Clarification (2:18 p.m.): Due to a reporting error, this article previously stated that most members of the Carrboro Greenways commission argued for paving a sewer easement and opening the park up to runners and cyclists. However, it's some members of the Carrboro Greenways commission that believe this. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.
Resting in the neck of the woods of Carrboro is the Carolina North Forest, the last untouched forested land of the town — but possibly not for long.
A plan to put a 10-foot wide pavement trail along the 1.7 mile stretch of the forest’s Bolin Creek has become a major subject of controversy, and people on all sides of the issue are very angry.
The Bolin Creek controversy has pitted two different groups of environmentalists against one another: the Friends of Bolin Creek, who say the area should remain a pristine natural area, and some members of the Carrboro Greenways commission, who argued that paving a sewer easement and opening the park up to runners and cyclists has its own environmental benefits.
The fight over the trail started back in the early 2000s, when the Carrboro Board of Aldermen first conceptualized the Bolin Creek Greenway, eager to give Carrboro residents greater access to the outdoors. The plan was formally adopted in 2009, with five phases of development.
Phase 1a of the greenway runs through Wilson Park and was completed in 2013. Phase 2 connects the suburban neighborhood of Lake Hogan Farms and Morris Grove Elementary.
But phases 1b, 3 and 4 – the parts that run along the Bolin Creek – proved much more controversial.
In July 2016, when phase 1b was in the works, students and faculty at Chapel Hill High School saw the bulldozers and cranes and realized the paved trail would intersect their cross country course.
That set off the first round of mayhem for the board.
UNC student Dan Kleissler was a member of the cross country team at Chapel Hill High School at the time. He had fond memories of the creek: every Saturday morning, his mother would put on his rain boots and take him and his dog on a walk through the middle of the creek.
“That was my playground,” Kleissler. “That was my backyard as a child, walking over a bridge across Bolin Creek to get to school, the untamed natural beauty.”
Kleissler was shocked and disheartened by the board’s plan to pave his old cross country trail.
The Board of Aldermen exchanged emails with the former cross country coach, Ron Olsen, in 2009, to get his consent before beginning work on the second phase. Olsen said he was under the impression that the pavement would only overlap their course one time, when in reality it would cross it three times. In 2016, the current cross country coach, Joan Nesbit Mabe, was also unaware of the three crossings and the Board of Aldermen never communicated with her about the proposed plan.
Kleissler felt the Board of Aldermen wasn't lying, but it was negligent.
The cross country team and faculty from Chapel Hill High went to the Board of Aldermen meetings and were given a platform to speak, but Kleissler was infuriated with its reaction, and thought that they were talked down to as adolescents.
He said after giving their opinion on the issue, the Board of Aldermen responded with something similar to: “I’m glad you guys were OK with your parents dragging you out tonight.”
The team stood up and responded, “Nobody is dragging us here.”
“That’s what was angry about it, their words and their actions took away my agency,” he said.
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said by approving the plans, the school should’ve recognized the paved trail would pass through the cross country course three times.
The Board of Aldermen have put phases 3 and 4 on hold due to the ongoing controversy from the town to not have the paved trail along the creek.
Charlie Morris waded into the debate with the documentary, "Bolin Creek Unpaved: Saving Carrboro’s Last Forest."
Morris has been going to Bolin Creek with his kids since 2003. When he decided to start working on the documentary, he knew little about the issue except that he didn’t want the forest paved. He didn’t do anything to stop phase 1 at Wilson Park in 2013; he was going to do everything he could to leave Bolin Creek as just a creek.
So, he decided to take his camera with him wherever he went, and recorded it all.
“I feel like we’re at a tipping point in society where honestly there’s going to be nothing green left, except for the medians on the highways,” Morris said.
Morris’ documentary won an award at the Carrboro Film Festival on Nov. 19.
Morris isn’t the only one who has an attachment to Bolin Creek as it stands today.
The Friends of Bolin Creek, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the conservation and protection of the Bolin Creek watershed, has rallied support for keeping the forest as it is.
Carrboro is shaped like a donut, having a hundred acre forest in the middle of the most densely populated town in the state.
Another issue is that Carrboro doesn’t even own much of the forest; UNC and a local realtor named P.H. Craig do. While the Board of Aldermen can require the property owners to follow their plan, it still delays the process.
Conservationist Johnny Randall believes that the forest is not special in terms of plant and animal diversity. He even dismisses the idea that the Carolina North Forest is natural, and renames it as a "recovering and regrown natural area," from clear cutting and farmland years back.
He said the greenway will even rehabilitate degraded areas in the forest. It will simultaneously reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere by connecting a huge amount of individuals to a variety of amenities, he said.
Elected officials are trying to use the land for a greenway that would not otherwise be developed, and since this land is a sewer easement and a floodplain — it’s one of them.
The Orange Water And Sewer Authority of Chapel Hill and Carrboro run their sewer easement through the center of the forest. Even if the forest is preserved, it has to be maintained as a sewer easement.
Randall believes that if the greenway is on the OWASA easement, there will be less tree clearing than on the alternative upland route that citizens have proposed.
“Everybody that I’ve spoken to really wants to protect the area, people who want to see a paved greenway, people who don’t want to see any kind of development in there at all, they all have the same kind of basis – they all want to preserve the area,” Charlie Hileman, a member of Carrboro’s Bike Coalition and chair of the Carrboro Greenways Commission, said.
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