Orange County, Mebane city leaders moving forward with Buckhorn Area Plan

Last week, the City of Mebane hosted a joint online session with Orange County planners and officials with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council to discuss the Buckhorn Area Plan. The Buckhorn Area Plan is a comprehensive study that has been undertaken in recent years to assess the feasibility of long-term economic development along the Buckhorn Road corridor, which has experienced significant growth pressure as more and more residential and commercial/industrial entities show interest in western Orange County. The plan can be viewed in its entirety at ptrc.org/Buckhorn

Last week, the City of Mebane hosted a joint online session with Orange County planners and officials with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council to discuss the Buckhorn Area Plan. The Buckhorn Area Plan is a comprehensive study that has been undertaken in recent years to assess the feasibility of long-term economic development along the Buckhorn Road corridor, which has experienced significant growth pressure as more and more residential and commercial/industrial entities show interest in western Orange County. 

The plan can be viewed in its entirety at ptrc.org/Buckhorn. Residents can view the project background, area description, and additional information at that site. All of the information detailed below came directly from the Piedmont Triad Regional Council’s initial draft of the plan. 

According to an Executive Summary provided by PTRC, the Buckhorn Area Plan is a technical study of future land use and potential utility services to identify properties that could be zoned for nonresidential purposes and best support economic development, while balancing the cost of utility service extensions. This report uses GIS mapping to determine parcels most suitable for development within the study area. 

This process allows for a technical review of multiple development factors including: developable acres, preservation areas, mean slope, watershed, sewer infrastructure, water infrastructure, interstate access, interstate visibility, roadway access, and access to existing rail. A review of relevant plans was completed to ensure the vision, goals, and strategy for the area from previously adopted plans aligned with the recommendations in the Buckhorn Area Plan. 

The study area for this plan was defined after significant consideration of existing land uses, environmental impacts, and economic potential. The City of Mebane and Orange County Planning, Administrative, Public Works, and Economic Development staffs worked with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council to ensure parcels with the highest potential were included in the analysis. 

The boundaries for this plan focus area are the rail line to the North; Ben Wilson and Mattress Factory Road to the west, Mt Willing Road and parcels along the I-85 connector to the East; Bushy Cook Road and Seven Mile Creek to the South. Recommendations in this plan include the expansion of manufacturing, wholesale, distribution, and service uses in the Buckhorn Area. 

With this expansion of the Buckhorn Economic Development District, the plan also recommends additional land use districts to incorporate a new zoning district that encourages documented research, office and manufacturing facilities and also support walkability, mixing of uses and practical design that is compatible with the surrounding land uses. 

A primary factors in developing many sites rely on the availability of water and sewer systems. An extension of the Utility Service Agreement is needed to provide the necessary utilities. Finally, Orange County should use this plan to help inform possible future planning initiatives.  

The Buckhorn Economic Development District (BEDD) was dedicated as a development district by the City of Mebane and Orange County in 2011 to include a variety of manufacturing, wholesale, distribution, retail and service uses. The existing BEDD is located in the western portion of Orange County just off exit 157 from Interstate 85/40, and includes approximately 900 acres of developable land. This study expands the boundaries of the original Economic development District in order to utilize the most suitable land that has reasonable access to infrastructure.

The BEDD is defined by the area contained by Ben Wilson Road to the west, E Washington St Ext to the north, Hope Allison Road to the east, and West Ten Road to the South. This study area broadens the area to include areas recently annexed into the City and rezoned as M-2 Light Manufacturing and the surrounding area. Mebane by Design, the Comprehensive Land Development Plan, defines six Growth Strategy Areas as well as Conservation Areas. 

Per North Carolina General Statutes, the City of Mebane has an obligation to update the long-range plan so that its actions are consistent with its adopted plans. Orange County has planned for Buckhorn area economic development and is interested in what areas are feasible for infrastructure. Both jurisdictions felt a planning study of future land use and potential utility service could identify properties that could be zoned for economic development purposes to best support the City and County’s shared goals, while balancing the cost of utility service extensions.

Orange County entered into a Utility Service Agreement with the City of Mebane in 2004 to provide water and sanitary sewer service to much of the area located between West Ten Road and Interstate 40/85 known as the Buckhorn Economic Development District (BEDD). Due to a growth in non-residential uses and development interest, the agreement was amended in 2012 to enlarge the original service area and incorporate a wider range of uses after plan amendments or utility capacity analysis to absorb more varied types of development. 

Orange County, with a combination of federal and local funds, committed to extend water and sewer services into nearby unincorporated areas, with the City of Mebane to take ownership and maintenance of the lines and wastewater outflows once permitting and construction was complete. The agreement discusses specific uses to provide water and sewer service: the BEDD, as well as Commercial-Industrial Transition Activity nodes, public school, public recreational facilities, defined areas where residential uses are permitted. 

The service agreement acknowledges a need for cooperation and flexibility to accommodate changing development patterns, but also references existing residential areas north of Interstate 40/85 that should not be annexed and pay “out of town” utility rates or the development with a separate wastewater treatment agreement. This plan utilizes criteria determined by City of Mebane and Orange County staff incorporating: habitat preservation, slope, watershed regulations, sewer and water serviceability, interstate access and visibility, roadway access, and access to existing rail.

Compared to other jurisdictions in the Piedmont region, Mebane and its surrounding area has relatively few slope constraints. The majority of the study area has mean slope below 6% or between 6% and 10%. No parcels greater than 6 acres have a mean slope over 10% and the majority of parcels with steep slope are in floodplains. Some soil conditions can make potential land development more difficult or expensive. In the Piedmont region, dominant soil limitations include hydric (wetland) conditions, rock content, or high shrink-swell potential due to moisture fluctuations. Even where such conditions actually occur, there would probably still be a means to undertake urban type development, although with greater difficulty or expense. No development will be encouraged on environmental wetlands.

The land suitability analysis of the Buckhorn Area reveals multiple parcels ideal for immediate development along the I-40 corridor (Map 19). Parcels ranking from 11-16 in the scoring matrix are ideal for immediate economic development, with little to no major changes needed for development. The majority of these parcels currently have water, sewer, high acreage, and road access available. 

Of the twelve parcels that are scored in the top tier, two are already developed as employment centers in the manufacturing and distribution sectors. Developable acreage in these top rate properties range from 2.2 acres to 126.02 acres. Adjacent parcels with the same owner were merged for a total property acreage. No top tier parcels are located in a preservation area, such as a Voluntary Agriculture District, Conservation Easement or Managed Area, or a Natural Heritage Element Occurrence or Area. Environmental constraints play a factor in a few of these highly suitable parcels. Slope is not a concern, with the majority of slopes being less than 6%. Infrastructure needs for these parcels are already met. 

Only one identified parcel, to the farthest east, does not currently have water available and is unlikely to be served by Mebane. Many identified parcels are adjacent to I-40 providing visibility from the interstate and access to the interstate for all highly suitable parcels is less than 1.5 miles driving distance. The majority of identified parcels are accessible by two or more public roadways and all parcels have access to at least one public roadway. None of these parcels have currently have access to rail, however numerous parcels on the northern part of the study area are potentially accessible.