Chapel Hill: Opinion

Bonnie Hauser: Bring economic development and affordable housing to Efland

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s recent visit to Athens, Ga., reinvigorated our enthusiasm for economic development and simplified zoning. Athens’ leaders demonstrated that,with clear rules for development, desirable projects could be approved in weeks – rather than months or years.

Participants came home excited around light manufacturing and other ideas to grow Orange County’s economy. Imagine an advanced manufacturing center producing high-tech prosthetics or medical technologies developed in our own university centers! Such economic engines require large parcels of land that are not available in Chapel Hill, Carrboro or Hillsborough.

The greatest local opportunity for economic development lies in Efland, which sits in unincorporated Orange County, due west of Hillsborough where I-40 meets I-85. Efland’s location is key. It’s one of those rare places where interstate highways merge. North Carolina rail and high-tension power lines run parallel to the interstate.

In addition to its locational assets, Efland has water and sewer infrastructure. Originally designed for the two schools in the area, it was later expanded for economic development using sales tax money approved by the voters in 2011. Commercial land prices run $50,000 to $100,000 an acre, competitive with Mebane and substantially lower than Chapel Hill or Hillsborough.

The corridor is ripe for commercial development – the kind that adds to the tax base without increasing demands for schools or services. Efland has hundreds of acres of open land with easy access to Durham, Chapel Hill, RTP and points west.

So why haven’t more companies come?

There are many reasons, but county zoning and land-use restrictions are a large part of the problem. It’s not just zoning. Environmental, landscaping and other requirements intended for agricultural and residential areas are not needed for the thousands of acres that run along the interstate and have access to water and sewer lines.

Even Morinaga America, an impressive victory for the county’s economic development director, needed zoning relief. To seal the deal, the property was immediately annexed by Mebane – partly for incentives and partly to exempt Morinaga from the county’s cumbersome restrictions.

There’s more. Areas north and south of Efland’s interstate/rail corridor are also perfect for affordable living. Lower land prices combine with easy access to major employment centers and affordable shopping in Hillsborough or in Alamance County. There are two public schools and beautiful parks for baseball and soccer.

Again, the county’s zoning is in the way, starting with one-acre minimums, which often double to comply with the county’s impervious surface, private road and other restrictions. Apartment buildings, town houses or detached houses on small lots are a better fit, and with better zoning could be affordable without subsidies or negative stigmas. Attractive workforce housing would make Efland even more desirable for prospective development.

Despite an active Economic Development Department, the county's commitment seems halfhearted. Solar arrays do not belong in the commercial areas along the interstate. Expanding the soccer fields, without easing the way for supporting uses, is likely to fuel hotels and restaurants in Alamance rather than Orange County. It’s a lose-lose for Orange County’s taxpayers.

While Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough deal with their own challenges for growth and sustainability, development in Efland should be a priority for everyone. The local community welcomes growth. Private sector employment and affordable workforce housing benefits everyone.

Its time for town leaders to join Efland citizens and others throughout the county to encourage the county commissioners to streamline zoning and approval processes, and make economic development a priority, starting with Efland.

Leo Allison, Lindsay Efland and Brian Dobbins of the Efland community, Ann Moss Joyner of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities, and Steve Yuhasz and Dolly Hunter of Hillsborough all contributed to this column.

Bonnie Hauser lives in rural Orange County.