How Chatham is joining forces to combat environmental issues

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By Molly Weisner and Casey Mann

The environment is on Chatham County’s mind.

With the months-long saga of Pittsboro’s tainted drinking water still unfolding, attention by county officials and local groups to environmental health is heightened.

Various county leaders, from planning and development to transportation, are collaborating on the issue of environmental protection and climate change, which has been in discussion for several years now.

The creation of the county’s Climate Change Advisory Committee in 2015 has been one major step toward solving Chatham’s biggest environmental challenges, of which several county commissioners have said vehicle emissions is one.

Commute times contribute emissions

Commute times in Chatham County average almost 30 minutes, and average car ownership per household is two vehicles. The heavy majority of commuters also drive alone as opposed to carpooling or using Chatham Transit. 

Chatham Transit is not a county service, so as a local, non-profit organization, it doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the county, which is looking to bolster public transportation. And it has a very limited schedule and route structure.

County Commissioner Karen Howard said the goal of moving toward greener commuter options like public transportation routes is challenged because Chatham County is so vast.

“Chatham County has challenges around that because we are a commuter community, people drive out from Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and it’s going to be a little while before we can turn that around,” Howard said.

Commissioner Diana Hales agreed, saying options are limited for solutions such as electric buses until the county gets electric vehicle charging stations and regular transit routes.

“We need to be thinking about the fact that our greatest contribution to climate is cars,” Howard said.

But tied to the issue of transportation and reducing vehicle dependency is boosting walkability.

Balancing development and green space

Mixed-use developments, like the 7,000-acre Chatham Park, centralize “work, play, live” attractions to reduce sprawl and be sidewalk friendly. Yet the development, while moving ahead with only a few hurdles to clear, doesn’t sit well with all Chathamites – some of whom are concerned about its impact on the environment and natural beauty of the area where it spans.

Jack Meadows, director of Planning and Community Development in Siler City, said his department is wary of promoting walkability and accommodating zero-car households.

“I think we’re all heavily dependent on the vehicle,” Meadows said. “It’s our go-to. But there’s not enough in place to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Meadows said his department is actively pursuing funding to continue extending sidewalk in downtown Siler City, as well as along U.S. 64. Meadows said sidewalks are seeing a renewed focus since the automobile boom after World War II raced to build highways and roads instead of completing sidewalk projects.

Again, Meadows emphasized locating high-density residential areas near commercial corridors to promote walkability. In that way, towns build from within instead of out. But that kind of town planning doesn’t just hope to reduce vehicle reliance; it also works to preserve green space, which is one recurring qualm against multi-use developments.

Some, like Amanda Robertson, CEO of The Farthest Pixel and founding member of the N.C. Climate Solutions Coalition, are concerned that more development, especially as Chatham County continues to grow, threatens the natural environment.

Agricultural and agribusiness make up 33 percent of Chatham County’s total income, so as cities grow, residents fear they encroach on undeveloped land.

But there are some rules in place to mitigate development pressure and incentivize preservation of green space.

Meadows explained that for any development of 13 or more dwellings, a developer is required to set aside 5 percent of the lot for greenspace.

“In Siler City, there’s one thing we do like, and that is alternatives and options,” Meadows said. “So, if the developer doesn’t want to pursue the 5 percent open space, he can do a fee in lieu for half of that space.”

Meadows also said that a development of 13 or more dwellings must set aside space for active recreational facilities, like miniparks or basketball courts. If a developer wants to opt out with a fee, that money is held to develop and rehabilitate public recreational spaces.

That’s one way of incentivizing protecting green space even as Chatham continues to grow. Hales notes that she would like to see an economic incentive for conservation subdivisions in the county’s Unified Development Ordinance it is currently working on updating.

A conservation subdivision, one which preserved 40 percent of its land as undeveloped, could earn a density bonus for the remaining land. The county’s current zoning puts a limit on the number of homes that could be built per acre. A density bonus would allow a builder to add more homes.

“As development happens, the pressure of green space becomes more and more,” Howard said. “You can’t un-develop. You have to ensure that protection upfront.”

Commissioner Hales said that although the Climate Change Advisory Committee wants to see every tree standing, timber is considered a crop and it has to be harvested, even though Chatham County is a managed timber area.

As such, the practice is protected by state law. However, Hales would like to ensure that timbering plans are followed as well as find ways to encourage tree farmers to plant new trees once the crop has been harvested.

The county is also looking to update current developments with green technology, in addition to building new ones with efficient utilities.

Hales said every county building made a commitment to solarizing new buildings and adding solar where possible to existing structures, including the Seaforth High School currently under construction.

However, Hales notes that some of the county’s existing buildings are not built to support solar. At the same time, the county is looking at other ways to ensure energy efficiency.

In 2017, the commissioners pledged a goal of 100 percent clean energy and expanding green jobs by 2050. Currently, the county boasts a Gold Award from SolSmart, the highest award of its kind.

In May, North Carolina ranked second in the country for producing solar energy. 

“As a county, when we build, we have a responsibility to include the most recent tech that have been proven to be environmentally sound,” Howard said.

Howard said green developments could even delve into permitting tiny homes and updating older communities that haven’t been outfitted with water-saving fixtures or efficient hot water systems. That way, she said, small and immediate adjustments can make an impact on wastefulness.

“If you reduce individual need,” she said, “you can stave off a massive system overhaul because demand on the whole system is lower.”

Solving long-term problems

But as the county looks to innovate its future, it’s also rolling out plans to retroactively address environmental issues.

The coal ash housed in Chatham is of particular concern to Robertson, who said it’s a threat to the health and safety of people as well as to the environment.

About nine million tons of coal ash is housed at Brickhaven, an area southeast of Pittsboro, and Cape Fear has five million tons still housed on-site.

State law maintains that communities cannot prevent these types of facilities, but the county commissioners were able to strike a deal with Duke Energy about the Brickhaven site, with Duke Energy paying the county about $10 million. The county in turn has invested $6 million in the Moncure community where the site is located. 

The Cape Fear location will begin burning its coal ash on site. Once again, as the operation will be located wholly on Duke Energy’s property, the county has little legal recourse. The energy company receives its air quality permits through the state, but Hales notes the county may consider installing its own air quality monitors in the area.

“It is a social justice issue,” Robertson said, explaining that environmental protection can no longer be seen in isolation from community wellbeing and accountability of local officials and energy companies.

Though green politics hasn’t seen a top-down reinforcement from the federal government, as the Trump administration has done away with many environmental protections, Robertson said that the upcoming municipal elections Nov. 5 are a chance to garner support for, and commitment to, environmentalism at a level where policies can be fast-tracked.

Involving the public, Robertson said, is also critical to deriving solutions in sustainable development and climate change in general.

“If we’re going to be effective, we need to get out into the county and educate the public,” Robertson said.

For some of the climate change problems that won’t see immediate reversals, Robertson said there is a need to arm the public with knowledge about community gardens, for example. 

The long-term goal — about 44 months at its completion — is the Unified Development Ordinance to list precisely how land and developments are to be used. The UDO will comprise all the specific rules related to development, offering specificity to create a basis for expectations between builders and the county.

It will codify all the points of discussion currently on the table. But for now, it’s still a living document.

“The UDO is not just putting all old ordinances together,” Hales said. “Look at the future where to make changes.”

Molly Weisner is a staff writer for Our Chatham; Casey Mann works for the Chatham News + Record. This story was published in collaboration with the News + Record.

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