How much growth? Chapel Hill weighs future of Rogers Road homes, Greene Tract forest

Nearly everyone agrees residents of the historically black Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood should lead the conversation about how their community will grow, but the plan for a forest there has some surrounding neighborhoods alarmed.

Rogers-Eubanks residents say the plan for the 164-acre, publicly owned Greene Tract is about controlling their destiny. The Chapel Hill Town Council will talk about it Monday.

The neighborhood straddles the Chapel Hill-Carrboro line, stretching almost from Eubanks to Homestead roads. At its heart lies the Greene Tract, which Orange County bought in 1984 for a future landfill expansion. The county now owns 60 acres — the Headwaters Preserve — and jointly owns 104 acres with Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Rogers-Eubanks, commonly called the Rogers Road neighborhood, remained rural into the 1990s. Now it is surrounded by more traffic, more expensive homes and nearby commercial development. The neighborhood, which includes Habitat for Humanity’s Phoenix Place, has added Burmese, Hispanic and other residents with diverse backgrounds.

The only access to the Greene Tract is from Purefoy Drive, an unlined street that passes what remains of a former plantation. Portions of the house that the Thomas Hogan family and their slaves built in the 1700s could be preserved as part of the 20-acre St. Paul’s AME Church mixed-use development, St. Paul Village.

Controlling the changes

For 40 years, Rogers Road residents fought to close the Orange County Landfill on Eubanks Road — it happened in 2013 — and replace their failing and contaminated wells with public water. The Orange Water and Sewer Authority is finishing sewer service connections.

The fear is that development will follow, then gentrification and higher property values that will force out less-wealthy residents. A 2016 report, “Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community,” was in part an attempt to counter that future by identifying what should be built.

It calls for mixed-income housing, a limited amount of small-scale businesses and services, parks and preservation lands and a school.

“This is our home, and this is where our children grew up,” longtime resident Karen Reid told the Town Council earlier this year. “When I first came, (Rogers Road) was a dirt road, and no matter how many times you rode up and down the road, people would wave ... Over time, it grew, and now, with progress, we have rezoning.”

“We want to have a voice in what happens in our community, because we haven’t been heard,” she said.

The first changes happened this summer, when Carrboro and Chapel Hill approved new zoning districts for the developed part of the neighborhood. One district preserves modest, low-density homes, duplexes and, in some cases, triplexes. It also allows home-based businesses. The second district creates opportunities for more dense housing and small-scale, neighborhood businesses.

Similar uses are proposed for the Greene Tract, stemming from Chapel Hill’s 2007 Rogers Road small-area plan. The plan was created after the governments resolved in 2002 to set aside 18 acres of the jointly owned land for affordable housing and preserve the rest.

Housing needs

The 2007 plan gathered dust until 2017, when a developer proposed apartments that would displace dozens of families from one of the town’s few remaining mobile home parks on Weaver Dairy Road. Residents of another mobile home park had to move in 2018.

The struggle to relocate those families highlighted an affordable-housing crisis that had been building in Orange County for some time.

Town and county officials first considered moving the mobile home park families to the 78-acre Millhouse Road Park site, north of Eubanks Road, but the site lacked water, sewer and bus service. It also was in a different school district and inside the county’s rural buffer, where dense development and public utilities are prohibited.

Greene tract-environmental map.jpg
Planning staff provided this map to Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro elected officials to show where roughly 40 acres of environmentally sensitive land is within the 164-acre Greene Tract. The map was used to create a new land-use concept plan and reconfigure the jointly and county-owned lands. Orange County Contributed

The governments then turned their attention to the Greene Tract and, seeing an opportunity for even more affordable housing than originally proposed, asked staff to bring back multiple options. In January 2018, they decided to explore a high-density plan and a new map was drawn to reconfigure the county’s land and the jointly owned land.

The previous Greene Tract plan was based on property lines, and not what actually was there, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

“As we dove into it and saw the affordable housing needs that we have in our community, we decided to look and see what was actually there on this site that was environmentally sensitive to preserve for sure and how much land we could actually use for affordable housing since it was owned already by government entities,” Hemminger said. “We’re learning, as you know, that when we can donate land, that brings down the cost of affordable housing and gets more bang for the buck for the monies and more people.”

Environmental concerns

Not everyone supports the recent changes.

Friends of the Greene Tract — a Facebook group that formed in March — wants to see the governments stick with the amount of affordable housing and land conservation proposed in 2002. In June, the group submitted a petition with over 650 signatures.

The group has suggested protecting and expanding unofficial trails and recreation in the forest, connecting it to other parks, preserves and greenways. Preservation also could help local climate-change action plans, rather than exacerbating stormwater issues, they said.

