Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill Town Council OKs more farm business in rural buffer

CHAPEL HILL The Town Council followed Carrboro’s lead Monday in voting 5-3 to approve new farm-related business uses for the county’s rural buffer.

Council members Sally Greene, George Cianciolo and Matt Czajkowski opposed the changes, which are aimed at helping farmers earn more money and allowing rural businesses, such as feed stores, that serve farm needs.

Greene said she remains concerned about how much input farmers had drafting in the new rules and also about the plan’s potential to increase commercial sprawl.

“I can support just about everthing on this list if they support farmers,” Greene said. “I still have serious reservations about the winery and the microbrewery both on their merits and what that could mean to really opening up the rural buffer to commercial as opposed to farm-supported activities.”

The rural buffer is nearly 38,000 acres designated in 1987 for farming and low-intensity housing. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County must agree to change rules governing the rural buffer.

The concern is that increasing pressure to develop subdivisions and rising property taxes will push more farmers to sell their land to developers. The county approved 170 residential lots on 852 acres between 2004 and 2014, town development manager Gene Poveromo said.

While he has heard stories about development pressure, Czajkowski said, he hasn’t seen much evidence that farms are being pushed out by the desire to build more homes or the inability to add new business options.

The draft plan that Carrboro approved in January, and which the council voted to approve Monday, removes 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 changes to the rural buffer each year, instead of at a previously suggested five-year expiration date. It also calls for re-using existing farm buildings and limiting veterinary services to large animals.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners could discuss the changes in April.

Some commercial uses, such as daycares and kennels, are already allowed 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 and farm supply stores.

The county’s permitting requirements for more intensive businesses eases his concerns to some extent, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.

The county started looking in 2000 at adding more commercial options for rural farmers. The changes were approved in May for rural areas outside of the buffer, but changes inside the buffer’s borders were delayed to give the governments more time to talk, county planner Perdita Holtz said.

What is 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.