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
Our political debate around our public parks, public trails and public land in Chapel Hill is mired in how the world existed two years ago – not how it exists today. And today is very different from early 2019. Back then, we were blissfully unaware of the pandemic that was coming to upend all of our lives. Back then, we knew that climate change was coming but we hoped it meant we would no longer enjoy a few nice snowfalls each Chapel Hill winter, at least for a while. But times have changed and we need a new plan for our public forests and parks.
The past two years have taught us some lessons. First is the importance of our public parks, forests, greenways, streams and trails. I’ve been in the outdoors all my life as a hiker, mountain biker, dog walker and trail builder. I have never seen as many people in our public forests and parks as I have in the past two years. So many people have told me how important the woods and open spaces were to them as a place of escape and solace during a horrifying global pandemic. We all felt so lucky to live in Chapel Hill where these resources are a part of our landscape. In addition, climate change has meant longer and hotter summers the last two years and more intense rainstorms and flooding. The notion we can just build on every square inch of town without increasing stormwater runoff is outdated. And we know communities that are near forests and protected spaces are cooler and more appealing as our world warms.
We’ve got to start prioritizing our natural environment in a way we haven’t before. We must put a new emphasis on preserving our public forests, public parks and public open spaces. Not only are these resources one of the main reasons people want to live here but they are critical to our health and well-being. A recent review of years of research by the American Academy of Pediatrics found significant benefits to children of having access to our woods, forests and streams, including increased physical activity, reduced obesity, decreased stress and better mental health. We should ensure that these benefits are equitably distributed among our children – those from our lower-income communities should have the same access to nature as do children from higher-income families.
Our town unfortunately does a poor job of providing equitable access to our protected forests and open spaces. The largest protected forests in town – Pritchard Park, Cedar Falls, Morgan Creek/Merritt’s Pasture and Southern Community Park – are largely surrounded by our higher-income neighborhoods. The two largest remaining town-owned forests and public open spaces – Greene Forest and Legion Park – are each located near houses, duplexes and apartments occupied by low-income households. Yet it is in the Greene Forest and Legion Park that the town is planning to sell 80+ acres of public land to private developers for commercial development, market rate houses, and a small percentage for affordable housing. Can you imagine the outcry and swift retreat if the town proposed to sell to developers “just 50-80 acres or so” of Cedar Falls Park or Merritt’s Pasture for market rate development and commercial businesses?
We need to prioritize our natural resources for everyone, regardless of their income, not sell them off to the highest bidder. To that end, as a Council member, I will:
1. Respect years of planning by the communities surrounding the Greene Forest and Legion Park by preserving 80% of the 160-acre Greene Forest in its natural state while reserving 20% for true affordable housing and guaranteeing that we preserve the entirety of Legion Park as public space for all. We also need to preserve our other public lands and trails including those along Booker, Bolin and Morgan creeks.
2. Develop a connected, low-impact, low-cost, volunteer-driven trail system linking and winding through our public forests and public parks for hikers, dog walkers, our kids’ mountain bike teams and everyone who enjoys nature.
3. Explore partnerships to take advantage of the hundreds of acres of relatively unknown public game land directly next to town that can help provide even more trails, beautiful vistas and an off-road route to Durham’s Tobacco Trail greenway.
Our world has changed. It’s time to stop shortchanging our parks and public lands. Let’s rise to the challenge of preserving our forests and wild open spaces – the very essence of what makes Chapel Hill so special. I ask for your vote on Nov. 2 and together, we’ll get it done.
I’ve been writing about these issues for a while! You can read a more comprehensive version of my plan for our parks and public forests here.
Adam Searing is a candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council.