Last week, the Mebane City Council unanimously approved a proposal from Lebanon Road 3, LLC to rezone 93.5 acres at 1818 Saddle Club Road in Orange County for a 181-home residential cluster that will be known as “Tupelo Junction.”
Garman Homes, a private homebuilder based in North Carolina, is planning to construct homes within its “Fresh Paint” series in Tupelo Junction. The floor plans, which range from just over 1,200 square feet to over 2,400 square feet, offer between two and four bedrooms, 2.5 to 3 bathrooms, and are located in current neighborhoods such as Briar Chapel in Chatham County, Chatham Park in Pittsboro, and Wendell Falls in Wake County.
Last Wednesday evening, during the City’s continued public hearing on the matter, Jack Smyre, Principal of The Design Response, along with Assistant City Manager Chris Rollins, answered several questions. The answers alleviated concerns on the part of the City Council regarding buffers and potential wetlands issues.
The 93.5 acres requested for rezoning, which lie along Stagecoach and Lebanon Roads in Orange County, are part of a 179.23 acre parcel that lies in a Watershed Overlay District, which limits impervious cover to 30 percent of the total area. Tupelo Junction projects to utilize approximately 27 to 28 percent of the total parcel with impervious surfaces such as home footprints, sidewalks, and streets.
“There seems to be two major areas of concern from the constituents I heard from regarding this development,” City Council member Tim Bradley stated. “The first was dealing with wetlands, and the Council apparently ignoring wetland concerns. I dug into that pretty extensively, and as I understand it, when we reviewed the plans and as the plans were presented to us, other than the bridge crossing the flood plan, there did not appear to be any apparent wetland issues.”
“Having said that, once this project moves forward, any wetland issues would have to be permitted and mediated by the developer before construction should begin. And that is outside the purview of Mebane. That would be either state or federal resources, like the Army Corps (of Engineers) or the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency),” Bradley added.
Rollins explained that city officials have done a preliminary look with a licensed soil scientist to look for wetlands and streams. He went into extensive detail about the process the city undertakes to ensure that no construction is taking place in specific wetland areas.
“This is pretty typical of what happens on most of our projects,” Rollins said. “If the project is then approved, and the developer then moves forward, they will then go through the jurisdictional determination. And when that is done, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and somebody from the Water Quality section from the state, and usually one of our certified soil scientists will go to the site. They will all meet out there together, and review all the features on the property.”
“They map the wetlands. They flag the wetlands. They do the same with the steams. Paperwork is filed for the final determination to be made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And they do that in cooperation with the state. This happens on all our projects. Sometimes they find something that is not showing up at all, like an isolated wetland. The designer then has to look at how to handle that. Once in a while, we’ll get a slight change of a line, or a piece of storm sewer pipe gets moved. Or a street gets shifted slightly. Sometimes it’s a major change. And if it’s a major change - Cambridge (Park) went through that, had to come back before the Council to move some lots and roads around because of some wetlands that were found. It’s a pretty standard process. The determination is made as the project is moving forward, and the Corps construction drawings are submitted.”
“After it is evaluated and submitted for final approval, that is when you know what has to be protected,” the Assistant City Manager continued. “We have had multiple projects in town where we did not think there was wetlands, and it was determined there were wetlands. Until the official jurisdictional determination is done, all of this is preliminary. And that’s the final decision. That will have to be done before construction drawings are submitted. And it may cause the site plan to have a minor adjustment. It may have to have a major adjustment. If it’s a major adjustment, it could be bad enough that it has to come back to Council for an amendment to the site plan.
“I just wanted to make sure that, based on some of the comments I heard, that it was apparent that we had appropriately vetted the wetland issue. Not just now, but we’ll continue to vet it with the appropriate resources,” Bradley said in response.
Along with alleviating Council concerns about wetlands, the developer agreed to provide a heavy buffer area along the north/south property line of one neighbor, while agreeing to plant trees as needed along another thinly-covered area farther to the north.
