How Green the Greene Tract?

Residents near this swath of open space in Chapel Hill wonder if it will become a park or a dump

| June 19, 2002
Greene Tract neighbor Gertrude nunn: "It is gorgeous  
    out there ... grown up with trees. It's just level and  
    beautiful."
Greene Tract neighbor Gertrude nunn: "It is gorgeous out there ... grown up with trees. It's just level and beautiful."
- Matt Robinson
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Recent proposals to shape the future of a 169-acre plot of land north of Chapel Hill sound like an environmentalist's dream. But if neighbors' fears are realized, it could turn into just another in a long list of their garbage-related nightmares.

The land, known as the Greene Tract, was bought jointly by local municipalities in 1984 ostensibly to provide additional space for the burial of the county's trash. Although this now seems unlikely, residents of the nearby Rogers Road community believe the city and county could still use the land for processing solid waste.

Covered in second growth pine forest and located within Chapel Hill's rural buffer zone, the property is considered by environmentalists to be a priceless ecological jewel. The land encompasses three headwater streams--Bolin, Booker and Old Field Creeks--and preservationists advocate for leaving the creeks undisturbed.

"It's the opposite of a brownfield," says Bill Strom, Chapel Hill Council member. "My first wish would be to keep [the Greene Tract] 100 percent open space."

Strom, one of two Chapel Hill representatives on an ad hoc committee charged with envisioning the tract's future, points out that the property is one of the last large, undisturbed areas in the county. This committee, the Greene Tract Work Group, calls for the preservation of significant amounts of the land. Almost 80 acres are slated for open space with hiking trails under the Work Group's "straw proposal" for the property. Other uses under discussion include active recreation, such as parks or soccer fields, and affordable housing on the westernmost edge.

However, neighbors of the property are skeptical of the green talk about the Greene Tract. As they see it, the land gives Orange County the space it needs for future solid waste planning, and they view the intentions of local government in light of a generation of promises made and broken by landfill authorities.

This mistrust was born decades ago, when the first solid waste landfill was located north of Eubanks Road in 1972. When the initial excavation took place, neighbors were promised by then Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee that there would be no more such development in their area. They were promised that the landfill would be their burden only for 25 years or so, then it would be closed forever.

But when the first landfill north of Eubanks topped out in the mid-'90s, a second one was opened on the south side, literally in the backyards of residents living in the largely African-American community along Rogers Road. Community resident Robert Campbell recalls the agreement from three decades ago. "Once [the first] landfill met capacity," he recalls, "it wasn't meant to cross over Eubanks Road. [Chapel Hill] bought property to continue it on the south side."

Neighbors felt betrayed, and believed their community was unfairly targeted to be the region's permanent garbage dump.

This belief was reinforced when the Greene Tract and another larger plot of land in Duke Forest north of Eubanks Road were targeted for potential future landfills. The Greene Tract was eventually removed from the site selection process--it was too small, but also was too close to Horace Williams Airport's flight paths, which would be crowded by trash-scavenging birds drawn to landfill carrion. The Greene Tract was spared from development as a burial site.

However, in 1998 when the Board of Commissioners raised the idea of using the tract's acreage for other solid waste activities such as recycling or garbage processing, neighbors felt they had had enough. They took their concerns to the Chapel Hill Town Hall, putting pressure on elected officials and decrying what they saw as environmental racism. Citing factors such as contaminated well water, horrible-smelling air, and an abundance of buzzards and rats feeding off the garbage and invading their neighborhood, the neighbors blamed the current landfill for destroying the quality of life in their rural community, and vigorously opposed any mention of expanded solid waste activity of any kind.

The public organizing effort put the brakes on the Greene Tract discussion. Hamstrung by public outcry and tiring of the distasteful topic, county commissioners declared in early 2001 that there would be no more dumping of mixed solid waste in Orange County, and began to frame the future of the Greene Tract as one with parks and homes, not garbage.

But while the end of one aspect of trash dumping has eased neighbor's fears, a more recent development regarding other waste disposal only reinforces their cynicism.

For even as politicians and neighbors focus on the Greene Tract's future, another landfill burial site is already being prepared.

