Note: The Local Reporter has invited all candidates for local office in the upcoming Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district elections to submit up to two guest columns.
By Adam Searing
Every time you look around Chapel Hill it seems some new development is going up. For example, the Town House apartments off Hillsborough Road where my family lived in the early 1970s are now gone, replaced by a “luxury student living complex.” Growing up in Chapel Hill, I’ve seen enormous change over the last half-century but feel lucky we still have a community that values the outdoors. Our woods, trails, creeks and open space are still places to walk, run, bike and enjoy. And we’ve all learned how especially important these spaces are during this awful pandemic.
Unfortunately, the very popularity of our town is putting enormous development pressure on our community. Landowners are proposing multiple new projects and the pace of change has accelerated. Chapel Hill has always been a great place to live, and it’s only getting more popular. We need to carefully manage this growth so as not to lose those aspects that make our town so special while accommodating the future. There’s one element of this management that is critically important – what we are going to do with our public forests and public open spaces. This is an essential part of what makes Chapel Hill so special and we need to preserve them for our current residents, future generations and our economic health. And that’s why I’m running for Chapel Hill Town Council.
What really moved me to jump into the Council race is the immediate threat to the public Greene Tract Forest, 160 acres of beautiful oaks, streams, ravines and blessed quiet right in the north of town, surrounded by multiple neighborhoods. Unknown to most residents, 8 miles of volunteer-created-and-maintained trails wind through the Forest complete with bridges and free maps. The Phillips Middle School mountain bike team I coach and many other school bike teams in our town’s fastest growing kid’s sport use this area all the time. Hikers and runners can also be seen sharing the trails as the community group I helped start to publicize and save the Forest – www.greenetractforest.org – has grown increasingly popular.
Unfortunately, this community-owned Forest is threatened with development. Apparently not satisfied with the current blistering pace of construction on private land around town, Orange County and Chapel Hill are moving forward with a plan to run roads, roundabouts and new buildings through the public Forest. They want to sell off a portion to developers and retain a “preserved area” that consists of narrow strips of trees and stormwater retention ponds around the headwaters of Bolin and Booker Creeks. Years of community planning for the Forest has always set aside at least 80% of the area for preservation while retaining 20% for affordable housing, a goal I completely endorse. Our conversation should be about how to create the largest and greatest park in our town from that 80% of the forest – not about how much we can develop. As Orange County Commissioner Chair and well-known local public servant Moses Carey, Jr, wrote to the Mayor of Chapel Hill over 20 years ago about the Forest:
“Based on the Triangle Land Conservancy inventory and the Wildlife Corridor Study, and in concurrence with the Town of Chapel Hill’s resolution on parkland preservation for the Greene tract, the total tract should be preserved as open space and protected to the greatest extent possible.”
We can honor Commissioner Carey’s vision and meet other critical town goals like affordable housing as well. A short walking trail leads from the Forest to 2200 Homestead Road, a 13-acre town-owned property. There, an innovative collaboration between the town and housing advocates will produce over 115 affordable housing units – a mix of townhomes, duplexes and multi-family. Construction will start shortly. And Chapel Hill is already moving forward on another affordable housing project of approximately 50 more units to be built on vacant land off Jay Street near existing greenway trails and Umstead Park.
Preserving our public spaces honors the priority our town puts on public forests, public open space and community-driven recreation for everyone. Our most beautiful public spaces deserve preservation, not bulldozers and chain saws. Join me on a campaign hike and come see the beauty in our own backyard! Learn more at www.adam4chapelhill.com
Adam Searing is a candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council.