Here in Orange County, we’re used to Alamance and Durham counties beating us when it comes to economic development. Now they’re leaving us in the dust on the paramount statewide parks project – the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Most of us drive to our neighboring counties for much of our shopping. If we don’t get a sense of urgency and our act together, we’ll also need to drive there to enjoy this trail, and, somewhat ironically, trail hikers will have to hitch a car ride to cross Orange County.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) is an ambitious project to create a continuous trail from the Tennessee border to the Atlantic Ocean. When complete, the MST will traverse 30 of North Carolina’s counties, and Orange is one of the lucky ones to be included. Trails are great amenities for our citizens to enjoy, and this one will have the added benefit of attracting many visitors to our beautiful area.
Only a handful of states have ever attempted a venture of this scale. It takes a lot of time and resources to bring it to fruition. The MST was the brainchild of former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee, who proposed it way back in 1977. Over the decades, the pieces of this natural jigsaw puzzle have slowly been assembled, but recently activity has gained momentum; 620 of its 1,000 miles are currently available.
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The Piedmont segment of the MST is now a focus of the project. Starting at the Eno River State Park on the border of Orange and Durham counties, the trail lets hikers trek over 100 miles east, through all of Durham and Wake counties to Clayton. Alamance County is hard at work on its section, having pooled resources with its towns to hire staff dedicated to acquire land and easements.
The state master plan has Orange County picking up the trail along the Haw River in our southwest corner, proceeding through Cane Creek Reservoir OWASA lands, crossing the rural county countryside to meet the Hillsborough Riverwalk, then on through Eno River to join up with Durham.
To date, only the Riverwalk is complete (thank you, Hillsborough). Orange County hasn’t even adopted its own plan for the rest. While some money for the MST is designated in the county’s 2019 capital expense budget, it isn’t actually funded yet.
What’s the rush? Well, our citizens certainly want it. The Community Needs Assessment Survey ranked walking/hiking trails our highest priority amenity. The Orange County Parks Master Plan includes the MST in the top five recommendations.
Importantly, there’s also a lot of money at stake. Most of the trail’s costs are incurred purchasing easements when the route goes through private lands (if they aren’t donated). Trail construction, maintenance and signage are provided free of charge by the nonprofit Friends of the MST.
Normally, local areas need to cover the upfront costs, but if the state bond referendum passes this March, $4.5 million will be available for selected counties’ acquisition costs. Originally, Orange County was not eligible for that money, since we haven’t made MST a priority. We were added only after our county commissioners asked for reconsideration.
The state bond funds will be distributed as needed. If we aren’t ready, we will lose out. Other counties on the list are eager to get them. The last time state money was available for the MST was in 2008. Orange County was allocated $985,000. We weren’t ready then either, so our money went to others.
What a shame to miss opportunities to get someone else to pay for something so many people here want.
Last month, representatives from N.C. Parks, Friends of the MST and citizens of Orange County petitioned the county commissioners to “close the gap” in the trail between Alamance and Durham. The commissioners reacted favorably, but actions are needed, not just the rhetoric we’ve heard for years. They need to expedite adopting our version of the master plan and get to work with landowners, public and private, to get this preeminent pathway on the ground.
This is one area in which we shouldn’t be trailing our neighbors.
Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a business in the Chapel Hill section of Orange County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org