Experts urge Carrboro to protect quiet, very dark Duke Forest land in Orange County

Botanists and wildlife experts urged the Board of Aldermen to protect a unique part of Duke Forest from a proposed development next door, with one suggesting the town consider buying the development site.

Town leaders heard from several experts Tuesday night about the potential effects a proposed development on the western end of Eubanks Road could have on wildlife and landscapes in the area.

Developers Omar and Adam Zinn are seeking a rezoning to build apartments and single-family homes on nearly 28 acres, with some commercial development to support the neighborhood.

The property, at the intersection of Eubanks and Old N.C. 86, is in the county but in Carrboro’s planning area, so the county commissioners can review the project, but the aldermen will have the final say, The News & Observer has reported..

Alan Weakley, a botanist with UNC-Chapel Hill and the N.C. Botanical Garden, spoke about the ecological value of the Meadow Flats area, a part of Duke Forest next to the property the Zinns want to develop. The Natural Heritage Program designated the area in 1988 as a significant natural heritage area, a designation which carries no legal weight.

“That Meadow Flats area has been known for many decades as a significant and unique natural area, actually for 100 years,” he said.

Some of the uniqueness comes from the gabbro rock found in both Meadow Flats and the area that would be developed. Areas with gabbro rock tend to stay very wet and support “interesting and unique vegetation and wildlife species,” Weakley said.

The area has great research value to Duke and N.C. State universities, Weakley said.

Little human intrusion

Steve Hall, who is retired from the Natural Heritage Program, was co-author of an inventory of Orange County that led to Meadow Flats being named a significant natural heritage area. Hall spoke about the unique solitude of the area.

“[It] now has one of the lowest levels of human intrusion in the state,” he said.

Unlike the rest of Duke Forest, it is closed to public entry which lets researchers leave equipment out without risk of it being trampled by passersby. It is also one of the quietest areas in the county, which aids sound surveys of wildlife. It is also one of the darkest areas of the county at night, supporting a large population of moths and other flying insects.

“The development of a large urban node would have a huge effect on Meadow Flats,” Hall said.

Also,he added, the development would lead to runoff into Meadow Flats, including chemicals sprayed on lawns, which could impact wildlife.

Ephemeral wetlands

Brooke Massa, a conservation biologist with N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, spoke about the importance of ephemeral wetlands in the area that hold water only during the winter and spring. These areas are essential to amphibious species because they allow the amphibians to breed without the threat of fish.

Johnny Randall, conservation director for the N.C. Botanical Garden, offered an alternative to development, urging Carrboro to buy the property for preservation with the help of the Clean Water Trust Fund.

Developer Omar Zinn, who grew up in the area, said the project meets several town goals, including affordable housing and putting development along major roads. He has been working on the project for eight years.

“Patience has its limits,” Zinn said. “That’s not a threat. It’s a perspective.”

The board decided to set a public hearing on the matter for Sept. 24.

Alderwoman Randee Haven O’Donnell said in the meantime she would like for a trip to Meadow Flats to be arranged for all the aldermen who would like to participate.

Alderwoman Jacquelyn Gist said she wanted to make sure the board was equitable, and if it denies this rezoning request it applies the same rationale to other projects to come before the board.

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