Plan for ‘smart development’ outside Carrboro raises concerns in rural Orange County

Editor’s note: The story was updated June 10 to clarify that the Meadow Flats natural area extends beyond the boundaries of the Meadow Flats Natural Heritage Site in Duke Forest.

Update: The Carrboro Board of Aldermen postponed a June 25 annexation hearing for the Parker Louis LLC project to September. The delay will allow time for the town to receive additional information about wetlands, traffic and other concerns related to the project.

Update: The Carrboro Board of Aldermen has scheduled multiple meetings about the project and proposed annexation. A public hearing will be held Oct. 22 in the OWASA Community Room, 400 Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro. Find more information below.

Adam and Omar Zinn grew up playing in the woods off Eubanks Road and Old N.C. 86, back when one was a gravel road and the other a less-traveled country lane.

The area is still rural, but nearly 50 years later, both roads are wider, paved and busy with cars, trucks and buses. Morris Grove Elementary School has replaced some of the woods where they played, and more dense development is about to open at Carraway Village on the Chapel Hill side of Eubanks Road.

A compact mix of homes, apartments, and neighborhood commercial buildings on a primary transit and commuter corridor is “smart development” for the western end of Eubanks Road, said Omar Zinn said. He and his brother Adam Zinn are the owners of Parker Louis LLC, the property owner.

“I always tell people,” Omar Zinn said, “Estes Drive used to be the edge of town, Weaver Dairy Road used to be the edge of town, now Eubanks Road is kind of the edge of town, and everything’s coming that way.”

The 27.5-acre site is just a half-mile south of the county’s rural buffer, where water, sewer and intense development are prohibited. It’s in the county but in Carrboro’s planning area, so the county commissioners can review the project, but the aldermen have the final say.

Carrboro had a plan

The town, in response to a 2007 update to its Northern Study Area Small Area Plan, contacted the Zinns and four other landowners about the future development of their properties. The Zinns were the only ones to respond and met with Durham Area Designers group consultants and residents in 2011 to draft five concept master plans.

The current plan incorporates ideas from the 2011 public workshops but has more development on the northern and eastern parts of the site. The previous plans left that area, considered to be wetlands, undeveloped. The Zinns contend the wetlands maps were wrong.

They are seeking a rezoning to the town’s flexible zoning district, created in 2016 for large sites on major transportation corridors that have had a public planning process.

This would be the first time the flexible zoning has been used, and the required master plan covers many details, from how the land can be used to construction management; density, height and location of buildings; architectural standards; and traffic, stormwater and parking.

The zoning would also give the Zinns and future owners some flexibility to adapt to market changes.

Zinn proposed development map with scale.jpg
A master site plan for the corner of Eubanks Road and Old N.C. 86 shows commercial buildings north and south of the corner, single-family homes running north toward an adjacent forest, and apartments across the traffic circle from Morris Grove Elementary School. Parker Louis LLC Contributed

They are finalizing the details, but so far, they’re planning 40 to 50 one- and two-story homes on small lots through the center of the site and along the northern border. A nonprofit partner could manage roughly 15% of the homes as affordable, Omar Zinn said.

The community anchor — at the southeastern corner of Eubanks and Old N.C. 86 — is envisioned as a general store similar to Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro or the Maple View Farm store in rural Orange County, Adam Zinn said. It could be a community gathering place with a big front porch, a huge field for events, and a place for music and food trucks, he said.

The northeastern corner could include several two-story commercial buildings, with potentially an assisted-living center, daycare or offices; retail isn’t a priority, Adam Zinn said. Along Eubanks Road, there could be 130 to 160 apartments in up to 40-foot-tall buildings, he said. The development’s farmhouse, Craftsman-style architecture could be reminiscent of Fearrington Village, Omar Zinn said.

At least one bus stop is planned.

“We hope to create a special place where people are going to want to gather and not going to have to drive all the way into town; that will serve people in that northern transition area,” Omar Zinn said. “We hope a lot of the same people that really don’t want to see anything happen out there will one day be gathering at the corner of Eubanks and 86, and saying, ‘Gosh, this is a great place to spend time with our family and our community.’”

Environmental, traffic concerns

The Board of Aldermen will get a project update June 4, and a public hearing on annexation is tentatively scheduled for June 25. Public hearings and a vote on the final master plan and rezoning could be in September.

What might be built has only intensified community concerns about traffic, stormwater and density, neighbors said last week. The town’s Northern Transition Area Advisory Committee chair also asked in April for more time to consider the traffic, density and height.

An urban-style, downtown development “would be out of step and out of sync with what the viewscape is out there,” committee chair Amy Jeroloman said. The committee noted in its debate the “faux suburban look” of what the Zinns have planned.

Local environmentalists and neighbors are especially worried about how the project could affect the Meadow Flats natural heritage site, a conservation area in the Duke Forest tract abutting the Zinns’ property. Other areas of the forest, part of the Blackwood division of Duke Forest, are used only for research and are not public.

Duke Forest Supervisor Tom Craven led several residents and town advisory board members on a guided tour last week. Development could affect some types of research, make it more difficult to do prescribed burning, and potentially attract more trespassers, he said.

