Town Council approves water and sewer proposal for southern Chapel Hill


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.

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2 Comments on "Town Council approves water and sewer proposal for southern Chapel Hill"

  1. Julie McClintock | November 16, 2023 at 7:18 pm | Reply

    Here are some of the concerns voiced that did not come through in this article.
    1. The BRT transit zone is at least a decade away from reaching Southern Village, let alone extending the additional 1.5 miles to the Chatham County line. Any changes made now will result in a larger community NOT on a transit line.
    2. The cost of providing sewer service will be significant and will increase the cost of the proposed affordable housing project. Affordable housing on town-owned land cannot be built until a developer is identified who is willing to pay the cost of laying the sewer line and carrying that cost until market rate development is brought online. Estimates for running the sewer line have ranged widely from $2.5-$8M.
    3. The Town cannot mandate price points for new housing. Once urban services (sewer) become available, the likely outcome is even more luxury housing units that will be needed to pay off the cost of the water and sewer infrastructure.
    4. Impact on drinking water quality is unknown. This entire area lies within the Morgan Creek/Jordan Lake water supply watershed and butts up against (and thus impacts) the University Lake water supply watershed. Until a thorough environmental impact assessment can be conducted, there is no way of determining how the soils in this low-lying, flood prone area can handle additional impervious surfaces and loss of natural drainage. Flooding is already a problem for existing homeowners in this area.
    5. The Complete Community framework hasn’t been tested. The Town’s consultant advocated for the two sites you selected to test the theory and build trust in the community. Why make this change now when the theory is still unproven and furthers the fragmentation that the framework is intended to eliminate?
    6. Current affordable housing sites aren’t being utilized. The town has affordable housing space at the Greene Tract and at Legion Road. Development has not occurred on either site, and a second community outreach effort is being planned for the Greene Tract. Why should we believe that affordable housing in our section of the community will be any different? Why isn’t community outreach important in our area?
    7. A simple alternative to any drinking water quality problems already exists. We respect your desire to ensure that all residents in this area have clean, healthy drinking water, but that can be achieved via the county Health Department and does not require a modification of the water and sewer agreement.
    8. Smith Level Road lies within University Lake critical watershed. The 2010 Smith Level Road Task Force was composed of representatives from both towns, the school district, NCDOT, and a residents from both Chatham and Orange County. At that time, NC DOT specifically stated that Smith Level Road could not be widened due to its location within the University Lake critical watershed. Since that time, the level of traffic on Smith Level has multiplied many times over, in part due to the inadequacy of the James Taylor bridge and associated traffic delays heading into UNC Hospitals. Any significant construction on 15-501 is going to further impact Smith Level Road and increase the nutrient load at University Lake. That nutrient load will directly threaten the quality of our local drinking water and increase the cost to OWASA for treating that water.
    9. Disenfranchised residents. We are also concerned that you are attempting to impose this change upon those of us living in the ETJ, where residents are not represented on the Town Council. The recent community meetings were scheduled with less than 2 weeks’ notice and not advertised to all residents living in the Chapel Hill ETJ, let alone those in the Carrboro ETJ who will be equally impacted. In 2018, when this issue was raised and the community was properly notified, the vast majority of speakers opposed the change. We won’t know what those community members would say today in the absence of a robust engagement process.

  2. Against this “ under the table” extension of cheap suburban or apartment mid rise sprawl.

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