landscaping, building elevations, pavement changes, stormwater regulations and more. 

“I’ve been at this a while,” Hauth said. “People [and developers] talk without anything materializing. Until there is an application on my desk, I don’t worry about projects too much.”

Community efforts to preserve West Hillsborough

The Town advised Save West Hillsborough’s Charm, who had over 50 members on Nextdoor, that rather than only speaking to the aspects of what they don’t like about what is being proposed, the public should tell the developer what they do want, thus initiating neighborhood committees to explore options on ways to influence the project, creating a town survey and a historical document on the area.

The neighborhood survey is online, where one can choose their top 5 out of 20 options of“the characteristics of West Hillsborough that are most important to you,” and to join the efforts of the group.

“This survey comes from a positive place of what [community members] value and see in [their] community,” and how the development aligns with Hillsborough’s Vision 2030, member of the group, Jackie Stonehuerner said.

The historical document, created by Gary Kueber, details the history of West Hillsborough as a mill village, citing that the culture of the community, in terms of character of the people and their class in the community, landscaping, architecture, churches, schools, daily life, and more, have remained fairly constant though of course, growing with the modern era.

The area of West Hillsborough in the document was cited as extending west to Barracks, east to S. Nash, south to the Eno River/Occoneechee Mountain, and north to approximately Hayes/Orange Heights.

The document states, that “There is a significant diversity of housing styles and ages in West Hillsborough, which reflects both the slow pace of development of the ‘West Hill’ area over a long period of time as well as the influx of mill houses as infill during the 1950s.”

Most of the present houses are 900 to 1200 square feet, and the proposal looks to more than double that to 2200 to 2800 square feet. 

Stonehuerner commented on the values of Hillsborough as a historical town, and that there is a large concern that with this zoning change, the character and charm of the neighborhood would be significantly altered, especially since the proposed design does not necessarily match the architectural integrity.

“One of their justifications for wanting high density housing is they are trying to avoid urban sprawl,” Stonehuerner said. “They want to bring in more housing within the town limits, bordering the town limits, at the very least, so that you won’t have all these new developments all over into the countryside.”

“When me and my husband were younger, we had both lived in high density neighborhoods, but when deciding where we were going to settle down, we chose a single family neighborhood,” Stonehuerner said. “Now, my husband is 79 years old and we are not in a position where we can just pick up and move into another single family neighborhood and hope they don’t rezone.”

Stonehuerner and her husband moved to Hillsborough from Durham in 2005, and she said that around the time they left, the City of Durham had approved 99 out of the last 100 requests for zoning.

“That’s why when we moved to Hillsborough, we thought it should be different, because if you approve 99 out of 100 requests, zoning ceases to exist,” she said.

“You may get things just the way you want them for a brief period of time, but it is always going to change, and I think we have to accept that,” she said. “But this would be a major change that is going to impact generations down the road, it’s not just going to affect my husband and me, it’s going to affect everybody that lives in that neighborhood as long as the houses are standing– and it’s going to be fundamentally different as high density than as single family housing.

“Change is inevitable, but let’s hope rezoning is not.”