The once-narrow Bolin Creek trail that wound between the creek and steep hills along Umstead Drive is now wide and flat, littered with loose rocks and several freshly cut trees.
Since work on phase 3 of the Bolin Creek Greenway started in June, neighbors and others have grown concerned about the work and how it could harm the creek. The area also is known for flooding during moderate and heavy rains.
“The fact is that this small road, this paved 10-foot greenway, is going to be wedged between a very steep bank and a creek, and that is going to be terrifically difficult to do without damaging the creek,” said Julie McClintock, president of the nonprofit Friends of Bolin Creek.
The creek could appear cloudier over the next few weeks, town stormwater engineer Chris Jensen said, but steps are being taken to control erosion and water quality. Contractor S&C Construction is using traditional black mesh erosion fencing in some areas but has installed waddles – rolls of coconut fiber matting – in rocky, compacted areas along the creek. The waddles are moved outside the work zone during construction.
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The work is challenging, said Bill Webster, Parks and Recreation planning and development manager, but S&C Construction has extensive experience building bridges and other projects in wetland areas.
The existing Bolin Creek Greenway – 1.5 miles of 10-foot-wide asphalt – connects Community Center Park on Estes Drive with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just south of the Chapel Hill Police Department. The half-mile, concrete connection from MLK Boulevard to Umstead Park could take nearly a year to build and cost $2.2 million.
Pedestrians and cyclists, once it’s finished, will pass through a 37- by 16-foot, arched culvert under MLK Boulevard, going up the hill and across a Bolin Creek bridge on the other side. The greenway then crosses Umstead Drive and follows an abandoned sewer easement west along the creek’s southern banks to a planned tunnel under Pritchard Avenue Extension and the park.
The project also will add a sidewalk to Umstead Drive, from MLK Boulevard to the new trail crossing, and replace a wooden bridge in the park with a steel one. The new bridge will form a future connection to Tanyard Branch trail, the Northside neighborhood and downtown.
The changes are expected to form an important link in the town’s trail system and make it safer for to cross busy MLK Boulevard and head downtown or west to Carrboro. Cyclists and pedestrians now go down the hill, past a dangerous gas station driveway, to cross at the traffic light.
Concerned residents say there are better ways to safely route people than a concrete trail next to a creek in the resource conservation district – land set aside to protect water quality.
“A river’s riparian area is a delicate place, and there is usually a minimum area along every creek or river that should not be messed with, in order for the body of water to stay healthy,” Umstead Drive resident Sue-Anne Solem recently emailed town leaders.
The fear is that stormwater will race down the hill, crossing the concrete unabated, and push more sediment downstream, residents said. That could erode the creek, increase the potential for flooding and harm aquatic life, they said.
Repairs to the Bolin Creek Greenway in recent years show what could happen, Mt. Bolus Road resident Will Raymond said. Floodwaters in 2013 damaged the trail’s edges, destroying handrails and retaining walls, and creating a large landslide in one section.
Town leaders seem determined to move full speed ahead anyway, Raymond said.
“The town doesn’t listen to the experts. They don’t listen to the residents,” he said. “I guess we’re doing to have to find chunks of asphalt in the creek before the town starts believing this was a bad idea.”
Raymond brought his concerns to the Friends of Bolin Creek a few years ago, McClintock said. The group opposed the project, she said, but had few options because it had been approved. They plan to work with town staff this week on a way to monitor the creek’s health, she said.
Town and Jordan Lake watershed rules do allow greenway construction in conservation districts, but those greenways must be designed, built and maintained in a way that reduces their impact.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has approved the plan, Jensen said, They are using concrete for the trail, because it’s better suited for poor soils and in areas that flood, he said.
Some residents suggested a wider sidewalk on Umstead Drive would be better, even if it requires land from neighbors or juts out over the creek. The work should have been done a few years ago, they said, when OWASA put its new sewer line under Umstead Drive.
That would have been more expensive, affected more neighbors and taken more trees from the creek’s northern bank, Webster said.
The town has created an online storymap (nando.com/1n-) to provide updates about the work. The map shows landscaping around the MLK Boulevard culvert and west along the greenway to Umstead Drive. Only a few stone retaining walls will be added on the southern side of the creek.
Town staff will consider again this fall whether the trail along the creek should get new landscaping, he said.
“We have the plans, and we generally follow the plans,” he said. “But just as important, when you’re in the field, you look at the reality.”
That is small comfort to Janet Tice, whose home overlooks the creek. Tice said she first learned the work was starting when crews cut down some of the trees. She never got the town’s May letter alerting neighbors that the work would start in June, she said.
“I fail to see how this is not going to be just a disaster when it comes to erosion and flooding,” she said.
Webster and Jensen invited residents to keep an eye on the work – from a safe distance – and call if they see possible problems.
“We (welcome) people’s ideas,” Webster said. “We live in a community with a whole lot of smart folks.”