The Greene Tract is an empty parcel of land that governments and residents alike have eyed for decades as a site for housing development. But it's also home to a small, lungless amphibian called the four-toed salamander.
The salamanders' presence on the property has shaped how the land will be used and how the wildlife conservation corridors will be balanced with affordable housing development.
While the species is common across the northeastern United States, in North Carolina it holds the status of being a species of special concern.
According to David Pfennig, a biology professor at UNC, that status designation is an informal category between species of least concern and endangered or threatened species. He said these salamanders have the status because of spotty distribution of four-toed salamanders in North Carolina despite suitable habitats across the state.
Salamanders are sensitive to environmental degradation, and lungless salamanders are particularly vulnerable, Pfennig said. Water and oxygen easily pass through their permeable skin, as well as any contaminants polluting the streams they inhabit. At the same time, the salamanders play a role as bioindicators of environmental quality.
“They’re kind of the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Pfennig said.
Contaminated runoff during development or chemicals used on the property following development, such as herbicides like Roundup, could weaken salamander populations at a time when salamanders across the world are experiencing declines in population, he said.
“What would concern me more is that while the things that happen in this development may not specifically kill the animals, it may stress them out to such a degree that then they’re vulnerable to things like these new diseases,” Pfennig said.
Any development should include buffers to divert water and limitations on any surfaces that could produce runoff, like asphalt, he said.
In 2000, a biological survey of the Greene Tract found no four-toed salamanders, but the survey could not rule out their presence because it was conducted outside of the salamanders' springtime breeding period.
Sally Greene, an Orange County commissioner, visited the Greene Tract in March 2018 along with other elected officials and staff members. She reported in a blog post that the salamanders are present and thriving in the property’s forest and wetlands.
In February, the three local governments passed a resolution that redrew the 60 acres owned solely by Orange County to protect the stream beds, the salamanders inhabit. Although the Town of Chapel Hill passed a comprehensive resolution in July that differs from those passed by Orange County and Carrboro, the land designated for conservation in February remains unchanged.
But exactly how the rest of the land will be used is still unclear.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s in favor of conserving less land than we have conserved here,” Greene said. “I believe that for years, all three governments have been going along a lot of discussion that assumes we would protect what needs to be protected and have land left over to use for another very important value, which is affordable housing.”
Some county residents, such as Yvette Mathews, an organizer for the Community Empowerment Fund, think the conversation should focus more on the immediate housing needs of the county’s homeless and low-income residents, especially with the rising cost of living in Chapel Hill.
“This is needed, and people are people,” Mathews said. “They’re more important than the trees, and they’re more important than the salamanders.”
Mathews said she believes the governments are out of touch with these residents, particularly those who are people of color. Stigmas against homelessness and people of color, she said, have hindered development of affordable housing options.
“I have an issue with the Greene Tract sitting there for a 30-year period of time and nothing ever being placed on that land in terms of affordable housing for folks,” she said.
Mathews said the efforts of the governments need to focus on those who need housing, not toward salamanders and green space. While the governments have verbally agreed upon the tract's conservation designation, she said the disconnect between the officials and those needing affordable housing continues to prolong the process of providing such housing.
Though the four-toed salamanders make their home in the Greene Tract, soon enough they may find themselves sharing the property with Orange County residents — the only questions are how affordable that housing will be, and how long it will take.
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