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Vanishing Point?

Quiet efforts are underway to preserve a precious natural resource that runs through a Durham neighborhood

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Some days, Gerald Bowen feels as though his neighborhood in western Durham is under siege.

His comfortable home on wooded Shoccoree Drive above a swath of Interstate 85 is the picture of privacy and calm. But about once a month, a real estate company flyer will appear on Bowen's doorstep, reminding him that the happy isolation he's enjoyed for the past 35 years could soon be over.

Development pressures are heating up along nearby Cole Mill Road and U.S. 70, where it seems lots are being cleared of trees almost every week for new homes and businesses. "Every time you turn around, they're cutting a new patch out," says the retired IBM manager.

Signs of change are also visible in Lake Swannanoa, a neighborhood fish pond located just a few hundred yards from the end of Bowen's driveway. After almost every rain, plumes of yellow silt are visible on the surface--runoff, he says, from new construction sites along the interstate corridor to Orange County.

It's not just the lake Bowen's worried about. There's a larger water issue at stake: Flowing along the hillside, into Swannanoa and down the slopes of his neighborhood, are small streams and tributaries that make up the headwaters of Ellerbee Creek. The creek, which is part of a watershed covering 42,924 acres that empties into the Neuse River, is currently on a list of the state's most polluted streams. Among the main sources of contamination, city and county water experts say, is runoff from newly built-up areas such as those now encroaching on Shoccoree Drive.

Bowen, a longtime member of the Eno River Association, wants to find a way to protect the Ellerbee Creek headwaters area and prevent added runoff and silt from clogging the waterway in other parts of town.

"You can spend all the time you want to, doing things downstream," he says in the relaxed cadence of a true city native. "But if people don't take a look at what's going on up here, all that won't add up to much."

Bowen has shared his concerns with city and county officials and makes frequent calls to the county Engineering Department's Sedimentation and Erosion Control division, which patrols problems in local creeks. In recent months, he's also been talking with leaders of the Ellerbee Creek Watershed Association about the possibility of convincing some of his neighbors to donate or sell land along the creek for conservation.

Steve Hiltner, the association's president, is reluctant to talk about the group's activities in the creek headwaters area because he fears publicity may tip off developers. But the 2-year-old nonprofit already has an impressive track record of similar projects in other parts of town. Last year, the group was awarded a $32,000 county matching grant for purchase of a 6-acre creek reserve just downstream from Indian Trail Park. A large part of the association's match was in the form of property donated by residents of the surrounding Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood.

Bowen also has a track record. As a member of the Eno River Association, he helped negotiate with riverfront property owners for land donations for Eno River State Park and West Point on the Eno. Closer to home, he and his neighbors pushed the state Department of Transportation to launch $22,500 worth of cleanup efforts in Lake Swannanoa three years ago. The homeowners blamed DOT's Cole Mill Road interchange project for a flow of several tons of sediment that temporarily turned the pond into a muddy pit.

In some parts of Bowen's neighborhood, the headwaters of Ellerbee Creek are little more than a barely visible trickle through the woods. In others, they rush full-speed down steep slopes, creating pools and falls over moss-covered rocks.

The waterway has always been part of the community's secluded charm. But with burgeoning growth along its borders, some residents worry that some of the larger tracts of undeveloped land over which the creek waters flow will draw the attention of developers searching for valuable upland sites.

"I feel like we're not in control of what's happening," says Madison Yarbrough, who's lived on Shoccoree for the past 45 years. "We hear all kinds of rumors and we see surveyors sometimes. But nothing's happened yet."

Bowen also worries that property tax re-evaluations now underway in Durham will make it harder for some elderly residents to remain in the neighborhood or to consider donating portions of their land for conservation.

"People are going to be paying higher taxes on these trees," he says. "I've got good neighbors. We've all been living up here together for 40 years. But a lot of them can't afford to just give [land] away."

Competing with developers can cost big bucks. The good news, says Kevin Brice, associate director of the Triangle Land Conservancy, is that there are new resources available to groups that want to buy or donate land for green space. Among them are federal, state and local government matching grants for preservation projects, and a more generous state income tax credit for property owners who donate land for public use. The cap on the credit has risen from $5,000 in 1983 when it began, to $250,000 for individual North Carolina taxpayers.

As an example of how such resources can be used for conservation, Brice cites the example of the newly created Little River natural park that spans parts of Durham and Orange Counties. The Land Conservancy and the Eno River Association agreed to raise $170,000 of the $1 million needed to buy the 391-acre park site. The two counties and state and federal agencies came up with the rest.

"What organizations can do now that they couldn't do five or 10 years ago is leverage dollars," Brice says. "If you can show a commitment in sweat equity or volunteer labor time or actual cash, there are matches out there that simply didn't exist not too long ago."

Others say that as the pace of growth has accelerated in Durham, public sentiment has tilted more strongly in favor of conservation.

"People are much more aware of the environment than they were 20 years ago," notes Wayne Cash, a former president of the Eno River Association who chairs the Durham Farmland Preservation Board. "It's amazing to me to see the reservoir of love for the land that exists in our population."

For Shoccoree Drive residents, the key question is whether the right resources can be found in time to preserve the creek headwaters area.

"I know from working with the Eno River Association that it takes a long time to really get these things going," Bowen says. "Things are precarious out here. But it looks like the city and county would rather spend their money on [creek projects] downtown than look at what's going on at our end of Durham." [One such project that's still on the drawing board is stream restoration for a section of Ellerbee Creek that runs through the proposed Durham Central Park. That part of the creek drains four acres of streets and parking lots downtown.]

"He's right," says County Commissioner Becky Heron, who introduced Bowen to the Ellerbee Creek Watershed Association leaders some months ago. "We do need to be aware of what's going on up there. So far, the only thing that's kept people out of that area is that it hasn't been for sale."

For now, Bowen says he'll continue working with the watershed association, talking to his neighbors and keeping his fingers crossed that the area stays out of the sights of developers.

"The main thing is, this area is worth protecting," he says. "And if it's not, well, it's not for me that it would really matter. It's for the younger folks." EndBlock

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