Chapel Hill residents concerned about impacts of future water/sewer infrastructure extensions

COMMUNITY

By Adam Powell
Correspondent

Many residents throughout Chapel Hill and greater Orange County have expressed concerns about a recent decision by the Chapel Hill Town Council to extend its water and sewer infrastructure south of Southern Village, encompassing an area of approximately 360 acres down to the Chatham County line. 

Chapel Hill town leaders voted on November 15 on a resolution to extend the water and sewer infrastructure of Chapel Hill to 139 parcels adjacent to the Chatham County line by an 8-1 vote, with board member Adam Searing providing the only no vote. 

While the town’s decision to amend its current water/sewer management will not result directly in any guaranteed infrastructure projects, it does open the door for possible future consideration of land development that would include municipal infrastructure provided by the town. Despite the endorsement from Chapel Hill town officials, potential development will be years away, which leaves plenty of time for opponents of the proposed infrastructure modifications to express their opinions at public hearings and send letters to council members.  

It won’t be cheap to extend water and sewer infrastructure all the way down to Orange County’s southern boundary.

Initial estimates have suggested that running sewer infrastructure in the area will cost between $2.5 and $2.8 million, with the cost likely to continue rising. The town will also have to undergo a wide range of environmental impact studies before the infrastructure will be laid underground. 

It could realistically be several years – and more than $3 million in town money – before earth is broken, and any water and sewer lines are laid. 

While Chapel Hill has had an existing water/sewer infrastructure plan in place – The Water and Sewer Management Planning Boundary Agreement (WASMPBA) – for more than two decades, another county initiative has been in place even longer, providing guidance on how all Orange County municipalities, including Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough, should approach local growth, and how water and sewer infrastructure should be appropriately utilized.“Since 1986, Orange County and its municipalities have utilized a Comprehensive Land Use planning to guide growth,” said B.J. Warshaw, a resident of Chapel Hill’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), in a November letter to the Chapel Hill Town Council. 

Warshaw wrote the letter to town leaders on behalf of The Southern Entryway Alliance (Chapel Hill Southern Entryway Alliance), an organization “dedicated to preserving the rural character of southern Chapel Hill along 15-501, Smith Level Road, and surrounding areas.”

According to Warshaw’s letter to the Town Council, the creation of the Water and Sewer Management and Planning Boundary Agreement (WASMPBA) was inspired when Carrboro began expanding out toward University Lake just before the turn of the century in 2000. 

Over the past two decades, the WASMPBA agreement has regulated development and infrastructure in southern Orange County, adjacent to University Lake and the Chatham County line. 

“One of the underlying purposes behind the Joint Planning Agreement that linked each of those separate comprehensive plans was to protect drinking water supply watersheds and create a rural buffer zone to prevent sprawl,” Warshaw explained in his letter to the council.“These joint planning agreements have worked to contain sprawl and protect our drinking water for over 40 years. Any revisions to those agreements need to be thoroughly understood by the elected officials who are being asked to vote on this modification and the residents most affected by this change.” 

Concerns addressed by residents in opposition to the proposed water and sewer extensions include the high cost of sewer services in the area, which they say will negate any ability for affordable housing to be constructed in that specific location. In their opinion, the inability of town leaders to mandate price points will nullify any attempt to keep local housing affordable.

Opponents also cite the unknown impacts of local drinking water supplies in Morgan Creek/Jordan Lake and University Lake. Also, it will be more than a decade before a transit line will be constructed in this particular corridor, making traffic more congested while waiting for a solution that is years off. 

Former Chapel Hill council member Julie McClintock spoke before Chapel Hill’s current leadership at the November 15 meeting, where the vote was held to approve the resolution calling for the water and sewer extension. McClintock called for the town to give more consideration to the land use work done by her colleagues in prior decades, which she says has helped preserve southern Orange County from the unintended consequences of rapid urban development seen in other local communities, such as Raleigh. 

“The 1986 Joint Land Use Plan has contained sprawl in Orange County for nearly 40 years. We don’t look like North Raleigh as a result,” McClintock said to the council. “And it has protected our water supply watersheds by encouraging development in the right places. But the proposal before you [at the November 15 session] would undo that commitment.” 

McClintock explained that during her time on the council – during which time the WASMPBA document was signed – the area of greatest concern was the University Lake Watershed.

It remains a serious consideration all these years later, as local residents wish to preserve drinking water quality and avoid urban sprawl in an area that has already experienced tremendous residential and commercial growth in the past quarter-century.

