By Adam Powell
On the evening of Wednesday, November 15, at the Town of Chapel Hill’s Council meeting, the elected board approved by an 8-1 vote a proposal to expand the town’s water and sewer services boundary in the southern part of Chapel Hill to the Chatham County line, running along the U.S. Highway 15-501 corridor.
The amendment to the town’s boundary agreement, also known as WASMPBA (Water and Sewer Management Planning and Boundary Agreement), will include the towns of Carrboro and Hillsborough, as well as Orange County and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA).
Following an extended public comment session and a discussion among council members, the board approved the proposal, with only board member Adam Searing voting against it.
The approval is likely to ignite significant development in southern Chapel Hill along the Highway 15-501 corridor heading towards Chatham County in the coming years.
The Council initially received a request to modify the WASMPBA boundaries in June, followed by a discussion of the proposed expansion at a September 20 work session and subsequent public information sessions held on September 25 (virtual) and September 28 (in-person).
Town leaders and planners are optimistic that the proposed water and sewer expansion will increase housing opportunities throughout southern Chapel Hill. However, as part of the WASMPBA agreement, the town is not proposing to expand the boundary into the Rural Buffer, which was a sticking point for members of the Town Council.
“I think the rural buffer is a hugely important issue in our community,” said council member Amy Ryan. “So I’m glad to hear all of the support for it and the strong support for it. When I first heard about this proposal (I was thinking) if it’s going to impact the buffer, I may not be in support. I was very encouraged to hear that the buffer is still intact. This is not going to impact that.”
“Let’s be clear – there is fear about what passing this could bring,” said fellow board member Camille Berry, who motioned to approve the proposal. “What this could mean. What are we going to unleash? Is it a Pandora’s box? That’s what I hear a lot. That’s what I’ve heard a lot since this was proposed in June before we went into [summer] recess.”
“I’d rather that we pass this to address some of these things that we can in the immediate, and we take it step by step to address what’s next. What else do we want? Please believe me when I say that I hear [local residents] about the fear. I don’t want to dismiss it. But some of those fears are more immediate,” Berry continued.
Numerous community members came to speak both for and against the proposal, with many residents understanding the need for more water and sewer connectivity in the southern part of town, and others worried about the unintended consequences, along with the fact that only residents who lived within 1,000 feet of the proposed water and sewer lines were directly notified by Chapel Hill officials about the proposal.
“I’m in support of the complete communities framework that you’ve all worked so hard on,” said resident B.J. Warshaw. “But this push to amend WASMPBA has moved way too fast. A vote to amend WASMPBA with insufficient due diligence, no small area plan and no environmental study. The public was only given around two weeks notice for the public information sessions in September, and you only alerted people in the proposed WASMPBA area – not surrounding neighborhoods that would also be impacted.”
‘We need to answer the needs of these poor people (in southern Chapel Hill), who through public health action can tap into the water source without being used as pawns for development,” added fellow resident Claudia Fernandez. “It always seems that we pit the moral issues of housing versus environment, and this is a losing fight for all of us to try to pit these two public goods against one another. My primary concern is around climate issues. We say that we are a climate-concerned community. But I don’t see how expanding the sprawl and creating more urban sprawl helps us be a climate-concerned community.”
One resident in favor of the proposal – President and CEO of The Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro Aaron Nelson – spoke about how additional water capacity in southern Chapel Hill will improve fire infrastructure, while adding that regulation of future development in the area will still be dependent on the various municipalities and Orange County.
“Fire service is an issue,” Nelson explained. “Those trucks carry about 1,000 gallons [of water] on them. The hose puts out 1,000 gallons a minute, so that truck is done (quickly). I’m glad to know that there are some hydrants, but extending that further I think is important.
“If developmental approval goes to Orange County, then Carrboro, then Hillsborough, then OWASA,” Nelson continued. “And if all of those people agreed, then still nothing happens. Because zoning is within your control [in Chapel Hill]. And nothing is allowed to happen there until you change the zoning And those will involve all sorts of public hearings as well. But we have to make it possible (for extra water capacity). And we hope that you’ll support this extension.”
Prior to approving the measure, council members insisted that not only have they been preparing for such growth along the southern corridor of Chapel Hill, but they reiterated Nelson’s assertion that developers will still have to come before them to approve various projects.
“I heard from several people saying development will happen here. I think you are right. It will,” said Ryan. “And I think it’s Council’s intent that we want to shape it and make it happen in the right way. As you heard from several speakers, change can’t happen here without direct council action. Somebody cannot buy a piece of land and walk over and start building an apartment building on it. They have to come to council. And I think this council has been very clear in its intent to move forward.”
“When this was first proposed, and the reason was because we knew what was going to happen there,” said mayor-elect Jess Anderson, who defeated fellow council member Adam Searing in a head-to-head showdown last week. “There were landowners coming [to the council] and saying that they were going to build McMansions if we didn’t give a different option (for water and sewer). And so I much prefer that middle income missing middle typology to McMansions. That’s the choice we’re making. It’s not it’s not a zero-sum game. We either choose one or the other. And I think we’ve been very clear as part of our housing goals that we want those quad(plexe)s, duplexes, triplexes, cottage courts. That’s exactly what we’re looking for here.