HILLSBOROUGH ‘Historic Hillsborough’ could grow 31 percent this decade, but the town remains committed to preserving its small-town character, Mayor Tom Stevens said in his eighth annual State of the Town address.
Themed, “Trails and Roads and Pipes and Love,” the mayor’s Monday night speech announced over 600 new homes approved for development, roads that will connect new and expanding neighborhoods, and construction deadlines for the Riverwalk greenway along the Eno River
“In this little historic and charming town where nothing ever changes ...” Steven began, then added: “That’s a joke. There is a lot that’s happening in this charming and historic and ever-evolving community.”
Stevens praised key developments from the past year, including the renewed east side of downtown Churton Street and UNC Health Care’s Hillsborough Medical Office Building that opened last summer in the Waterstone area south of downtown.
Stevens also highlighted the Hillsborough Police Department’s Prescription Drug Drop Box and the hand-off of Hillsborough Hog Day from the Chamber of Commerce to the nonprofit Historic Speedway Group. Durham Tech’s Orange County Campus saw big growth in classes and enrollment, and the town completed its new wastewater treatment plant Jan. 31, $650,000 under budget.
“I go through this list, and it brings to mind a famous saying by Mae West: ‘Too much of a good thing is wonderful,’” Stevens said.
The mayor said Hillsborough’s population will increase by nearly 2,000 people from 2010 to 2020, for a total population of 8,000.
The town’s growth has followed a similar pattern since 1980: close to 30 percent increases each decade. But future growth will be limited by water and traffic, he said. The town currently has water capacity for 1,500 to 2,000 more people. As for traffic, a long discussed north-south bypass around downtown would be very difficult, since it would have to cross two highways and the Eno River.
Stevens acknowledged growth can have drawbacks.
“I think everybody recognizes that our best asset is our small-town charm, and I think it’s what we worry about most when we think about how much this growth is going to be,” he said.
But small-town character “is not about the size we are,” Stevens continued. “It is about, I think, these three things: sense of place, the feeling of home and the experience of community.”
In an interview, Stevens said the town works to honor that character in almost every decision: from developing public spaces, to promoting distinctive landmarks like the Eno River, to approving new projects selectively to ensure they fit in with existing development.
“We are very, very cognizant of developments – we don’t want them plopped down, we want connectivity,” he said.
Riverwalk, one of the town’s key efforts to strengthen its sense of place, is slated to open by the end of the summer, Stevens said. The 1.8 mile greenway along the Eno River is part of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea trail, and one of the trail’s only sections that enters a more urban area.
“This is the game-changer,” Stevens said. “This is what Hillsborough will be really, really proud of for the 21st century.”
Now in its second phase of construction, Riverwalk will link Gold Park to downtown Hillsborough and River Park, with 8-foot-wide paved multi-use paths. In the final construction phase, mulched paths will extend Riverwalk westward to Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, and eastward to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail and Ayr Mount Historic Site.
To increase safety along the Riverwalk, the town has proposed to budget $40,000 for police patrol and security equipment.
‘The tipping point’
Town residents interviewed after the speech expressed concern about growth.
After growing up in Hillsborough, Jim Parsley lived away for 40 years before returning home.
“I think the future is scary because … you don’t know if whatever this is, is just a bump in the road in an otherwise orderly progression, or a rocket taking off,” he said. “I hope it’s not the latter.”
But Parsley said he remains “optimistic.”
“Hillsborough and Orange County have a reputation for being slow and careful, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “They don’t prohibit development, but it’s carefully considered.”
Joe Crawford, who has lived 63 of his 73 years in Hillsborough, said he’d hate to see the town lose its close-knit atmosphere.
“I’ve always liked the small-town character here. I think that’s why I came back here,” he said. “That is maybe on the tipping point.”