Cecil Wilson’s rural community became a peninsula as Jordan Lake spread over low-lying fields and homes in the 1970s, after the federal government dammed the Haw and New Hope rivers.
Thirty years later, Wilson saw a new threat to his home: a town of Cary and Chatham County proposal to limit development on his and others’ land near the lake in order to protect water quality. It was another “common good” demand of an area that’s been asked too much, he said.
“I don’t think it’s right to try to use us as an additional buffer,” Wilson said. “We were already affected when Jordan Lake was first built here many years ago. It just seems like it was a snowball effect.”
This month, elected officials listened. They struck the new density limit from a long-term land-use plan, citing concerns that they would be stripping landowners of long-held rights. With the veto of the proposed rule, though, some environmentalists and landowners say the governments have missed a chance to preserve the lake and the rural lifestyle around it.
“It’s the final blow to Chatham County, saying that the area west of that rural buffer divide ... should have no extra requirements in terms of density,” said Elaine Chiosso, director of the Haw River Assembly, a nonprofit dedicated to the watershed.
Elected officials say their decision won’t harm the lake, pointing to Chatham County’s new rules about stormwater management near the water. Critics of the decision argue that one-unit-per-acre housing near the lake will add to the strains on the regional water supply.
Lake’s special status
The town of Cary, Chatham County and the state have long paid special attention to Jordan Lake, one of the region’s most important water resources. It’s a mile-wide manmade reservoir, ensconced in federal land and lightly developed woods, tapped by pipes that bring drinking water to Cary, Apex and Morrisville.
In recent years, local groups and governments noted an uptick in litter and, according to the N.C. Conservation Network, unhealthy amounts of algae. In 2009, the state implemented the Jordan Lake Rules, which set a baseline for local rules about development near the lake, focusing mostly on nutrient runoff that disrupts the lake’s ecosystem.
At the same time, Chatham County elected officials proposed another sweeping change. They would restrict development on up to 7,500 acres of land near Jordan Lake, as part of a broader plan for more than 10,000 of acres of land between the town-county border and the lake. A panel of Cary officials agreed, placing the item on the governments’ joint land-use plan.
That proposal – now reversed – would have allowed only one new house per five acres on the thousands of acres within a mile of the lake – an 80 percent density reduction from current standards. Elected officials said the lower density would protect the lake from runoff and other construction impacts. Had the proposal passed, landowners would have had a few months to subdivide their land.
Cecil Wilson rallied neighbors against the change. They found their opening after the 2010 election put a new majority on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, including current chairman Brian Bock.
The earlier drafts, Bock wrote this month, overlooked “the protection of property rights of residents in the area.” The board could safely remove the ultra-low density district, he wrote, because of new county rules about water runoff.
The joint Cary-Chatham board deleted the proposed change this month. If the governments approve the near-final draft, the lakeside woods will be allowed to develop at the existing limit of one unit per acre, still considered “very low density.”
“It’s making the plan fit the (current) zoning,” said Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, echoing arguments that the revised plan appeases homeowners and leaves robust environmental rules. “We wouldn’t do anything to harm our drinking source,” he said.
In another change, the new plan also allows the county and town to run water service within a mile of the lake, which was forbidden before. If ever installed, water pipes could foster development on lots with inadequate well water, though restrictions on above-ground septic systems could simultaneously create a deterrent.
George Lucier, a former Chatham County commissioner, called the changes a step in the wrong direction. “Jordan Lake is already close to compromised in terms of nitrogen and phosphorous, and to put the lake at additional risk is shortsighted and inexplicable to me,” said Lucier, who lost his seat on the board to Brian Bock.
Water usually flows off developed land at greater rates than undeveloped land, and it brings a mix of earth with it. The closer development comes to the lake, the more runoff reaches the water, potentially bringing loads of nutrients and sediment.
Additionally, “the more impervious (surface area) you get, the more your post-development flow rate increases. Flow can have impacts in streams – it can destabilize stream channels, and cause erosion and sedimentation problems,” said Rich Gannon, a water regulation supervisor for the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.
Recently, Chatham County has taken significant steps to address those problems. The new rules say construction can’t put more nitrogen and phosphorous into the lake, or boost the “peak flows” that can disrupt streams. The county also requires buffers around streams and the lake.
“Development will always have some impact, but we’re trying to minimize that as much as possible,” said Dan LaMontagne, director of environmental quality for Chatham County.
Chiosso, with the Haw River Assembly, said the rules don’t have sharp enough teeth. Developments near Jordan Lake already have racked up violations, she said. “It’s cheaper to do business by violating the law and paying the fine than investing in much more expensive methods of stormwater management,” Chiosso said.
But the rules, in theory, could mitigate the environmental impact of additional housing, said one expert.
“If they really defined it well, and they monitor it well, and they make adjustments, they could take a one unit per acre and really make it no different” than one unit per five acres in terms of water-quality effects, said Kenneth Reckhow, professor emeritus of water resource studies at Duke University. “But it requires, I suspect, more cost and more land.”
He had another caution for the local governments: He believes the state will soon ask counties and towns not just to neutralize but to reduce the loads of nutrients they send toward Jordan Lake.
Councilwoman Lori Bush said that local discussion of Jordan Lake won’t end with the finalization of the joint plan.
“It’s an agreement by two parties with very similar goals and objectives: to protect the water quality,” she said. “I think the continuation of that protection is core to both of our values.”