Chapel Hill revises Greene Tract forest vision for Orange County and Carrboro leaders

Over two dozen people from across Orange County talked Monday about how a 164-acre publicly owned forest north of town could be developed or preserved to meet future needs.

The Town Council’s vote three hours — and four options — later left many in the packed Town Hall chamber confused about what was approved.

Council member Donna Bell explained the revised proposal that was approved came out of last-minute meetings with representatives of the neighborhoods around the Greene Tract. It is a rough outline of where housing, a school and a park could be built, leaving the rest of the forest for conservation. It isn’t specific about what development could happen where.

The Greene Tract, which was purchased in 1984 for a future landfill expansion, is in Chapel Hill’s planning jurisdiction and has two parts. The county owns 60 acres — also known as the Headwaters Preserve — and jointly owns 104 acres with Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Bell, who helped craft the revised proposal, acknowledged it is not anyone’s first choice, but said it can get the process back on track quickly, because it’s not that different from another proposal that Carrboro and Orange County approved earlier this year.

Greene Tract modified map 7-15-2019.jpg
A revised map approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council preserves the same amount of land (green and teal) as a plan that Orange County commissioners and Carrboro aldermen approved in February. However, it leaves undesignated the future land uses on potentially developable land (purple). Town of Chapel Hill Contributed

“When I say back on track, I mean (that point) when we feel comfortable that the process is ... making sure that we go into more detail, (the) environmental work, that we start the process of surveying this land to see what actually can be done, because we are not there yet,” Bell said.

Council members Nancy Oates and Hongbin Gu voted against the revised proposal.

Council member Karen Stegman said it’s important to respect the decades-long conversation with Rogers Road neighbors, who have faced broken government promises in the past, whether about the landfill, a community center, or water and sewer.

“I cannot justify more delays,” Stegman said. “I think the initial resolution has been worked on in good faith with all the jurisdictions. We’ve been a part of this process, and I think it is really important that we respect that and respect those partnerships.”

Starting point for planning

The approved plan allocates up to 67 acres to housing and some commercial use, four acres to a park, 22 acres to conservation and 11 acres to a school site, although the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has asked for 20 acres. It removes an area of market-rate housing.

The 60-acre county-owned tract, which is being remapped to include the headwaters of three creeks and other environmentally sensitive lands, also would be permanently preserved.

The specifics of what could be built and where will be part of a final master plan, involving more studies and public conversations about development and density that could start in September.

Carrboro and the county will have to decide if the change approved Monday is significant enough to warrant another vote on their part, Chapel Hill spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko said.

Carrboro and county officials unsuccessfully urged the council to approve the original plan Monday. The governments have discussed the plan for over a year, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said. It only identifies in general how much land could be developed and where, and the steps necessary to make a final decision, said Lavelle and County Commissioner Sally Greene, a former Town Council member.

“Boards and councils before us have wrestled for years with how to get affordable housing on the Greene Tract,” Lavelle said. “We have stepped up those efforts in recent years. This is a major priority for all three of our jurisdictions, and the opportunity is never better than when the land is already owned by the jurisdiction.”

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

A ‘respectful’ conversation

The conversation about Rogers Road and the Greene Tract dates back at least to the 1990s. A 2002 resolution set aside 18 acres of the jointly owned land for affordable housing and conserved the rest, including the county-owned land. Chapel Hill’s 2007 Rogers Road small-area plan expanded on those ideas.

In 2016, a second report, “Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community,” was created while planning for sewer service in Rogers Road. That report, developed in partnership with Rogers-Eubanks neighbors, also addressed concerns about what could be built once utilities were extended, and how that might gentrify the area, raise property values and push out existing residents.

The 2016 report recommended slightly denser development, including housing, small businesses, a school and green space, near Habitat for Humanity’s Phoenix Place subdivision off Purefoy Drive. It also said 80% of the Greene Tract should be preserved.

The planning process advanced slowly until a few years ago, 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. The governments, trying to help those residents, saw an opportunity to add more housing to the Greene Tract than originally proposed.

Affordable housing in Chapel Hill 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. The lack of affordable housing, especially for the very poor, is a crisis, many speakers noted.

Others mentioned the divisiveness created by how the governments handled the conversation. Some residents expressed concern about putting more affordable housing in Rogers Road, rather than spreading it around town. Rumors about what was happening had others thinking that Monday would be the last time to weigh in on a Greene Tract development plan.

Council member Allen Buansi said Rogers Road neighbors are “sophisticated,” after overcoming multiple challenges and spending hours planning for their future. Some of the language used in reference to the affordable housing plans “has no place in our conversation,” he said, reminding the community to “be mindful of the kind of language that we use in engaging with one another.”

“I just want to encourage folks to engage with one another, have conversations with one another that’s respectful, that moves us all forward,” Buansi said, “because ultimately, what we want to do is to work together in a respectful, collegial manner that respects all of us and leaves us all feeling dignified.”

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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.