Craven was joined by current and former Natural Heritage officials who talked about the importance of Meadow Flats, part of the Bald Mountain and Currie Hill macrosite, one of three areas “of National significance” in Orange County, according to the Inventory of Natural Areas and Wildlife Habitats for Orange County, North Carolina.

Meadow Flats is lower than surrounding lands and has poor drainage, with standing water throughout the winter, said Stephen Hall, a retired landscape ecologist with the N.C. Natural Heritage Program.

The tall, oak-hickory forest has little undergrowth — due to the deer population, he said. The clay soil is dark and crumbly, shaped by the erosion of magma-derived gabbro rocks protruding from the earth, and, Hall said, has a more neutral pH than typical clay soil.

It’s also part of the New Hope wildlife corridor to Jordan Lake and home to rare species, such as the northern swamp dogwood and four-toed salamander; neotropical migrant birds; and a variety of wildlife, from raptors to bobcats.

“We wouldn’t recommend this level of protection for just any tract of forest,” Hall said. “We search for the best of the remaining habitats in the state, and those are the ones we target for conservation. We’re not trying to protect the whole world.”

Wetlands questioned

More traffic, people and stormwater could spoil the unique nature of Meadow Flats, some residents and advisory board members said. The current zoning is rural residential, which allows one single-family home per acre by right and other, low-intensity commercial and residential uses with the aldermen’s approval.

“It was surprising to me that Carrboro chose Meadow Flats,” said neighbor John Gant, who joined the discussion in 2011.

“Out of all this land around here, they chose perhaps some of the most precious land, with the Zinns, for a commercial development,” he said. “It really surprised me because it runs counter to everything else Carrboro stands for — preserve the best of the nature around you and limit sprawl.”

Hall, citing an Environmental Law Institute paper about buffers and “edge effects,” agreed there is a risk.

“A development like the one that is being proposed is not going to have its impacts solely limited to the footprint of the project,” Hall said. “They’re going to spill across the boundary for some distance, and the Environmental Law Institute estimates that between 200 and 300 meters — yards — out from an edge, you’re going to have impacts.”

At its closest, the Meadow Flats Natural Heritage Site is separated from the Parker Louis property by a 187-meter-wide private tract, Orange County’s GIS map shows. But its wetlands extend 11 acres on the northern and eastern side of the property to Eubanks Road, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maps of the National Wetlands Inventory.

The wetlands are part of the wider, unprotected Meadow Flats natural area, which extends north from Eubanks Road and west across Old N.C. 86, Natural Heritage Program director Misty Buchanan clarified in June 6 email.

A site survey is needed “to verify the current conditions of the natural area and verify that the boundaries are correctly mapped, before any final decisions are made about the parcels,” she said. (Story was updated to clarify the full range of the Meadow Flats natural area.)

Zinn said the area of wetlands extending into the Parker Louis tract is smaller than maps show, because the 2014 soils and wetlands survey by consultant ECS was done on the ground, and the town’s maps are based on aerial topographic surveys. The 2014 survey — and a more recent one being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — showed only two acres of wetlands on the eastern side, he said.

An email provided Wednesday from Army Corps regulatory project manager Samantha Dailey said the Corps has not received an updated survey of the Parker Louis property. Dailey has not yet responded to requests for more information.

Zinn said Wednesday evening that the survey has been sent to Corps.

The Parker Louis property also is underlain with the same volcanic rock that keeps water standing nearly year-round in the Meadow Flats. It’s not clear yet if blasting will be required as part of the construction, Zinn said.

Carrboro Planning Director Patricia McGuire said the town has been told about the difference in wetlands but as of Thursday had not seen the information. The aldermen will review the information June 4, she said.

Retaining the area’s rural setting will be important, Carrboro planning administrator Tina Moon has said, as will maintaining community-scale commercial uses, diverse housing types, shared green spaces, parking, and bike, pedestrian and transit connections.

Project opponents, including UNC biology professor Peter White, have asked for an ecological assessment, which also accounts for plants and animals. The town requires developers to complete environmental and stormwater studies, but not ecological assessments.

The N.C. Department of Transportation also is reviewing a required traffic study now, McGuire said. Zinn said traffic changes could include a traffic light at the Eubanks Road-Old N.C. 86 intersection.

They won’t make everyone happy, Zinn said, but they are trying to address the concerns and create a smart, green development.

“We’ve got a finite amount of land left,” he said. “What do we want to do with the land? Do we want more people to live out in Mebane, out in Orange County, out in Chatham County, commuting into town? This is a perfect opportunity to create that development along this primary transportation corridor.”

What’s next

Carrboro will hold drop-in sessions about plans for the Zinn property from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Sept. 26, at the RENA Community Center, 101 Edgar St. in Chapel Hill, and from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 2 at an undetermined location. A community meeting also will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 10 at the RENA Community Center.

The town’s advisory boards will hold a joint review from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 3 in the Town Hall, 301 W. Main St. in Carrboro. The Board of Aldermen will follow that with a public hearing starting at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 in the OWASA Community Room, 400 Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro.

Meeting materials will be posted on the town’s website before the public hearing.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.