Chapel Hill News

Leaders wrestle with farm business plan

How to give farmers in the rural buffer new business opportunities is proving to be a tough row to hoe for Orange County’s local governments.

The buffer is a 37,248-acre area set aside for low-intensity, mostly residential development that is rural in character. The people who live there do not get urban services like trash pickup, water and sewer.

The county commissioners are considering allowing several dozen “agricultural support enterprises” in the buffer that could help farm families make more money and stave off pressure from development and property taxes. They talked with Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough leaders about the possibility Wednesday night.

The amount of Orange County land being farmed has fallen to 50,000 acres, county planning director Craig Benedict said. The number of farms is rising, however, reflecting a move toward smaller operations growing specialized crops.

The discussion has some urgency because the state has forecast another 28,000 rural residents could live in Orange County by 2040. Roughly half of those could move into the rural buffer, Benedict said.

Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, out of concern for protecting the environment and the county’s agricultural heritage, recommended setting a five-year expiration date after which the boards would review the impact of any changes. If they let the changes expire, existing businesses would be allowed to continue.

All three governments must agree to change rules governing the buffer.

Not everyone is on board with these changes, however, particularly the idea of breweries, animal processing or events attracting hundreds of people.

Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade and Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt clashed briefly Wednesday over the suggested sunset clause.

Farmers could face the same pressure to sell their land if commercial activities are allowed as they do from the construction of more subdivisions, Slade said. He also advised the boards to consider which uses might be more appropriate in urban areas; many of the suggested uses are already allowed in the buffer.

“I reiterate and strongly encourage everyone here to proceed with caution in allowing more competing uses that may ultimately make it even harder” for farmers, Slade said.

A sunset clause is “just a bad idea,” Kleinschmidt argued, because it puts more pressure on farmers to sell their land by increasing its value. Chapel Hill Town Council members talked instead about reviewing each year how the changes are working, he said.

“If you’re a small farmer and you’re hoping to provide value to a future generation, you’re going to maximize it well ahead of time, and you’re going to sell,” he said. “We have to be very careful.”

Hillsborough Commissioner Kathleen Ferguson said the sunset clause also could create uncertainty, undermining farmers’ desire to invest in their land. Other limits could cut the farmer’s profits over time, she said.

County Commissioners Vice Chairman Earl McKee agreed, adding that the grandfather clause for existing businesses only leaves them without a way to continue growing. The county’s land is already too expensive for farming, he said.

“The ones that are farming, the ones that own their property and the ones that are borderline, I would like to give them the opportunity to have some alternative that they wish to exercise to generate more income,” he said.

That community has had a lot of input into the suggested changes, Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said, many of which will be allowed depending on a farm’s scale and available water and septic systems. The boards have lost the big picture of what the county is trying to do, she said.

Local restaurateurs “want to do some of these things. It’s not just farmers,” Pelissier said. “It is to help promote the whole local food industry, so I think we need to be very careful not to give the message that we don’t trust you ... and we’re going to micromanage you.”