“How long shall we stand? As long as there is a need to correct an injustice.”
This week, the Towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and Orange County will consider adopting a resolution approving a draft recombination plat (map) and conceptual plan for 164-acres jointly owned by the three parties, known as the Greene Tract. As many readers likely know, the parcel’s long and complex history has recently re-opened a political Pandora’s Box, pitting those who believe it should be preserved in perpetuity for conservation or a public park against those who believe it should be used in ways promised to the residents of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood. My intention is to help separate the facts from the fiction, ensuring the stated vision and wishes of Rogers Road residents are respected, recognized, and honored at a time when those wishes are at risk of being drowned out, weaponized, and distorted by those who are fomenting and spreading misinformation, fear, and mistrust in pursuit of a narrow set of self-serving interests.
FACT 1: The Greene Tract was purchased in 1984 to host a future landfill.
For those not familiar with the history, the Greene Tract’s story is inextricably linked to the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood. To fully understand both, we must start in 1972, when a deal was brokered (and subsequently broken) to locate a new county landfill next to the Rogers Road neighborhood (notably, the option of last resort as all other neighborhoods managed to extract themselves from consideration). In exchange for bearing the long-term impacts of an 80-acre, unlined landfill, residents were promised public services and community amenities, including water, sewer, sidewalks, a recreation center, and green space. For those keeping track, the sewer hook-ups were not completed until 2020.
In 1984, the Greene Tract was jointly purchased by Orange County and the Towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to host a future landfill, a designation formalized by the 1987 Joint Planning Agreement. One more time for emphasis – THE ORIGINAL INTENT FOR USING THE GREENE TRACT WAS TO EXPAND (the already unwanted and dangerous) LANDFILL. The Greene Tract was not purchased for conservation or preservation or to protect the environment. It was purchased to expand a landfill contiguous to an historically African-American community already suffering from negative health impacts and to whom promises of public services and amenities were not met.
FACT 2: Active planning for the (non-landfill future of the) Greene Tract has been underway since 1999.
This one is for the folks who feel like the process is moving “too fast.” In 1999, having thankfully dodged the bullet of all-of-the-Greene Tract = garbage dump scenario, 60 acres of the Tract were transferred from joint ownership to sole County ownership for undetermined “solid waste management purposes.” Per this agreement the three parties (Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Orange County) were also to make a good faith effort to determine the “ultimate use or disposition of the remainder of the Greene Tract [104 acres] as soon as possible and in any event by December 31, 2001.”
Additional plans, studies, policies, working groups, and task forces were formed and provided recommendations for the Greene Tract in 2003, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2019, and 2020. If this isn’t “death by committee,” then I don’t know what is.
It’s now 2021, and we still don’t have a final disposition for use of the Greene Tract. There are valid reasons for not liking the process but saying it’s moving “too fast” can never be one of them.
FACT 3: Land owned by a public entity is not the same as designated public open space or a park.
I appreciate that many people actively use and enjoy the Greene Tract. Heck, I’ve even done it myself! However, just because this use is tolerated by the public entities that own the land doesn’t mean that it’s authorized, and it certainly doesn’t mean that anyone has a legal “right” to continue that unauthorized use. If this is confusing, consider some examples. The police department is on land owned by a public entity. I do not have a legal right to use their front lawn to host a yoga class every morning because I did it once and no one sent me away. Or how about a library? Also publicly owned – and even full of publicly-owned books! I don’t have a right to waltz in and take the books for my personal use because they were purchased with public money. Likewise, the fact that the Greene Tract was purchased with public funding does not mean that it’s a public park or even a space where public uses are allowed! The trails one finds on the property are not publicly mapped or maintained (see warning here on Trailforks entry for the Greene Tract).
I understand that people are disappointed that they may lose access to a very small portion of the land making up the Greene Tract. But – importantly – it is also likely that land that is not currently protected or doesn’t allow public uses will gain new, permanent protections under the proposed resolution. If I were concerned about the future of the Greene Tract (and I am) this seems like a much better proposition than the Tract’s current state of limbo.
Lately, there has been much promotion of flawed data and statistics suggesting that Chapel Hill lags behind regional peers in the parks and open space. Despite NUMEROUS attempts to correct these messages, some insist on continuing to spread this misinformation because it fits their narrative and agenda. Given the misinformation that is so casually flung around, I could honestly understand anyone thinking that the Greene Tract is the last vestige of open space in the Town of Chapel Hill. But… what if I were to tell you that, less than a mile away, there are literally “750 acres of woodland…nestled between the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro offer[ing] the University, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro communities a tranquil natural oasis in which to recreate, relax, and enjoy a respite from the area’s ever-changing urban landscape?” The Carolina North Forest is a real “forest” (more on this next) AND officially allows public use. I realize that there’s no guarantee that this land will be open space forever (although I suspect a good amount of it will) and that fighting the university is harder than pushing back against a low-income, environmental justice community with limited resources, but there was never a guarantee that the Greene Tract would be preserved, either (“future landfill use,” remember?). Final thought on this point – maybe it’s me, but deploying the (mostly white, mostly male) middle school mountain biking team to bully a historically Black neighborhood over an unsanctioned use of land is extremely distasteful. What does this teach our kids?
