HILLSBOROUGH — Neighbors of an animal research facility in rural Orange County lost a bid this week to subject UNC-Chapel Hill’s plans to greater public scrutiny when a local board ruled the request fell outside the county’s jurisdiction.
UNC-CH officials want to replace a failed septic system at the Bingham Facility, a complex west of Carrboro that has housed dogs and hogs used to study hemophilia and heart disease, among other animals.
Neighbors, including the grass-roots group Preserve Rural Orange, say the university needs a class A special-use permit. The process includes a public hearing, review by the county planning board and approval from county commissioners.
At one time, the county thought the university needed the class A permit, too. In early 2010, county staff told UNC-CH the size of its planned wastewater system required the lengthy, public permit process. Later that year, after communication with the university, the county changed its mind.
On Monday night, neighbors challenged the reversal in a hearing before the Orange County Board of Adjustment. The neighbors, facing lawyers for the county planning department and university, argued their case for nearly three hours.
Although the county normally requires a special-use permit for a septic system handling more than 3,000 gallons a day – as the university proposes – state law and court rulings say the university’s wastewater project falls outside the county’s jurisdiction.
The project needs only site plan approval and a zoning compliance permit from the county for disturbing the land, the Board of Adjustment ruled in a 5-0 vote. That process requires only staff approval and no public comment.
The wastewater system does need a permit. But that falls under the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is now reviewing the university’s request for a modification of its existing permit for the Bingham Facility.
The state held a public hearing on that request in Bingham Township last summer. Neighbors expressed concern about past leaks of treated wastewater, the septic system’s effect on their wells and health, and a feared expansion of the facility. Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Lowman apologized for past mistakes and repeated that the university has dropped plans for expansion because it has no money for it.
At Monday’s hearing Laura Streitfeld, executive director of Preserve Rural Orange, tried to ask Michael Harvey, the county’s current planning supervisor, who from the university contacted the county after he asked for a class A permit and whether he agreed with the later decision not to require it.
Lawyers for the county and university objected, and Board of Adjustment Chairman Larry Wright did not allow the questions because they did not deal directly with whether the county’s actions were improper.
On Tuesday, Harvey said he changed his mind about the need for the permit because he got more information.
“I wrote a letter interpreting the code based on the information I had,” he said in a telephone interview. “After six months, it was determined by the county attorney, the planning director and myself that there was additional information that made my (first) determination moot.”
Because it’s a state project, Harvey said, “we don’t have the authority to require a special-use permit.”
Monday’s vote becomes official at the board’s December meeting. The neighbors can appeal the decision to Orange County Superior Court, Harvey said.