UPDATE 01/13/2020: The story was updated to include additional details about Melissa McCullough's career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Chapel Hill Planning Department recently released to the public the long-awaited environmental assessment on the 164 acres of land in southeastern Orange County known as the Greene Tract.
Discussions over development on the land — which is jointly owned by Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County — have been ongoing for more than three decades. In the summer of 2019, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted to pause discussions until an environmental assessment was completed to identify the areas with the highest priority to preserve. The study began in April 2020, and the results were released to the planning department in July.
The results of the study proposed allocating a total of 83.5 acres of preservation concentrated around the wetland habitats of the rare four-toed salamander species.
The other 80 acres of the Greene Tract will likely be developed to meet the needs of a growing county population, including plans for a new school site and affordable housing. There is a particular onus on the jurisdictions to make up for past injustices to the historic Rogers Road neighborhood, which sits directly to the west of the Greene Tract, and has long suffered impacts from a landfill built in 1984 — its use only recently being discontinued.
Although no affordable housing has been built yet, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said the Town has met the needs of Rogers Road residents in other ways, such as by building a new community center in 2014 and beginning to connect the entire neighborhood to water and sewage in 2017.
While the process has not been quick, Hemminger said the jurisdictions are taking time to learn how residents want the land to be developed and how to minimize impacts on wildlife.
“I think we're gonna come out with a much better outcome, because we've taken the time to bring people together to talk about what's best for the community,” Hemminger said.
Melissa McCullough, former associate national program director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, said developing in a way where everybody has a very close access to green space is crucial.
For instance, McCullough noted clustering houses around existing neighborhoods that already have utilities installed is an effective way to minimize clearing forested land and the cost of extending infrastructure per person.
“The whole idea of community sustainability is that everybody should have what they need, including the resources of the world,” McCullough said. “Green space is incredibly important for people's mental and physical health.”
A focus on effective preservation
The urgency to preserve the land is partially because the tract is one of the few known breeding locations in North Carolina of the rare state-protected four-toed salamander species, which is highly sensitive to changing land uses.
In 2019, the Eno-New Hope Landscape Conservation Plan was produced by a collaboration among local governments, conservation groups, universities and ecologists and aims to protect biodiversity between the Eno River and New Hope Creek watersheds.
The plan identified the landscape between the Eno River and New Hope Creek watersheds in North Carolina and identified the Greene Tract as a habitat with high connectivity value, meaning it serves an important role in maintaining habitat connectivity across the landscape.
North Carolina has the largest variety of salamanders in the country. Brooke Massa, a conservation biologist, said maintaining connection between habitats in which rare species like the four-toed salamander are known to exist is crucial because isolated habitat islands over time inhibit animal movement and contribute to species decline.
The assessment acknowledged the importance of maintaining current habitat corridors between the Greene Tract and nearby conservation lands, such as the forested corridor off-site where Old Field Creek and Bolin Creek leave the property.
Massa said she was also glad to see the recommended preserved areas in the report were concentrated around the Old Field Creek wetland in the north and Bolin Creek in the south, both locations in which the salamander has been observed.
Minimizing the impact of development on highly sensitive and rare species like the four-toed salamander is the best way to ensure protection of all species, Massa said. For instance, the report recommended additional wetland buffers extending out 150 feet for enhanced protection of the salamander.
“I think they're doing a good job of trying to understand the environmental features on the tract ahead of doing any major design for the development,” Massa said. “There’s definitely opportunities to have win-win solutions to these conflicts, by ensuring you're designing development in a way that reduces impacts.”
Acknowledging different perspectives
Apart from its role as a habitat hub in the larger N.C. ecosystem, the forested haven of the Greene Tract has come to be an important community resource as people have turned to the outdoors during the pandemic.
Chapel Hill resident Adam Searing grew up hiking and biking in Chapel Hill’s various woods, and in recent years has started to help create trails on the Greene Tract. Searing said he's never seen as many people on the Greene Tract as he has in the past year.
“The pandemic has really changed the way we use the outside in our community,” Searing said.
He said as municipalities plan for development of the Greene Tract, they should keep in mind the increase in usage of trails and outside wildlife spaces.
The Greene Tract is many things to residents: an outdoor solace, a bike trail, a diverse hub of flora and fauna, an opportunity to extend the Rogers Road neighborhood and the potential site of a new school.
Hemminger said the next step toward development will be holding a community information forum to answer questions about the environmental assessment. Representatives from the three jurisdictions will meet in January to decide how that will be done.
The needs and wants and perspectives are as diverse as the county’s residents themselves, but moving forward means moving together, Hemminger said.
“I do know we can work together to have a really good outcome,” Hemminger said. “It just takes time and energy.”