The Orange County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on Tuesday to discuss rezoning that would allow Texas-based Buc-ee’s to bring the largest gas station in the world to Efland, a rural community home to just over 700 people.
Despite the company’s claims of bringing jobs and tax revenue to the area, community activists say the proposal poses more threat than opportunity.
A Voice for Efland & Orange, a group of neighbors living near the proposed site, has been vocally opposed to the project. Their concerns include negative impacts on the economy and quality of life, increased traffic and threats to the water quality in the protected Eno Watershed.
Jared Cates, one of the group’s leaders, and an Efland native, moved back to the town last year. Cates, like every property owner living within 1,000 feet of the proposed station, received a letter in August inviting him to an exclusive hearing about the proposal.
Cates said a single sign on Mt. Willing Road was all that informed residents outside the 1,000-foot perimeter and non-land owners about the station’s possible harms. So, he and a few friends hit the streets in September and organized their own community meeting.
The group, part of which eventually became A Voice for Efland & Orange, came out in full force at a planning meeting later that month. That’s where Del Ward, a resident who wasn’t initially informed of the project, joined.
“This whole '1,000 feet' thing is a calculated attempt to keep as many people out of the loop and uninformed about this project as possible,” Ward said.
The group’s Instagram post about the proposal, which was compiled by Ward from a 1,080-page document outlining the proposal, spread quickly through UNC and Orange County.
Cates said Ward’s youthful input helped the group broaden its audience to critically important UNC and Chapel Hill voters and gain traction on social media and GoFundMe donations to buy flyers and road signs.
“I think the messaging was really simple to understand,” Cates said. "It sounded really dire, because it is dire, and we only have a few weeks to bring people's attention to it. We wanted to make it attention-grabbing, and I think it did that.”
Korie Dean, a UNC senior and Efland native, said although she first began to see other UNC students engage with the proposal last weekend, she heard about it earlier this fall from a News and Observer article touting the station’s “Best Bathrooms in America.”
“This is just an attempt to bring growth that doesn't address what people actually need,” Dean said. “There are 100 homes that don't have plumbing, and it seems the county's solution is to bring a giant 120-pump gas station with clean bathrooms.”
Cates, Ward and Dean all said that northern Orange County’s voters, represented geographically by only two of seven commissioners, often have their interests ignored by the board.
Renee Price, the board’s newly appointed chairperson, lives just 10 minutes away from the Efland site.
Although she declined to comment on her own views before Tuesday, Price said she understands residents’ concerns about underrepresentation, and will consider public feedback alongside economic and environmental factors when voting on the proposal.
“I also understand the need for economic development, and what it can do for the county as a whole,” Price said. “But I also understand that the people that will be affected by any development are also the people that have made Orange County an attractive place.”
Cates said he hopes the digital engagement of Chapel Hill and Carrboro-based voters will finally turn the eyes of the commissioners north, to a one-street, unincorporated community that now sits at a crossroad of development, environment and human impact.
“I feel like Orange County is an innovative place, with a lot of very smart people and good ideas, and I just feel like we could do better,” Cates said. “Not only for our environment, but for our community.”
A representative from Buc-ee’s declined The Daily Tar Heel’s multiple requests for comment.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.