Greene Tract plan gets a needed nudge forward
An effort to develop and preserve parts of a publicly owned, 164-acre forest north of Chapel Hill is moving ahead after a curve ball last summer left two government partners uncertain about its future.
The Greene Tract, purchased in 1984 for a landfill expansion that never happened, is in Chapel Hill’s planning jurisdiction. Orange County owns 60 acres — also known as the Headwaters Preserve — and jointly owns the remaining 104 acres with Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
This week, the governments agreed to get the process moving again, but only after more last-minute changes from Chapel Hill. They’ll talk at an Assembly of Governments meeting Tuesday, Jan. 28, in Hillsborough about how to work together, a timeline for getting the work done, and their goals for the land.
For at least 30 years, the Greene Tract land was seen as space for future housing, a school and recreation. Multiple plans have been created with the adjacent Rogers Road community, who have lived with the negative effects of the county’s landfill for 40 years.
The conversation grew more urgent two years ago when development started threatening nearby mobile home parks. In July, the process was derailed after Chapel Hill’s council met with neighbors concerned about density, road connections and how development could affect the forest.
Chapel Hill revised its agreement, still designating a certain number of acres for each planned use of the land but no longer showing where each could happen. Neighbors were told community meetings would be held in the fall.
The change was big enough to send the agreement back to Carrboro and the county for another vote. Both had approved it earlier with the understanding Chapel Hill was on board. The public meetings were postponed as officials met with mediators to restart the process.
CHAPEL HILL’S JULY DECISION
Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said it’s not clear why the process went off the rails, but it “was a setback” that cost him faith in the partnership with Chapel Hill. He is now “hopeful but cautious.”
“We’ve got one shot to do something really impactful and historic on the Greene Tract,” Marcoplos said Tuesday. “We own the land, we can build more for less money there. The (Rogers-Eubanks) neighborhood has had the road stubbed out from the current residential area for years and years and years, and nothing has happened. We have an affordable housing crisis and we’ve had it for years, and nothing has happened.”
Chapel Hill officials raised their concerns in February but had no way to get them addressed, Council member Jessica Anderson said Wednesday. They didn’t break the agreement and aren’t trying to slow things down, she said.
“The faster that we can get [a separate agreement for how to work together] in place sounds great,” Anderson said. ”I hope that we are all also thinking about the pragmatic realities of what it’s going to take to get infrastructure out there and to actually be doing the things that we’re going to have to do in order to realize the vision that I think folks have had for so many years.”
ENVIRONMENTAL STUDY, WORKING AGREEMENT
The next step is hiring a consultant for environmental impact studies and finalizing a memorandum of understanding that outlines how planning, decisions, costs and disagreements will be handled.
The meeting with Greene Tract neighbors and the public is on hold until there’s an environmental study that looks at wetlands and streams, plants and animals, cultural and historic features, and how the site could be connected to the greater community. The study and the staff review could take six months. The plan is to preserve the 60 acres that are the most environmentally sensitive.
Chapel Hill and Orange County each has agreed to pay roughly $17,200 for the study; Carrboro would pay about $5,600. The study will be made public as soon as the consultants turn it over, Commissioners Chair Penny Rich said.
Although many conversations and public meetings are ahead, the partners have agreed to hire developers to design individual building projects and guide them through Chapel Hill’s approval process. They tentatively have agreed to 22 acres of open and recreation space, 16 acres for a future school site and 66 acres for mixed-income housing.
A critical piece will be how to connect the Greene Tract to the surrounding community, since the only access now is a two-lane road through the Rogers Road neighborhood. Crossing the environmentally sensitive areas that cut through the forest also could be a challenge.
HOW TO MOVE FORWARD
Orange County Attorney John Roberts, who has drafted a memorandum, said elected officials could get the final draft this spring. The draft sets an 18-month window for deciding possible development, and if there’s still no agreement in 18 months, he said, the parties could get six more months to resolve disputes.
“If they can’t reach an agreement, there’s always the nuclear option, which is partition [the land] and withdraw it from the other governments’ jurisdiction and get it back in Orange County’s jurisdiction,” Roberts said Tuesday.
A timeline will be critical, Commissioner Mark Dorosin said.
“Since we’ve had such dissension among the parties, I understand the goal is trying to get us to agree on something, which I think is laudable, but Chapel Hill passed their alternate resolution in July,” he said. “Six months later, we’re getting to this. I just don’t know how long it will be until we get to the next thing where we figure out the dates.”
The governments are “going to continue to work well together,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said Wednesday. The plan is complicated, but the partners already have accomplished a lot, from providing Rogers Road residents with water and sewer connections to building a community center, she said.
“It’s not like we’ve been standing still, but we have more work to do,” Hemminger said.
Orange County, Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, for the Assembly of Governments meeting in Hillsborough. The meeting will be held at the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St.
A meeting agenda is available online at tinyurl.com/sqbg7uo.
A revised map approved by the Chapel Hill Town Council preserves the same amount of land (green and teal) as a plan that Orange County and Carrboro approved.