If you live in southern Orange County, you can be forgiven for thinking the county is small. It’s easy to slip over into Chatham or Durham County to buy clothing, or just to get groceries.

But Orange County is large. Its 401 square miles are larger than the land areas of New York City and Boston—combined. It’s a third the size of Rhode Island, and almost six times the size of Washington, D.C. You could fit all of Charlotte in Orange County, and still have room for 67 parks the size of Central Park.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro, by comparison, are tiny, taking up just seven percent (28.26 square miles) of the county. But we make up just over half of the county’s population, and, of course, have a proportionate say in our county government.

While we spend a lot time thinking about land use in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, there are also important, if different, conversations about how our land is used in the rest of county. (We know Hillsborough has these conversations too, but most of the land area of the county is not in a municipality). Should we aspire to preserve farmland? Designate more parks and wilderness areas? Create more opportunities for housing? Build factories along the interstate?

Orange County has begun an effort to update the County’s land use plans, and there are several in-person events taking place to share information about the project.

Much like the Carrboro Connects Comprehensive Plan that was adopted last year, the goal of the Orange County Land Use Plan is to identify the community’s vision for how land will be used in the county. It will build upon and update the county’s current 2030 Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 2008, when the housing market crash put a temporary damper on housing prices.

In the past, we’ve committed a lot of land (54 square miles) in our county to preserving the rural buffer , with the assumption that our three towns—Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough—will build enough housing to absorb the demand to live in Orange County. That hasn’t worked as well as some hoped, and we’ve seen a lot of development in neighboring counties, particularly Alamance and Chatham, that probably wouldn’t have happened if we had more land available for development in Orange County.

There’s also disagreement about what kinds of development is suitable for the parts of Orange County that are not in the rural buffer. Just this week, the Mebane City Council approved a Buc-ee’s gas station in Alamance County after the company withdrew a similar application to build a gas station in Orange County. While activists tried to stop the project in both counties, they were only successful in Orange, in part because the county commissioners didn’t see the project as being part of the county’s vision for land use along interstate 40. (Instead, the county commission wanted to see a factory or distribution center at the location where Buc-ee’s was planning to build a gas station.)

With new mayors in all three Orange County towns, it’s good timing for a community-wide effort to figure out the type of development that is desired for the portions of the County outside Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough (which have their own comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances).

The Land Use Plan will identify the county’s policy goals–which provide guidance for any updates to the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, the set of regulations that govern how land can be used in the portions of the county outside the towns.

The County has held met with the County commissioners and community stakeholders, and you can view one of the initial public presentations as well as a narrated video (in English and in Spanish). You also can provide input through an online survey. In addition, there are two public engagement opportunities taking place in person next week, in Cedar Grove and in Chapel Hill.

The first event takes place Friday, January 19 from 2:30 – 4 pm at the Cedar Grove Community Center north of Hillsbourgh, at 5800 NC Hwy NC 86.

The second event takes place Saturday, January 20 from 10:30 am – noon at the Southern Human Services Center at 2501 Homestead Rd. in Chapel Hill.

You can also sign up for project updates on the project website. There are also additional resources available.

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Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...