At their June 1 meeting, The Orange County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) decided, for the time being, to pause talks of potential development of Buckhorn Area Study Area B, but that development of Study Area A could move forward once residents are brought together, informed of the changes and have a say in what the development entails.
The commissioners reviewed the public’s comments, questions and concerns voiced during the May 17 Buckhorn Area Study public input meeting prior to Tuesday’s meeting. Eight members of the public also spoke at this meeting, too.
Commissioner Jean Hamilton said folks in Area A, who are predominantly working-class, elderly African Americans, must be included, and have a say so, in the county’s plans to develop that area.
Commissioner Hamilton noted that the folks living in Area A aren’t plugged in to what’s going on, as most do not have broadband or are not internet literate. In light of this, she said the county must think outside the box and find away to reach those residing in the study area.
“So, it's not about not developing, it is about doing in a way to make sure those folks – which are African Americans, who traditionally have had no voice in this county – [are heard]…” Hamilton said. “My concern is that we have to make sure we hear from them, make sure we know that they understand what are the stakes, make sure that when development happens, they can get a fair price for their land and not just be taken advantage of.”
Commissioner Earl McKee expressed concern about Orange County being too reliant on residential property taxes, in turn becoming a “bedroom community.”
“What I can absolutely guarantee is that the road to gentrification of Orange County and creating an even more gated community, is to unilaterally say, ‘No, we will not explore anything outside EDD, we will possibly not consider Area A, we will not provide for water Area A, and we're going to just sit with where we're at that, we've got enough land for economic development,’” McKee said.
Commissioner Hamilton responded, saying she isn’t against development in Area A, but that the board should develop the area the right way. That means ensuring residents voices are heard, that they’re in the loop and have a say so in what is being done, she said.
“Whatever we decide to do, just want us to remember that there are people who don't have a voice, who haven't had a voice and if we want to make sure that they do, then we have to be deliberate in how we go about making decisions,” Hamilton said.
Commissioner Amy Fowler echoed that sentiment. “I agree with the idea of trying to get more input from folks in Area A, which it feels like we haven't actually heard from despite hearing from a lot of other folks for over a few months,” Fowler said.
Commissioner Hamilton then suggested the county hold back on bringing water and sewer to the area for one year, to ensure the community is fully aware of what changes will be coming, and make adjustments to this changes as the residents wish.
Commissioner Sally Greene was the first to take a position of opposition to the development of Study Area B, and other commissioners followed suit.
Commissioner Mark Dorosin agreed, but, like McKee, said to keep taxes low, development is needed.
“While there's lots of people in this community who can continue to pay high taxes, we're really going to be really going to be putting the squeeze on people who can't and that's something that, if we're serious about economic development, we need to make these critical [issues],” Dorosin said.
Commissioner Dorosin advocated for economic development to take place in concentrated, already developed areas first, and to leave undeveloped areas as they are for the time being.
“If we're going to move to start taking places off the economic development map, which may be the right decision, these areas that are already in our land use plan for economic development, there ought to be renewed focus on those,” Dorosin said.
Co-Chair Jamezetta Bedford agreed with Dorosin’s point about the county focusing development on the economic development districts (EDDs), but suggested, instead of developing Area B for commercial and industrial use, building an additional elementary school for Orange County Public Schools in the future.
Some commissioners and residents, alike, were worried about Mebane’s ability to annex Area B and develop whatever the city chooses without Orange County’s input.
The Water and Sewer Management, Planning and Boundary Agreement (WASMPABA) is an interlocal agreement established in 2001 between Orange County, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA). The City of Mebane is not a part of this agreement.
The purpose of the agreement is to delineate where public water and sewer should located around the county, its towns and municipalities.
Orange County and the City of Mebane do have a utility service agreement, though, in which Orange County agreed to extend utility services to the I-85/Buckhorn Road Economic Development District, established in 2004.
That utility service agreement also states that Mebane and Orange County will work together identify common land uses in the EDD, Commercial Industrial Areas and the service area between Efland and Mebane city limits.
Altieri said Mebane’s interest in Area B began when they annexed the Medline property, which is located near the study area.
Orange County Planning Director Craig Benedict said that if the county chooses to leave Area B undeveloped, the City of Mebane could, in turn, choose to develop it if a developer came forward with an application as allowed by state law.
However, Benedict said the city has shown no strong desire to development the area without the collaboration of Orange County.
The Mebane Enterprise reached out to Mebane Development Director Cy Stober to find out what plans the city has for the area, but received no response.
“I would prefer to keep Area B out of our planning for commercial development,” Greene said. “But I would hope that Mebane could be persuaded to take the same position about that area.”
Commissioner Greene then encouraged the board to work with Mebane on plans, if any, for Area B. She added that in the last between the BOCC and Mebane City Council, Mebane showed interest in collaborating with the county, but they didn’t say in what way.
Benedict said Mebane wants to know what the plans are for the area soon. “Mebane said, ‘we can't take a couple years to determine this, we'd like to know in a reasonable amount of time.’”
As promised during the public interest meeting, the Orange County Planning and Inspections Department (PID) delivered the frequently asked questions (FAQ) document to the commissioners and the public prior to the meeting. The FAQ Document can be found in the June 1 meeting agenda, beginning on page 98.
Planning staff also acknowledged that Orange County and Mebane’s overlapping plans have confused the public, so they offered a potential solution to this confusion.
“Since Orange County planning staff does collect a variety of data on municipal development, upon the board's request the staff does have the ability to prepare and maintain a new web page that could be used as a central repository, if you would, for Western Orange County development trends, outreach information and process documents for proposed development in the area,” Comprehensive Planning Director Tom Altieri said.
Although adequate broadband access is still a major issue affecting rural Orange County, residents – largely from Area B – liked the idea of a website solely dedicated to providing information about the Buckhorn Area Study.
Resident Kaye Brown saw this as a step in the right direction in fostering transparency and rebuilding trust between citizens and the planning department, but asked the department to do more.
“I wish to suggest that you grapple with the larger challenge of doing more, of inviting comment at the very start of your projects, at the conceptual phase, at the design charrette phase, not just at the end…” Brown said. “If we, the citizens, can be asked in early in the deliberative process at the conceptual stage, I truly believe there will be less need for mounting resistance to the ultimate plans that are approved.”
At the meeting’s close, Chair Renee Price said she will coordinate a tour of Area A for the BOCC when they return from summer recess in the fall, then plans can be made from there.
Chair Price added residents can expect a report of the board’s finding’s concerning Areas A and B in the fall.