Banking on buffers

Call me a cynic – as if that never occurred to you before – but I can’t help wondering whether there is a connection between Roger Perry telling Town Council last week that he might spread his buildings in Obey Creek over all of the buildable acres (even though the land is laced with a network of streams) and the town staff’s recommendation Monday night to reduce the stream buffers in town unilaterally to 50 feet, shrinking some buffers as much as 100 feet on either side.

Town staff aimed to simplify the regulations and align them with the soon-to-be-in-effect Jordan Lake Riparian Buffer rules. But many folks who spoke up Monday night saw the move as a step backward. Increased stream impairment had prompted the town to create the Resource Conservation District in 2003, yet staff are recommending removing protections just as the streams are about to become more stressed by construction in Obey Creek, Will Raymond said. Matt Witsil, chair of the Stormwater Advisory Board, advocated 100-foot buffers. Julie McClintock, representing Friends of Bolin Creek, dismissed the need to align the rules for RCD and Jordan Lake buffers because the regulations address different issues: Jordan Lake protects nutrient pollution, and the RCD is a multi-pronged ordinance covering wildlife, flooding and other aspects.

Only Kristen Smith of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce supported the alignment to make it less confusing for developers.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt weighed in first, expressing confidence that developers were not so easily muddled. Keenly aware of all the development and redevelopment proposals stacking up on council’s agenda, he didn’t want to lose the hard-won environmental protections. Jim Ward, too, seemed unsettled by the idea of stripping protections from vulnerable waterways. Ed Harrison noted that Durham is increasing its buffers unilaterally to 150 feet.

Certainly Chapel Hill is not Durham; we’re more like Durham’s rich uncle who doesn’t have to care about the underlings. And the gap widens with every approval of Class A office space and luxury housing units that council makes. Which is not to say that the town shouldn’t continue to support growth and development. But we don’t want to sacrifice our respect for the environment nor shirk our responsibility to keep our shared water source clean.

As the Obey Creek development lumbers forward, we want to make sure our rainwater transportation system doesn’t fall victim to progress.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Sue Burke

     /  November 14, 2012

    The Jordan riparian buffer ordinance was enacted by the Town Council on December 6, 2010 and the rules became effective upon adoption.

  2. Terri Buckner

     /  November 14, 2012


    Are you saying that last night’s work session was intended to modify LUMO to align with the December 6, 2010 decision? Is this an issue like the bus ads where the wrong rules have been enforced? Since there has been so little public information made available about this issue (no info package for last night’s meeting), it would be very helpful if you could explain the problem and why reducing the buffers is being recommended.

  3. Nancy Oates

     /  November 14, 2012

    The town was using the right rules, but my understanding is that some builders and developers complained because of confusion over perennial streams vs. intermittent streams, and having to consult two separate maps, the Jordan Lake rules paper map and the electronic county GIS map.

    The council work session is tonight, but covers only priority budgeting and a CH2020 update. The council meeting from Monday night did have memos and maps attached as supporting documentation and still can be accessed on the town’s website, on the council meetings agenda page, under archived meeting materials (click Documents, then agenda, then on the specific agenda item). Sorry I wasn’t more clear.

  4. Terri Buckner

     /  November 14, 2012

    Thanks Nancy. I mistakenly thought this was on tonight’s agenda.