“This lake [University Lake] was the only water supply for southern Orange [County],” McClintock explained. “The tough negotiations came when Carrboro wanted higher densities around the lake. Public Health won the day, and Carrboro agreed to a compromise of lower densities to protect drinking water in return for an extension of Carrboro’s northern boundaries.”

“This plan has worked,” McClintock added. “In the 1990s, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough hammered out that WASMPBA agreement that set up a framework agreement for water and sewer extensions. This agreement has helped to keep the land use plan intact.” 

Residents like McClintock are concerned not only about the potential logistic problems of new residential development in a condensed area, but also about potential rate increases once the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) makes the necessary – and costly – infrastructure projects a reality in this particular part of Chapel Hill. 

“Changing a utility map first before making a plan is putting the cart before the horse,” McClintock explained. “If the council wants to make a change in land use, then develop a plan for what you want, and ask residents to comment and build consensus around it. Then modify the WASMPBA utility plan when you are done.”

“Changes in the utility agreement now without understanding what is going to happen as a result is unfair to the Chapel Hill community traveling that road, and especially to the estimated 400 affordable  homeowners who live south of Chapel Hill,” she continued. “The biggest fear I’ve heard expressed is that [Highway] 15-501 South will be lined with rows of Blue Hill apartments, bringing traffic and flooding and very high OWASA water bills. Because by the way, those fees, developer fees, don’t cover all the costs.”

Other residents, such as Terri Buckner, seem particularly concerned about the potential effects that widespread residential and commercial development along this 360-acre corridor to the immediate north of the Chatham County line will have on Chapel Hill’s water supply.

“There’s multiple reasons for you to take a more cautious approach, because whatever you do is going to have a direct impact on our local drinking water,” said Buckner to the council. “As a homeowner in an older neighborhood adjoining this land, I can tell you that managing the water volume resulting from climate change is becoming increasingly more expensive, and feels more and more futile.”  

Buckner indicated that her Chapel Hill neighborhood, which was built in the 1960s and 1970s and consists of around 220 mostly affordable homes, has lost three properties over the past 20 years to water damage from flooding along Price Creek. Several more are facing damage from erosion of creek bank sinkholes and many underground springs in the area.

“We all know that development is coming to this area. It just feels like what you’re trying to do is a giant step into uncharted territory,” Buckner stated to town leaders. “And the five of you [council members] who are returning to the dais in January will be the ones faced with its challenges. Transit is not there right now. There is not going to be the BRT (transit zone) for at least 10 years, probably much longer. And there is no Greenway plan yet. So you’ve got a lot of planning to do.”

While the Town of Chapel Hill appears determined to move forward with the water and sewer extensions at some point in the future, they will continue to meet resistance along the way by residents like Warshaw, McClintock, and Buckner, who are determined to see a more deliberate process undertaken before this area is so dramatically altered by new growth. 

“We are not asking that you stop considering development in our neighborhood[s],” Warshaw explained in his letter to the council, ”only that you slow down and undertake the due diligence of a comprehensive community outreach campaign, an environmental impact analysis, and a small area plan that ensures the more than 400 affordable housing units already existing in this area are not negatively impacted. We seek a win-win situation.”

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3 Comments on "Chapel Hill residents concerned about impacts of future water/sewer infrastructure extensions"

  1. I agree that this will be putting the cart before the horse, bringing water and sewer to a new area at the expense of existing OWASA customers and then opening up that area to developers to pitch the most profitable projects for them.
    It seems like elected government has handed over control of future planning to the whims of the market alone. We’ll put in the services and then let the bidding and rezoning begin. Not a very responsible or visionary approach that will prove detrimental to the Haw River as well as to the future affordability of housing south of Chapel Hill.

  2. What the people of CH don’t realize is potential development isn’t “years away.” It’s coming sooner than you think, and all your letters of concern and public opinions expressed will do nothing to stop it. Just look to Durham and rural OC to understand that something wicked your way comes. Our environment is under attack, and we the people need to defend her.

  3. Deborah Fulghieri | December 15, 2023 at 11:33 am | Reply

    Ms McClintock and Ms Buckner are not mere residents as the author described them; they are, respectively, a former council member who negotiated and planned for this area, and a (former?) member of the Orange Water And Sewer (OWASA) board who is better-informed on drinking water conservation than council.

    The author also left downstream flooding along Morgan Creek (where the sewage treatment plant is located) out of the article. When the plant floods, raw sewage goes into Jordan Lake, a future drinking water supply for Chapel Hill. OWASA pays a fine each time that happens.

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