A decades-long campaign ended with little fanfare this month when elected leaders unanimously agreed to extend sewer lines to 86 homes in the Rogers Road community to compensate the historically black neighborhood for housing the county’s now-closed landfill.
The agreement spells out a cost-sharing plan for the $5.8 milion dollar sewer project, as well as $1.4 million to cover design costs, community outreach, and construction of the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) Community Center.
Chapel Hill and Orange County will each pay 43 percent of the total, or $3.1 million apiece, while Carrboro will pay 14 percent, or roughly $1 million. Orange County will take the lead as the project’s fiscal agent, with the towns reimbursing the county through yearly payments over the next two decades.
Though the plan was approved speedily by each governing body in recent weeks, it comes after years of negotiation and activism.
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“From 1972 to 2016, that's how long the community has been focused on how to move forward,” said the Rev. Robert Campbell.
“I characterize what we've done in Rogers Road, the water and sewer, the community center, all of it, as reparations,” said Mark Dorosin, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and a civil rights attorney who represented RENA before his election to the board.
“I don't know that any of it will compensate the residents who had to live there for all those years for bearing the extrordinary and disproportionate burden of accommodating the solid-waste needs for the whole county,” he said. “I think in many ways this is the least we can do, and should have been done a long time ago.”
Snapping the lock
Campbell led RENA’s campaign to shut down the landfill, and pressed local governments for remediation in the form of water and sewer service, as well as a community center. He was on hand in 2013 to snap a lock on the landfill gates in a ceremony to mark its closing.
But the fight to bring municipal sewer services to the neighborhood has dragged on, in part because Rogers Road exists in something of a jurisdictional no-man's land, straddling the borders of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County.
“This particular neighborhood got put into the in-between zone,” said Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger. “It's technically in the county, parts of it are in Carrboro, and parts of it are in the (extraterritorial jurisdiction) for Chapel Hill.”
I think in many ways this is the least we can do, and should have been done a long time ago.
Mark Dorosin, Orange County commissioner
Hemminger, in her former role as an Orange County Commissioner, served on a 2012 task force of representatives from the neighborhood, towns and county charged with figuring out how to extend sewer service to the area, and how best to split the cost.
“It was such a complicated process, because of where it's physically located and because no particular government wanted to be the one making it happen,” she said.
With the design phase complete and a cost-sharing plan in place, the sewer project is ready to move into the construction phase, slated for completion in the summer of 2018. The new lines will allow some residents to replace failing septic systems, Campbell said.
He also noted the utility will add value to homes in the neighborhood.
“With that infrustructure, municipal sewage service, it makes it more likely that you will be able to get a loan to do renovations to your home,” he said. “In the future, if you decide you want to sell it, you can get more money for your property because you have that infrastructure there.“
The prospect of rising property values has prompted worries the community could fall prey to gentrification, but Campbell argues Rogers Road should not be left behind as Chapel Hill and Carrboro grow.
“There's already development all around this community. We are the hole in the donut,” he said, citing new homes on Homestead and Eubanks Road. “Everything is buildling up around us, with infrastructure.”
He said RENA's decades of community organizing will help ensure Rogers Road residents take an active role in planning future development.
In the meantime, the long process of remediation will move slowly forward, as OWASA staff begin work to secure easements and prepare to lay down sewer lines.
“I just want to thank the Rogers Road residents for hanging in there with us,” said Carrboro Alderwoman Randee Haven-O’Donnell. “Talk about a long road.”