  5. Scott

     /  November 15, 2012

    Clearly stream buffers are not a new item in Chapel Hill’s development codes. Prior to the LUMO (2003) the development ordinance had required buffers for perennial streams of either 75 feet or 100 feet, depending upon the size of the drainage shed. In 2003, the Council adopted new regulations that for the first time included intermittent streams (water flow from storm events in channels, but not perennial streams) and gave them a 50 feet buffer requirement. The buffer for perennial streams was increased to 150′. Protection of streams by reducing pollution from run off is one of the reasons for such buffers. Maintenance of wetlands and existing vegetation is also a desired benefit of buffers as is the maintenance of wildlife habitat and corridors. (Although I have not yet found many residents that are happy that we are blessed with a large supply of deer, possums, copperheads, etc.) During the process of adopting those 2003 regulations, several of those speaking in favor of the 150 feet wide buffers also said (as it has been borne out) that these wider buffers would help maintain the low density of Chapel Hill. It should also be noted that it is the town that determines the classification of streams using scientific examination of biologic conditions, soil type, and vegetation type. Developers or property owners have no say in the determination of stream classification or buffer requirements. The new Jordan Lake stream buffer and nutrient rules add another layer of protection based upon empirical and scientific research, unlike the buffer rules adopted in the LUMO in 2003. All this said, there are very good reasons to have buffers for streams that address issues other than water quality. Vegetation & wildlife habitat environments and stream banks do need protection. I believe that the staff proposal to align the water quality and disturbance standards of the town with the Jordan Lake standards is the right solution for all streams for the 50 feet of required buffer on each side of a stream – intermittent or perennial. At issue is whether the 100-150 feet buffer zone added in 2003 should be retained now that we have tougher water quality standards, a new tree canopy ordinance, and better construction methods and requirements for erosion control. It is reasonable for the Council to consider revising the RCD buffer dimensions as well as the amount of activity that can occur in them. There is no good reason to blindly continue the existing buffer dimensions now that we have over a decade’s worth of information about what the effect of the buffer has been on creating good new developments and assisting or hindering in the re-development of property with developments that were constructed before buffer rules were in place. If we are a town that prides itself on being educated and informed and doing thoughtful research before we make decisions, examining the outcomes of our own development approvals for the past 10 years, and the consideration of how properties might be developed with 100′ or 150′ buffers would seem to be a no-brainer activity. So far, what I see is a staff proposal with no information or study of the issues and rhetoric to never change from what we adopted previously from those who don’t trust the staff. When do we get the chance to have a real examination of the potential impacts of a change to a 100 feet buffer – the one we use to have prior to the arbitrary 50 feet extension of that buffer in 2003.

  6. Scott, you oversimplify the buffer rules.

    The RCD takes into account not just linear dimensions but slope and other conditions. For instance, there are areas of town where 150′ is still not adequate given the steep slopes, and the high density of intermittent and ephemeral streams in close proximity.

    I was active in the 2003 discussions and don’t recall anyone saying the RCD was good because it would “help maintain the low density of Chapel Hill”.

    I do recall a lot of discussion about the major economic impacts flooding had in Chapel Hill. A few Eastgate floods, a Piney Mountain washout, sudden sedimentation in Lake Ellen and Eastwood Lake certainly informed Council’s thinking.

    I do agree that the 10 years of baseline data is something Council should reflect on. What it shows is that the thoughtful approach adopted in 2003 has worked to protect some but not all areas. There is more work to be done as stream and water quality continue to degrade, as stream peaks and ebbs swing further and quicker than before and that stream flow is impaired.

    Finally, you gloss over the obvious subtext – reducing protections is about short term gains.

    You and your customers will benefit by building in poor locations while letting the taxpayers and downstream homeowners pickup the tab.

  7. Terri Buckner

     /  November 15, 2012

    Scott–Thanks for the explanation of the issue. Are the more conservative standards we have in place hurting anything? I’m not understanding what purpose it would serve to reduce buffer.

  8. Tom Field

     /  November 21, 2012

    I Perry really wants it, the Council will cave — somebody find the money trail — more development is a lose/lose proposition, unless you’re Roger Perry.

  9. Trish D'Arconte

     /  December 5, 2012

    Scott said: “When do we get the chance to have a real examination of the potential impacts of a change to a 100 feet buffer – the one we use to have prior to the arbitrary 50 feet extension of that buffer in 2003.”

    Here’s one opportunity: The Town is holding a public information meeting to discuss stream buffer issues on Wednesday, December 12, 5:30pm to 7pm, Town Hall first floor conference room. There will be a very short presentation followed by discussion. Some of the goals of this meeting are to identify key issues and concerns, start formulating some alternatives and options, and help with focusing the next meeting in January. That one will be held in the Council chambers so there will be more room, but I don’t know when it’s scheduled for yet.