Chapel Hill News

Orange County governments consider changes to rural buffer

Proposed changes to open new business opportunities for farmers in the rural buffer are moving forward, but there’s still time to weigh in.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County must agree to changing rules in the rural buffer, nearly 38,000 acres designated for farming and low-intensity housing.

Carrboro backed a draft plan in January, after removing several proposed uses: large agricultural processing facilities, major events at wineries and microbreweries, and assembly places serving more than 300 people. The plan now recommends reviewing how any adopted changes are affecting the rural buffer, instead of a previously suggested five-year expiration date.

The Chapel Hill Town Council will continue discussing the plan Monday at Town Hall. The Orange County Board of Commissioners could take up the topic again in April.

“I think your perspective is super valuable, because we all want farming to be successful,” Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade told the Orange-Chatham chapter of the Sierra Club at a panel discussion this week. “It’s just (that) some of us have different perspectives on being cautious and what farmers need, and it’s just a matter of balancing that.”

The rural buffer already allows some commercial uses, such as daycares and kennels, by zoning or with a permit. The proposed changes would add farmers markets, small processing facilities and other uses by zoning, while requiring a permit for more intensive uses, such as wineries, composting services, farm supply stores and veterinarians.

“It’s not like these things are going to be allowed by right,” Slade said, “but there will be an opportunity through the county commissioners to have a public hearing and speak to some of these uses.”

Former Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon and Chapel Hill Planning Commission member Brian Wittmayer also joined Monday’s panel. Local officials are united in their desire to help farmers stay on the land, Gordon said.

“People who farm are good stewards of the land, and it means a lot to them to be able to keep farming, and it means a lot to us to have local food,” she said. “If there’s a way we can support that – and I also like the environmental part of what the rural buffer does – then we can be joined in a mutual purpose.”

Buffer benefits

The buffer provides many benefits, Wittmayer said, such as containing commercial sprawl, and preserving wildlife habitats, water quality and farmland.

But it has not stopped residential sprawl, he said. There were about 4,700 homes and over 11,000 residents in the rural buffer in 2010, he said. Officials have said that could more than double by 2040.

The current proposal is a “pretty radical change,” said Mark Marcoplos, a Sierra Club member and rural advocate. He suggested making a smaller number of changes at first to see how it unfolds.

Officials also might want to consider removing long-controversial uses, such as airports, landfills and golf courses, from the buffer, he said. Rural residents, including Marcoplos, have united in the past to defeat plans for an airport and a county landfill in the rural buffer. He will ask the commissioners to ban them, he said.

Gordon suggested also removing a catch-all “agricultural services” category that she said leaves a lot to interpretation.

A critical issue is being able to trust the proposed changes won’t harm the rural buffer, Sierra Club member Melissa McCullough said. She suggested adding more guidelines for intensive uses, such as agricultural processing facilities.

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About the rural buffer

In 1987, Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro designated 37,248 acres surrounding the towns for agricultural use and rural homes on a minimum of two acres. The rural buffer does not receive water, sewer or other town services, which further limits what can be built there.

About 27 percent – 10,172 acres – is taxed as agricultural, horticultural or timber land.

What’s next?

The Chapel Hill Town Council will meet at 7 p.m. Monday in Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., to consider changes to the rural buffer. The council also is expected to review plans for bike and pedestrian improvements in the town’s Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment district.

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