Others have argued for building more affordable housing around town, instead of just beside the former landfill.

The Rev. Robert Campbell, a longtime Rogers Road resident and organizer, suggested critics just don’t want more affordable housing near their homes.

In Chapel Hill, affordable housing typically serves a person earning up to 80% of the area median income, which equates to $47,500 or a family of four earning up to $67,850. Those are not “undesirables,” Campbell said, but police officers, teachers, nurses and others who do important work in the community.

The plan’s critics aren’t opposed to affordable housing or to the Rogers Road neighbors’ vision, Abel Hastings, a Friends of the Greene Tract leader, told the council in June. They want the governments to stand by their pledge to preserve 80% of the jointly owned land.

“Some people believe that the Friends of the Greene Tract want to overwhelm the interests of the Rogers Road community and want to keep housing away from particular neighborhoods,” said Hastings, who lives to the east in the Larkspur neighborhood. “I want to go on record to say that we support the RENA (Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association) report and want the associated housing in whatever section of the Greene Tract makes sense, be it near Larkspur or Phoenix Place or some other location.”

Greene Tract 2002-2007 plans.jpg
A 2002 concept plan for the 164-acre Greene Tract (left) preserved roughly 145 acres of the land, leaving 18 acres for affordable housing. A new version proposed this year (right) preserves 86 acres, including a four-acre park, and allocates the rest to housing, a future school and small-scale businesses. Orange County Contributed

Mapping the future

The difference in the maps is significant. The 2002 map set aside roughly 20% of the jointly owned land for affordable housing and preserved 85.4 acres, or 80%, of the jointly owned land. It noted roughly 11 preserved acres could be used for a school site.

The county would have preserved all 60 acres that it owns, for a total of 145 acres preserved on the Greene Tract.

The new map, presented to the governments in January, preserves 52% of the county and jointly owned land, or 86 of 164 acres. The area identified for preservation includes about 40 acres of environmentally sensitive land, planning staff said, from wetlands that form the headwaters of Booker, Bolin and Old Field creeks, to streams and critical wildlife and habitat corridors.

Up to 45 acres could be used for mixed-income housing and a limited amount of commercial development; 11 acres for a school; and four acres for recreation. Another 22 acres is slated for future housing on the tract’s eastern edge, but access could be a problem since it lies between the environmentally sensitive lands and the Norfolk-Southern railroad tracks.

Bill Mullin, executive director for facilities management, said the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is still interested in the site for a future elementary school, although the land might not be needed for 10 to 20 years.

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen and Orange County Board of Commissioners approved the new map and a rough proposal for how to use the jointly owned land in February. Chapel Hill’s Town Council approved the new map but delayed voting on possible land uses. It could do that next week.

The council will talk about those proposed uses during Monday’s special meeting in Town Hall. Carrboro and Orange County would have to approve any changes that the council recommends.

A detailed plan, including the amount, location and density of residential and commercial projects and how those might look, could be presented to the governments in 2020. The final plan also could address rules for tree protection, landscaping buffers and stormwater.

Building opportunities

They like living next to the forest, Rogers Road residents said, but they also support the proposal, especially the affordable housing.

Angela Brittain, who grew up playing with her brother and cousins on dirt roads and in the forest, now lives on Edgar Street, around the corner from the Greene Tract. Whatever is built should reflect the community’s diverse culture, Brittain said, rattling off the names of affordable businesses she remembered fondly from Chapel Hill’s past.

“I want to see businesses people could actually use,” she said. “Versatile (businesses that) blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, everybody can go to and relate to instead of putting up those fancy restaurants that people can’t afford.”

She also would like to see more than one way to get in and out of her neighborhood, Brittain said. It can take 15 or 20 minutes just to get to the Food Lion at Timberlyne Shopping Center — three miles away — because all of the Rogers Road traffic funnels north onto Eubanks Road or south onto Homestead Road.

Campbell urged critics to consider what the Rogers Road neighborhood needs to be sustainable into the future: economic development, a school and places for people to gather and play. That won’t happen if people don’t come together, he said.

“If you look at the disparities (between Rogers Road and surrounding neighborhoods), why not have economic development on the Greene tract to provide some jobs for the youths who are growing up out here, as well as some of the young parents, give them an opportunity,” Campbell said. “They’ve worked in other people’s restaurants and (stores). They might want to start their own restaurant (in their own neighborhood).”

What’s next

The Chapel Hill Town Council will hold a special meeting at 7:15 p.m. Monday at Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., to discuss the Greene Tract. The council meeting also can be view online at bit.ly/2GfEFNq.

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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.