The current construction and demolition landfill for the burial of building debris such as lumber and concrete will fill up in December. Early last year, the county commissioners approved a new site for construction and demolition waste (called "C and D") adjacent to the older landfill property, on the north side of Eubanks. It is planned to begin operation next year.

Residents of the Rogers Road community report that they were unaware of this plan, and Greene Tract neighbor Gertrude Nunn reacts to the news with dismay. "They weren't supposed to put anything else in here," she says. Robert Campbell didn't know that the plans were underway, but says he is not surprised. "It fits in with the way they've been doing things," he notes, observing that many in the area suspected that it was just a matter of time before a new burial site was opened for construction trash. Campbell and others felt that the C and D landfill "was going to go out here somewhere, [it was] just a matter of them figuring out where they're going to put it."

Across the street, the mixed solid waste landfill south of Eubanks, where noxious household and commercial garbage is interred, is projected to top out around 2009. With the possibility of further trash burial all but closed, the county is examining other options. Blair Pollock, recycling director for the county, predicts that Orange will follow the lead of Durham County and the city of Cary, which both ship trash to a massive landfill in Virginia.

But even if the waste is sent out of state, the county will still need to provide an area for processing and preparing the trash for the long haul north. Pollock says that "the notion is there will be a transfer station" to process the garbage for interstate transport.

Although the final site has yet to be approved, neighbors fear that the transfer facility could be put on the Greene Tract. In following the discussions of the Work Group, resident Robert Campbell has noted that the possibility of putting more garbage-related activity on the land remains open. He observes, "They haven't ruled out use of it as a waste-handling site."

"It's not the case at all," says Commissioner Brown, another member of the Work Group. "There is no chance" that a solid waste facility will end up on the Greene Tract, she says.

Recent declarations back up her claim. In an Orange County solid waste work session last month, the Greene Tract was excluded as a possible site for any further waste activity. Current planning calls for a transfer station to be placed on the older landfill property, north of Eubanks Road. "There's an area large enough for it" on the property, says Gayle Wilson, Orange County Regional Landfill Director, although final approval has not been granted by the County Commissioners.

Brown envisions a massive area of parks and protected natural space on the Greene Tract. She predicts that, once the final development decisions are implemented, the Rogers Road area will become one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the region.

The intentions are good, neighbors admit. But their experience has taught them that political intentions and unwritten promises aren't worth much when stacked up against the imperatives of garbage disposal. Unless the land is covered by permanent restrictions, its future will rely on flimsy zoning ordinances, easily changeable by future politicians regardless of prior promises. To resist this, Chapel Hill Councilman Strom suggests protecting the land with a conservation easement. Such an easement offers a legally permanent environmental safeguard that restricts development on designated areas.

"Neighbors should support the use of a conservation easement," Strom says.

Brown similarly envisions permanent protection for the land. The commissioner is resolute on fighting for a conservation easement to protect the acreage against the possible change of heart of future politicians.

Jimmy Rogers, grandson of Sam Rogers, for whom the road is named, has seen local politicians change their minds before. But this time, many elected officials, especially those on the Work Group, agree with neighbors on one thing concerning the Greene Tract. Hoping for a return of some semblance of the community's natural peace that it had prior to 1973, Rogers suggests to "leave it preserved for wildlife or a community park."

No matter how the Greene Tract debate ends, Eubanks Road will remain the garbage depot of Orange County well into the future. Even if solid waste activity remains on current landfill property, municipal garbage trucks will likely haul tons of trash along Eubanks Road to a transfer station where it will be processed for burial elsewhere. And the C and D landfill will probably remain operational for many years to come.

"The damage has been done," says Gertrude Nunn, weary after dealing with local government and garbage for three decades. She knows that the area around her lifelong home will never be as it was in her younger days. That's one of the reasons she supports preservation initiatives for the Green Tract property. "I've always thought [preservation] would be good," she says. "It is gorgeous out there ... grown up with trees. It's just level and beautiful."

But whether or not she believes that it will be preserved rather than used to house more solid waste activity, Nunn remains guarded, saying only, "We'll wait on that." EndBlock

Business as usual on the northern edge of Chapel Hill
Business as usual on the northern edge of Chapel Hill
- Matt Robinson

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