FACT 4: The Greene Tract “forest” does not exist.
A quick but important point. This misnomer has been foisted on the public by opponents to the development vision in “Mapping…” and it is being used as another way another way to attempt to “protect” unsanctioned uses of publicly-owned land. There are only three places this term is used as the name for the Greene Tract: the “Friends of the Greene Tract Forest” website; AllTrails (crowdsourced information); and Trailforks (also crowdsourced). The use of the word “forest” by groups like “Friends of the Greene Tract Forest” is a sneaky messaging ploy making it seem like the Tract is protected, public land. I would urge everyone with an interest in truth and transparency to cease using this term and to call out this misinformation whenever you see it being used.
FACT 5: The vision of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood is being manipulated and weaponized by individuals and groups who do not know, or care about, the residents of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood.
I think Reverend Robert Campbell summed this up at the end of last Monday’s (11/8) meeting (and if you missed it, I’d urge you to take a listen near the end of this recording). But if you’re still not convinced, you can listen to him here on WCHL (11/2/21), or read more here on Stone Walls (10/26/21); or here in the New Yorker (1/16/2016); or in the Indy (7/6/2011); and on and on and on and on. And if you’re STILL not sure, take Reverend Campbell up on his offer to chat at the RENA Center.
Reverend Campbell and other key community players like the Caldwells, the Reids, the Phillips, and more, have been on the frontlines for over 50 years, fighting for the neighborhood’s health and a fair share of public investments, infrastructure, and opportunities. On multiple occasions, they have CLEARLY articulated their collective vision for the neighborhood and that vision has ALWAYS included some development of the Greene Tract. There is a sustained, organized, and concerted effort to warp and twist the stated vision of this neighborhood, taking advantage of statements that were made in the spirit of protecting residents from noxious uses like landfills and using them to promote personal agendas. The Greene Tract is a substantive part of the future of the Rogers Road neighborhood but there are people out there, actively working to extract the land’s remaining usefulness so they can… ride their mountain bikes. The worst part is that most of these people don’t even have the decency to stand behind their own priorities so they either hide behind a claim of “protecting the environment” (more on this next) or manipulating facts so it appears they are “supporting” the Rogers Road neighborhood. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this style of paternalism is dead. Especially when you’re not actually “supporting” anything but your own interests.
In 2016, Chapel Hill’s Marian Cheek Jackson Center supported development of a “community first” vision and plan for the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood. The outcome was “Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community’s Future.” In this plan, residents shared a compelling vision for the future of their neighborhood, including, “denser mixed-use includ[ing] affordable homes,” a new east-west or north-south roadway providing access through and to the Greene Tract, and formal conservation of designated open space on the Greene Tract (and adjoining Neville Tract). “Friends of the Greene Tract Forest” are pushing the idea that they are “supporting” the community’s vision (claimed to be 80% conservation and 20% development for the Greene Tract) based on manipulated information taken out of context. We know this is misrepresented for several reasons including formal statements from individuals directly involved in the process of developing “Mapping…” such as this 2019 statement from Hudson Vaughn (co-founder, Marian Cheek Jackson Center) made to the Chapel Hill Town Council:
“The Friends of the Greene Tract have been using one bullet in the plan which says, in parenthesis, that ~80% of the Greene Tract should be preserved. This number is taken out of context in several ways. First of all, at the time, we were talking about the Greene Tract as a much smaller piece of land (before the recombination, it was more like 64 acres, I believe). Neighbors were also estimating important conservation areas, which have since been further researched. Furthermore, the neighbors hoped to see the densest development on the Neville Tract adjacent to the Greene Tract, which would have given significantly more acreage to affordable housing and other uses supported by folks. Since that plan, I believe both the development of the Neville Tract has been found to be much more difficult than we thought, and research has pinpointed more specific environmental areas for conservation, including the headwaters preserve. These factors are critical to the conversation, and would likely have changed the conversation about percentages. Certainly, they should going forward. Regardless, this 80% figure should not be used as some benchmark that came from neighbors when it is taken out of context like this.” (Emphasis mine)
“Mapping…” also provides a detailed definition of conservation, ensuring that decisionmakers clearly understand what “Conservation” means to the Historic Rogers Road community:
“Conservation on the [Greene] tract should acknowledge and build on cultural value without disturbing the rural feel of the area – not creating a sectioned-off or walled-off part of the community, but keeping large portions of these lands open for enjoyment and connection to the natural world, while protecting this special environment. Promoting ‘development that we are a part of, not the victim of’ means honoring, preserving and amplifying the cultural and natural assets held by the Rogers Road community. This community aim is detailed under the rubric of conservation. However, as the glossary discusses, conservation in this context has a much broader meaning than the strictly environmental preservation, which has often been a strong consideration in planning decisions for Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County.” (Emphasis mine)
Lastly, “Mapping…” clearly identifies the community’s vision for the Greene Tract in the Future Land Use Vision Map that guides the plan’s strategies and implementation goals. This map clearly identifies a desire for mixed-use development on the Greene Tract including “denser mixed-use to include affordable homes, elder homes, and community commercial. The exact boundaries of this mixed-use area are still undetermined, it should take advantage of existing clearing on Neville Tract.” As noted above, we now know that development of the Neville Tract is not as feasible as once thought and this directly impacts how the Greene Tract could and should be used to meet the goals of “Mapping Our Community’s Future.”
