Building affordable housing in Pathway Drive area won’t be easy, study says


By Fraser Sherman

Carrboro’s wooded lots on Pathway Drive may be the best place for the town to develop affordable housing, but “this does not make them good,” Town Council Member Catherine Fray said at the June 18 council meeting.

Earlier this year, Summit Design and Engineering Services began studying the Pathway property’s soil composition and stormwater runoff to evaluate the acreage as a housing site. Summit’s William Wirt presented the findings on June 18, the council’s last meeting until fall. The full report is available in the agenda package, downloadable from the town’s online meeting calendar.

Summit concluded that developing the sloping, wooded property would be doable but expensive, though it wouldn’t be practical in some parts. Wirt said, however, that it wasn’t Summit’s job to make a yes/no recommendation on development—that was up to the council.

Carrboro’s quest for affordable housing

Housing is affordable if the occupants spend 30 percent or less of their gross income on mortgage, rent, and utilities. Eight years ago, Carrboro began looking for ways to increase the town’s affordable housing, working in partnership with Chapel Hill and Orange County. Carrboro town staff began looking for city-owned land with affordable housing potential.

The Pathway Drive property became a strong contender. Carrboro acquired 2.82 acres thereby deed of gift in 1976, then received a donation of an adjacent 3.5 acres in 1985. Summit began its geotechnical and stormwater analysis of the land in March.

Wirt told the council the property’s gradient is one of several factors complicating development. Erecting housing on the property would require “building a lot of fill, or steeper roads and all the buildings will be on higher foundations.” Carrboro would have to deal with other issues including a sewer easement taking up part of the property. 

Neighbors speak

Residents living around the town-owned land recommended Carrboro nix its plans for the site. Speakers said they supported building affordable housing, but the Pathway acreage had too many drawbacks. Flooding in the surrounding area was already bad, they said, and developing the land would make it worse.

“It’s like building a development on an 80-foot waterfall,” resident Ron Kunkel told the council. He said the Spring Valley stormwater retention pond was already overloaded, at high risk for failure and that fixing it could cost Spring Valley over $300,000. “We need the town of Carrboro to fix the existing issue.”

Kunkel asked the council to postpone any action until they received more input from Spring Valley. Other speakers said developing a heavily wooded area worked against Carrboro’s environmental priorities and goals. Some residents said the cost to overcome the flooding and other issues with the site would be astronomical.

Council debates

“We want to build affordable housing,” Council Member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said after Wirt’s presentation. “We’re not looking to do something that’s astronomically expensive.”

“I’m hearing steep challenges. I’m hearing possible real roadblocks,” Councilor Danny Nowell said. “This needs to prompt really serious conversations about whether this can be meaningful.”

While Fray shared their concerns, they said the council had few alternatives. “Would we prefer a smaller number of units on town land, or nothing? Because that’s what it’s coming down to.”

The councilors took no action at the meeting.  Housing and Community Services Director Anne-Marie Vanaman said town staff would analyze the Summit reports and report back when council meetings resume. She said her department would also reach out for more feedback from residents.

Neighborhood cafes get the green light

In other development news, the council approved an ordinance allowing the use of” neighborhood cafes” in certain zoning districts.

In April, Heather Washburn of Calico Studio requested changes to a business/residential project approved for 603 Jones Ferry Road. The changes included adding a neighborhood cafe to the project, which required changing the city’s land-use rules. At the June 18 meeting, the council voted unanimously for an ordinance that would allow cafes in several different zoning districts, not just the one that applied at 603 Jones Ferry.

The change doesn’t guarantee Washburn’s project will receive approval, but it does allow her to begin the permit process.

You can watch the entire council meeting on Carrboro’s YouTube channel.

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.
This reporter can be reached at

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