CH Council Approves 828 MLK Jr. Blvd. Bond; Splits on Aspen Development


By Terry E. Cohen

At its March 8 meeting, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved a resolution, voting 7-1, for a $45 million bond to reimburse Town coffers for early project expenses in pursuit of building a Municipal Services Center (MSC) to replace the current police station at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Councilmember Adam Searing voted “nay,” and Councilmember Tai Huynh was absent.

Interim Town Manager Chris Blue began the staff update by acknowledging the need to get started on mitigating the environmental risks to city workers and the public that everyone agrees is present with coal ash on the property. He said the 828 MLK Jr. Blvd. property made the most sense for the new MSC after other parcels evaluated fell short or had insurmountable “complexities.” Blue noted the quest for a new facility had been going on since 2008 when he was present in the building as part of the police force.

“Its (the police station site’s) accessibility, its prominent location in our community, brings us back to you tonight to ask you to affirm our plan to move forward with the MSC at the 828 site,” Blue said.

“We are now waiting [on] the state’s guidance for how to proceed with remediation,” Mary Jane Nirdlinger, deputy Town manager, said during the staff presentation. “In order to be ready to take our next steps, the Town solicited architectural services and selected Evoke Architects out of Durham to design the Municipal Services Center.

In response to a question from Searing about whether housing would still be an option in the future on the site, Nirdlinger responded that the brownfields agreement being sought from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) would be just for the MSC.

“If at some point somebody wanted to pursue housing, they would have to back through the Brownfields Program and ask for an amendment to that agreement,” Nirdlinger said.

A dozen members of the public spoke on the issue, focusing less on the bond and more on dealing with the coal ash, advocating for its removal rather than the “cap-and-contain” methods favored by a majority of the council based on recommendations it received from hired environmental consultants.

Isabel Geffner spoke of her knowledge of coal ash and ensuing health problems through a friend who worked on the issue in Belews Creek, NC. Geffner acknowledged the years of information and meetings forthcoming from the Town as detailed in the staff presentation, but said that the public was still not sufficiently aware of the problem.

Steve Fleck, a member of Safe Housing for Chapel Hill, complimented Mayor Pam Hemminger’s involvement in environmental discussions with other mayors, but focused on concerns about coal ash seepage into Bolin Creek and eventually into Jordan Lake, citing the findings of Dr. Avner Vengosh of Duke University. Fleck talked about the impact that such water contamination would have on not only local residents, but also on those in other communities reliant on that water supply.

Felicia Wang cited instances of failed cap-and-contain measures in other locales and asserted that NCDEQ’s standards were not sufficiently rigorous.

John Wagner, a Chatham County resident who said he grew up in Chapel Hill playing in Bolin Creek, thanked the council for the resolution, for backing off plans for housing and for listening to the public speak. However, among many issues he covered, Wagner expressed concern that DEQ would advise the bare minimum and pressed the council to go for the best solution.

He also questioned the level of information reaching the public, citing the specifics of the agenda itself.

“I’ve tried to follow the coal ash issue with the council … look at the agenda … The address of the municipal center is not on the agenda and no mention of coal ash is on the agenda, and I think that’s a serious oversight in keeping the public informed,” Wagner said.

Conflicting assessments

Public comment concluded with a statement by Nick Torrey, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the group Friends of Bolin Creek, who emphasized adhering to higher standards than what DEQ would require and developing the remediation plan now instead of waiting.

Torrey took issue with statements from the Town that cleaning up the coal ash would be unsafe.

“That’s not true,” Torrey said, “As part of our efforts at Southern Environmental Law Center, Duke Energy is cleaning up millions of tons of coal ash throughout North Carolina safely right now. And the areas that most desperately need to be cleaned up at this site can absolutely be removed to safe, dry, lined storage in a facility that’s designed to receive and safely store the ash away from waterways, away from those high erosion areas.”

Per Torrey’s comments, Friends of Bolin Creek has advised a hybrid approach, which would include removing the steep coal ash slope beside the greenway and areas that test above one part per million for any cancer-causing contaminant. Torrey maintained that any coal ash left in place would require testing “in perpetuity,” including Bolin Creek.

In that regard, Councilmember Jessica Anderson seemed to agree, asserting that the Town knows it will have to remove some coal ash from the property. Where the Town may differ, however, is the quantity of what may need to be removed. Anderson said they (council members) were not relying just on DEQ, but also on the environmental experts the Town has hired.

Anderson also took issue with the lack of transparency claims, citing the amount of information available on the Town’s website. She further contested the safety of transporting the ash to other sites, which conflicted with Torrey’s statements and seemed at odds with those who see the safety of others being affected via water contamination.

“When coal ash cannot be remediated, it has to be removed, and then it goes in trucks. So workers can be exposed; the coal ash can be flying off the trucks, and then it goes to another community … with residents and with people who work there. Trucking our coal ash to another community is not the only answer that we have,” Anderson said. “I trust us to test the site going forward more than I do a poorer community with fewer resources.

No other specific communities were mentioned, but Duncklee & Dunham did do a memorandum to the Town on a “Preliminary Environmental Justice, Regulatory, and Community Sensitivity Evaluation for Potential Use of Five North Carolina Landfill Disposal Facilities” in 2019 and found two of five possibilities.

Per what Anderson said, whatever coal ash has to be removed will have to be trucked somewhere. The question becomes one of how much to remove and what factors will determine that amount. The Town’s position is that it needs the guidance of the state to proceed. Others say a plan for remediation and removal can start even before DEQ weighs in. In other words, there is disagreement on the “cart-horse” which-come-first question.

Aspen Chapel Hill project meets a tied vote

After the vote was taken on the MSC bond resolution, the council moved on to zoning and development matters. Developers of an apartment project known as Aspen Chapel Hill, to be located at 701 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., sought a conditional rezoning. The 112-unit complex was to have included 14 affordable housing spaces.

However, the project ran into some heartburn with some council members over its seeming to target students for occupancy on the theory that it would move them out of other areas, freeing up those units for other types of residents. Some disappointment was expressed that when previously discussed, the council had made clear its desire for workforce and local family housing, along with income-restricted units. Further, the project had issues with the resource conservation area as it grappled with steep slopes.

Three members of the public spoke, all in favor of the project, one being the current property owner, one being a neighbor of the property, and the last being the director of the local Chamber of Commerce.

With Huynh absent, the council numbers available to vote were even. Hemminger gave the developer the option to listen to council comments and request another time for decision. If a vote were to happen, “If we hang, the motion is dead,” she said, meaning that the developer would have to wait a year to resubmit if the vote was a tie. The developer wanted to move forward with the vote.

Councilmember Amy Ryan said she did not believe the project met the Complete Communities framework. She said, that the council has “heard from Mr. Huynh that he doesn’t believe that buildings like this actually pull students out of places like Northside.”

In the end, Hemminger, Anderson, Ryan and Searing were against the project in the 4-4 vote, making the project dead in the water for at least a year.

Another project, one slated for 101 E. Rosemary St., for a mixed housing and commercial building, was presented as an update and a request for comments, but staff asked to have the legislative hearing continued to April 19. The continuation was approved. A concept plan for Aura South Elliott at 200 S. Elliott Rd. was earlier in the meeting moved to the March 22 meeting or another date to be specified.

CORRECTION: Isabel Geffner’s name spelling has been corrected from “Gefner.”

Terry E. Cohen is the editor of The Local Reporter. She also writes articles for a global media firm on topics related to Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) in business and industry.

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