FACT 6: This is not a debate about environmental impacts or sustainability; it’s about power and resources.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Those who oppose the development vision in “Mapping…” claim they are concerned about things like stormwater runoff, protecting the headwaters of local streams and creeks, carbon sequestration, urban heat island effect, deforestation, plant and animal habitats, and more. If, indeed, there is a strong desire to solve these systemic challenges (which I agree there should be!), there are town-wide actions we should be taking IMMEDIATELY instead of focusing on one parcel of land that we’ve waffled on for nearly 50 years, in a long-suffering community.
I challenge every individual and organization who claims to be concerned about environmental issues to redirect the energy and time you’ve focused on the Greene Tract and use it to enact REAL changes that will have REAL impacts. There are actions we can take to push the needle on sustainability and resilience at a scale and magnitude far beyond what can be accomplished by derailing a parcel-level process that’s been underway for decades. If you need some ideas, I recommend focusing your gaze on the environmental impacts of the large-lot, single-family home development pattern that dominates the landscape in Chapel Hill. Or investigate the impacts of auto-centric, sprawling development on stormwater generation. I challenge you to use your ample time, power, resources, and energy to drive big, meaningful changes that will have big, meaningful impacts.
FACT 7: There is not, nor has there ever been, a proposal or desire to develop 100% of the Greene Tract.
Another easy one. Anyone claiming that the residents of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood, the Towns of Carrboro and Chapel, or Orange County has a plan to, or even wants to, develop the entirety of the Greene Tract is not telling the truth. The Resolution going in front of Chapel Hill Town Council, Carrboro Town Board, and Orange County Board of Commissioner this week (called the “Resolution approving the draft recombination plat and conceptual plan for the 60-acre portion of the Greene Tract in County Ownership and the 104-acre portion of the Greene Tract in Joint Ownership” clearly lays out a visual representation and description of how the Greene Tract can best be used, based on 37 years of plans, policies, working groups, and task forces; a detailed environmental analysis; and the stated needs and vision of the residents of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood. This includes:
- Modifying the boundaries of the existing county owned (60 acres) and jointly owned (104 acres) portions of the Greene Tract to formally conserve and protect the most environmentally sensitive portions of the Greene Tract
- 60 acres for the Headwaters Preserve (County owned)
- Approximately 22 acres for Greene Tract Preserve
- Approximately 82 acres for development (including a minimum of 16 acres for a public school site and public recreational site).
There is no plan, nor has there ever been a plan, to develop the entirety of the Greene Tract. And once this resolution is adopted, there will be an additional phase of community outreach and engagement as part of a master plan/ development agreement process.
Representatives of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood have indicated (on many and multiple occasions) that they strongly support the resolution as proposed. At the very least, don’t we owe it to them, to help make their vision a reality after all these years of struggle and setbacks? Even if that means some of us have might have to find a new place to ride our bikes? We are blessed to be surrounded by hundreds of acres of gorgeous, protected, publicly accessible land. Let’s do the right thing and cede this small piece to a neighborhood that has shouldered our community’s burdens and has never been given a chance to share the spoils of our good fortune.
In closing, I give you an opening and a request. The very first pages of Mapping Our Community’s Future deliver a poignant and heartfelt message, asking, “Will this just become another plan shelved for people to reference in their articles about the struggles of Rogers Road?”
I assure you, reader, the bitter irony of these words is not lost on me.
In response, I respectfully ask you to bear witness to these words with me, to ensure that this plan doesn’t sit on a shelf. As we consider the future of the Greene Tract, THIS must be our collective priority. Not another task force, not another working group, and – please – not another forgotten plan. It is long past time for us to deliver on promises that were made to the residents of the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood nearly 50 years ago. Let us heed the recent plea of long-time neighborhood activist Reverend Robert Campbell, “Please do not let the Greene Tract and the Legion Road site become the new code for development that does not support workforce housing. Injustice and Racism must stop if we are looking for true equity in our society and towns.”
“How long shall we stand? As long as there is a need to correct an injustice. So, it seems like we will be there for generations.” – Reverend Robert Campbell, 2013
About Me: Caroline Dwyer, AICP is a nationally certified urban planner with a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from UNC Chapel Hill. She has worked closely with communities in North Carolina, and beyond, facing similar conflicts. Her personal and professional interest in both the Greene Tract and the Rogers/Eubank neighborhoods began as a former resident of Chapel Hill and was strengthened when her firm was hired by the Towns and County to develop an updated zoning ordinance for the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood (adopted in 2019), implementing the community’s vision described in Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community’s Future (2016). For more on the neighborhood’s history that isn’t be addressed here, I highly recommend “Rogers Road” by Emily Eidenier Pearce.