Just west of Exit 266 on Interstate 40 sits 164 acres of land called the Greene Tract, purchased jointly by the governments of Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro in 1984 for $608,000. In the 35 years since its purchase, the Greene Tract has seen no development.
Covering the Greene Tract is a blend of old hardwood forest and pine trees. Creeks run through the woods, making home for state-protected four-toed salamanders. To the southeast lies Chapel Hill, with Carrboro to the southwest. To the northwest, the Greene Tract borders the rural buffer, the thousands of acres in Orange County set aside to prevent urban sprawl.
Since the purchase, the governments have engaged in little substantive discussion about the land, 104 acres of which are jointly owned and 60 of which belong solely to Orange County. In 2002, the governments passed a resolution providing suggestions for land use, designating certain acres for preservation, housing and recreational sites.
On Jan. 29 at the Assembly of Governments meeting, where the governments of Orange County, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough annually convene, the three jurisdictions involved in the Greene Tract purchase discussed individually re-adopting a modified version of the 2002 resolution designations. On Feb. 12, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen voted to re-adopt the resolution.
Both the Board of Orange County Commissioners and the Chapel Hill Town Council plan to vote on the resolution at their respective meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. The re-adoption would designate 60 acres for preservation and suggest redistribution of the Green Tract acreage to account for potential development plans.
Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu said she hoped for the governments to begin making decisions for the property. Since Gu's election in 2017, the Greene Tract has been discussed three times in council meetings — at the Assemblies in 2018 and 2019, and once at a Town Council meeting.
“I think it is a great opportunity, especially considering that there is not much open land that is left in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” Gu said.
Both Mark Marcoplos, a member of the BOCC, and Damon Seils, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, agree the Greene Tract is a great opportunity, but both noted the disagreements among local officials.
“I think a lot of issues in Chapel Hill and Carrboro — not just the Greene Tract — are about land use and density,” Seils said. “It’s really about divergent visions of the future.”
Seils said while much of the work analyzing the property and determining how it could be developed comes down to town staff members, but said that for significant progress to be made, the governments need to take action.
“I think Orange County is ready to move forward, because they’re the largest partner with the most acreage,” Seils said. “Their staff has been leading the way in terms of doing the staff-level work.”
Although Orange County owns 60 acres of the Greene Tract, the area lies in Chapel Hill’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning that major zoning decisions would come down to the Town.
“I sense a greater hesitation around some council members on making a decision,” Seils said.
Seils said he envisions high-density, transit-oriented and mixed-use development that especially considers affordable housing. Chapel Hill has been working on addressing a greater need for affordable and public housing.
Forty-five acres of the Greene Tract designated for mixed use and housing in the proposal is adjacent to the Rogers Road affordable homes community. Gu and Marcoplos both emphasized the need to include the community in conversations about development.
“It is an environmentally sensitive area,” Gu said. “It is culturally and socially sensitive as well.”
Gu said the Rogers Road community values green space. However, the 60-acre section intended for preservation would ideally have minimally invasive trails open to the public, Marcoplos said.
All three officials agreed the potential new mixed-use community should be walkable, bikeable and connected to the greater Chapel Hill community, with access to retail. More specific discussion regarding that, however, cannot be made until all three jurisdictions adopt the resolution.
Overall, the three governments hope the Greene Tract development can be a successful way to improve the county while establishing a precedent for future development in the region.
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