Elected Officials Approve MOU to Redevelop Police Station Site Plagued by Coal Ash 

GOVERNMENT

By James Kiefer 

Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council approved a memorandum of understanding regarding the development of a land parcel that houses a police headquarters and contains coal ash. The decision is non-binding and does not sidestep any Town procedures for development agreements, but the council continues to hear concerns for how the land will be used. 

The MOU concerns a 10-acre lot at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd which was used as a coal ash fill site by UNC in the 1960s. The area was later acquired by the Town, which built a police headquarters on the site unaware that coal ash was present. In 2013, the Town government learned of the coal ash contamination after commissioning an engineering report in preparation for selling the land.

The decision allows Town manager Maurice Jones to explore a remediation solution with Belmont-Sayre, a developer with previous experience dealing with brownfield sites. Town Economic Development Specialist Laura Selmer reminded the council that the land will still be under the NC brownfields program. That program adds some of the following limitations: deed restriction on permitted land use, a “no soil disturbance” clause — barring an emergency — unless permission is granted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and the land will be subject to annual inspections and reports regarding soil quality.

In a council work session earlier this month, lawyer Keith Johnson recommended a cap-and-contain approach to deal with the coal ash present on the site and estimated the cost of this method at around $5 million. 

While some coal ash would be transported away from the site, Johnson’s recommendation calls for adding several feet of clean soil to the area and adding impervious surfaces, building a retaining wall and restricting the use of groundwater on-site. He added that removing the coal ash in its entirety is not tenable due to cost, safety concerns for workers and the lack of a viable location within a reasonable distance to house the contaminant. 

One site proposal calls for a mixed-use development including a municipal service center with over 200 multifamily units. Selmer also touched on why the area is a candidate for development. 

“It is an excellent site with many opportunities being proximal to the trail, the future BRT (bus rapid transit) corridor [and] is an excellent opportunity for transit-oriented development,” she said. 

Nicholas Torrey, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and director of Friends of Bolin Creek, said during public comment that it seems like removing the risk of coal ash exposure on this site is not possible, and that building residential dwellings would pose the highest possible risk. 

“There’s a tension here between what the developer and you all are saying is the intent… [namely] to eliminate all exposure by capping everything that’s not built upon,” he said. “There’s a tension between that and what DEQ is going to tell you is allowed, which is a risk-based approach where you just need to get the site below an acceptable risk threshold.”    

He urged the council to put in writing that it plans to go beyond DEQ requirements should it choose to build on the site. Former council candidate Robert Beasley recalled that during his campaign he didn’t meet anyone in favor of developing the site for residential use. 

“You can’t remove the risk through mitigation,” he said, adding that it would likely be worth the investment of removing the coal ash regardless of cost. 

Mayor Pam Hemminger then took the opportunity to make some clarifying comments. 

“I want to make sure that we’re sticking to some of the facts,” she said. “One of the facts is council did not want to make a decision based on money on this site. We wanted to do it based on science and environmental issues. It’s been studied many different ways, but removing the coal ash is a lot more than $10 million and has a lot more potential to put coal ash in the air.”

She added the Town regularly tests containment levels around the area and has not found anything rising to a level of concern per DEQ guidelines. 

“We couldn’t have dug it up years ago. We still have a police station there and we have to have somewhere for it to be,” she said. 

Council member Karen Stegman stated that wherever the coal ash goes, it will still be a hazard for that community, so figuring out how to make it safe while in Chapel Hill is the responsible decision. 

Council member Adam Searing said that residential use is still a roadblock for him. 

“If we remove the language for this MOU that says we have a strong preference for family housing on this site, then I would be in favor of it,” he said. 

“As a town, we have no good choices here, we just have less bad ones…but building family housing, that’s really the worst of all of our bad, bad choices.”

He finished by saying that he was fine with office space and retail on the site. Councilperson Camille Berry reiterated that a decision on land use isn’t being made tonight, but that the safety of Town staff should be a priority. 

“It gives me great pause to hear, ‘It’s OK to put our staff there, but I wouldn’t want people to live there,’” she said.

The final vote was 8-1; Searing cast the sole dissenting vote. 

Other business handled during the meeting included:

  • The council opened two legislative hearings: one for potential development at 751 Trinity Court and another at 110 Jay Street;
  • The council also received an update regarding the Orange County Crisis Diversion Facility.
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