Orange County

Could Duke Forest deal stop this high-density project near Carrboro in Orange County?

Duke University is considering whether to buy land slated for development next to its research forest in Orange County, the property owner said Wednesday.

The conversation about 27-acre the Parker Louis LLC property north of Carrboro has, for now, put off community meetings and an Oct. 22 public hearing about the proposed project, town officials said.

The site on Eubanks Road abuts the 1,117-acre Blackwood Division of Duke Forest, which the university uses for teaching and research, and includes part of the Meadow Flats natural heritage site.

“We are currently in discussions with Duke Forest about the possible sale of the land,” said developer Omar Zinn, whose family owns the Parker Louis property.

The Zinns want to build a compact mix of 40 to 50 houses, 130 to 160 apartments, and two-story neighborhood commercial buildings. A nonprofit partner could manage roughly 15% of the houses as affordable, they said, and there could be an assisted-living center, daycare or offices, as well as a community general store.

They are asking the aldermen to rezone the land to a flexible zoning district, so they can build to meet changing market demand. It would be the first time Carrboro has used the flexible zoning district, approved in 2016.

Commercial tax base

Zinn said the town approached him in 2011 about developing the property, and consultants led public workshops in 2012 to draft options. The current plan incorporates those ideas but seeks more development on the northern and eastern parts of the site. The Zinns contend that area has less wetlands than anticipated.

Zinn said Wednesday he supports a project that would help the town build its commercial tax base and take pressure off homeowners.

“We purchased that land more than 15 years ago, the majority of it, with the intention of rezoning it, but nothing is certain with the development process,” Zinn said. “The further down the road I get, the less certain I become about what’s going to happen out there.”

A decision about selling to Duke is possible within the next month, he said.

Duke Forest concerns

Duke Forest director Sara Childs declined to comment Wednesday, but in memos to the town and to Orange County Manager Bonnie Hammersley, Childs and Duke Forest researchers shared their concerns about developing the land.

Their concerns echo local environmentalists and neighbors who have asked the Carrboro Board of Aldermen to consider preserving the Meadow Flats natural heritage site, a conservation area that covers part of the Duke Forest tract and the Zinns’ land.

The area is just a half-mile south of Orange County’s rural buffer, where water, sewer and intense development are prohibited. It’s in the county but in Carrboro’s planning area, so the county commissioners can review the project, but the aldermen have the final say.

Duke Forest supervisor Tom Craven, in a June memo, noted the Meadow Flats area has been recognized “for rare plants and animals as well as the best example of an upland depression swamp forest in Orange County.”

The primary concern, Childs said in a separate June memo, is how the proposed development could harm “the unique habitat and natural resources” of the area. There also are concerns about the effect on existing and future research being conducted by Duke, UNC, N.C. State, the Environmental Protection Agency and others, she said.

“Unfortunately, and despite the best planning and intentions, the impacts of this type of higher-density, mixed-use development cannot be contained within the built-out footprint,” Childs said. “Potential negative effects include runoff, altered drainage, lighting, noise, emissions, pet depredations, invasive species introductions, and increased human intrusions.”

Childs reiterated the concerns in a July memo, noting that dense development of the land is the least desirable option. Duke Forest would prefer that the land be permanently protected, she said, and if that’s not possible, that it be developed only under the current rural residential zoning.

“In this case, there may still be some negative consequences for research use, but they will likely be much less,” Childs said.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.