“Looking at that area in particular, I think what we would be willing to do is plant an evergreen buffer along that edge that utilizes materials off Mebane’s recommended plant materials for evergreens. Probably installed at a minimum of six feet initially - those things grow pretty fast - in a double-staggered row, so that it will fill out and back one another up,” Smyre explained. “That’s about 800 lineal feet to do that. There will probably be more than a couple hundred trees necessary to wrap that line. There’s not really any (other) lots (proposed to be constructed in Tupelo Junction) backing up to existing houses, or land being used residentially. In that area where we do have lots backing up, we would be willing to establish an evergreen buffer there, coincident with development in Phase 5.”
“That covers the primary area of my concern,” said Bradley.
“I appreciate the offer for an opaque screening through that portion,” added fellow City Council member Patty Philipps.
“Thanks for considering the evergreen buffer. That really does mean a lot in terms of conservation,” added another City Council member, Sean Ewing.
Philipps also asked about the maintenance of the 20-foot buffer along the entire perimeter of the proposed community.
“My question would be about the 20-foot buffer all the way around the property, and how that will be maintained by the HOA. Where is the grass? Will it be mowed? Will there be trees? Will they be replaced if they die? We’ve seen landscaping around town that met our requirements when it was installed, but shortly thereafter died, and did not serve the purpose for which it’s intended,” said Philipps.
“I think the HOA (Homeowner’s Association) will be patrolling it. It will be one of those complaint-response kinds of things,” said Smyre in response to Philipps. “Some landscaping firm that is able to fertilize and prune and look after the street trees will be involved (in ongoing maintenance of common areas).”
Smyre also addressed a question Philipps had about a disagreement between property boundary lines with one of the local neighbors, who had vocally addressed their displeasure with the process and the community.
“I had a little concern over disagreement over the depth of the self-imposed buffer that the developer has offered next to the Linz property. I would just like a little clarification about the distance between the new boundary of the Linz property and the boundary of this project,” said Philipps.
“I think the confusion is over the adjoining property owner believing - without possibly checking - that there was just the minimum of 20 feet provided along their north/south common boundary line with us - when in reality, we had 35 feet of depth in that area,” said Smyre. “In reality, we had 35 feet, just because of the way the module of the property worked out. Our only pinch point was the northwest corner, where a simple adjustment of Lot 96 would restore 20 feet at that pinch point. We have a property skewing away, so it gets double (the space of the buffer). By lots 98 and 99, it’s probably 40 feet of HOA property there. I think it’s just confusion on their part.”
Jill Auditori also inquired about filling in evergreen trees along the property line of another neighbor who hadn’t been as vocal in their disapproval of the project.
“I’ve not heard from that property owner. I guess we could establish an evergreen buffer that wrapped that house, along the eastern side of the road,” said Smyre. “I believe we do have trees (in that area). I’d say be willing to supplement as needed along that line.”
“I do think it’s important that we not only address the residents that we hear from, but equally address others that may be affected, even if they do not reach out to us,” said Auditori. “I would feel better about having that entire property line all the way up be planted as determined necessary, considering what’s there already. I just don’t want to dismiss residents just because we didn’t get an email from them.”
“Along that eastern border, you should just fill in as necessary with growth trees,” added Bradley.
Ewing made the motion to support the project, which was unanimously approved by the City Council.
“I was elected on smart growth here in Mebane,” said Ewing. “There is a legal possibility for higher density on these properties. The proposed owner is requesting to have lower density. They are investing in the Mebane community by a Greenway. And they are supporting our country neighbors by installing a buffer, which they didn’t have to.”
“One thing that we’ve struggled with - I know there are plenty of people who are sad to see Mebane grow in this way,” Auditori added. “And I understand that. But people want to live in this area. And it is really important for us to consider the option of not approving plans like this, and what happens when people want to live in our community, and we don’t allow them to. What happens is they move outside our ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction), and aren’t in our city limits. We’ve seen that around us, where we don’t have any say in how we grow. They’ll go right outside our jurisdiction, and put up a lot of houses that we have no say about how that happens.”