The best choice for Bolin Creek
John N. Morris
Well, it’s enough to restore your faith in reasoned discussion and democracy! After a healthy debate for more than a year about whether the OWASA easement along Bolin Creek in Carrboro should be a paved greenway, the best choice is emerging. When the town board received a consultant report on proposed greenways, the board adopted some of the recommended routes, but did not approve the route along the creek, directing that a range of alternatives should be studied. The Carrboro Greenways Commission, with leadership by Mayor Mark Chilton and Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Randee Haven-O’Donnell (both members of the commission), decided to set aside consideration of the route along the creek. For one thing, any funding for such projects is years away. More importantly, the commission saw the need to take into account all of the planning underway for Carolina North and for other bike routes in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, to make sure that new projects are best located to be part of a useful transportation network. The following considerations influenced these decisions.
Effective transportation: Carrboro wants to encourage bike use as much as possible to reduce gas consumption and improve air quality, but a paved route along the creek just isn’t a good bike route. What’s needed is a north-south route to connect Chapel Hill and the UNC campus with Carolina North, also providing access from neighborhoods to schools along Seawell School Road. The university, in the Carolina North development agreement, has already made a farsighted commitment to build a safe bike route along Seawell School Road, which will link with the planned campus-to-campus connector. The university is now constructing an east-west gravel bikeable trail across Bolin Forest from Tripp Farm Road to Seawell School Road, complete with a bridge across the creek. These routes are complemented by Carrboro’s plan to build a greenway connecting the neighborhoods north of Homestead Road with the three schools. These bike routes provide an excellent network and make a route along the creek unneeded.
Environmental damage: Paving a greenway along the OWASA easement would damage water quality. A 10-foot-wide paved greenway can’t be delicately placed like unrolling a rug. We can see what a paved greenway would look like at the Morgan Creek Greenway, now completed in Chapel Hill. Despite admirable efforts to limit the impact, the cleared and graded strip is, at a minimum, 25 feet wide, often much wider where drainage requires culverts and hardened ditches. Putting a paved greenway on the Bolin Creek sewer easement, which is largely within 30 feet of the creek, would tear up tree roots and remove trees that are holding the creek banks in place and providing shade for the stream. A state Division of Water Quality publication explains in detail why greenways should be kept out of the riparian buffer to protect water quality.
What some paving advocates are missing is that the paved greenways that we are familiar with along Bolin Creek, Booker Creek and Morgan Creek in Chapel Hill are built away from the creeks, leaving a wide, protective buffer in all but a few spots. There is no precedent in Orange County for building a greenway right on the creek bank, where the OWASA Bolin Creek easement is located.
A big bill: We now have some real numbers to use to estimate the cost of paving along Bolin Creek, based on the Morgan Creek greenway, which was recently constructed. Using the per-foot cost for Morgan Creek, the greenway along Bolin Creek (referred to as segments 3 and 4) would cost about $4 million. The cost would surely be higher, because the terrain is steeper at Bolin Creek and construction access is much more difficult. Carrboro would also be taking on a big ongoing maintenance cost. In these times of tight budgets, available federal, state and local transit funds should be reserved for urgent needs.
The small group that promotes a paved trail along Bolin Creek describes the area as “degraded” and presents paving as a way to “restore” it. This is a myth that just does not fit the facts. I have walked the trail after heavy rains and observed that the OWASA easement is only a very minor and localized source of sediment to the creek. There are simple and inexpensive solutions to these small problem areas. The thorough studies of Bolin Creek by the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program and the N.C. Division of Water Quality make clear that the significant threat to Bolin Creek is from land development and stormwater runoff from the developed and developing parts of the whole watershed, not from the forested area and not from the OWASA easement. The trail along the creek is a beautiful place where many enjoy the wildflowers, magnificent trees and birds. More than 1,100 persons have signed a petition opposing the paving.
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. Thanks to the leadership of the university and Carrboro, we can have safe bike routes that connect to the schools, neighborhoods and Carolina North. Bolin Creek can be spared pavement and be appreciated for the natural values that make it so popular. And the residents of Carrboro can save their tax dollars for something that’s really needed.
John N. Morris was director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources from 1980 to 2008, an agency responsible for water-supply and river-basin planning and for water-use regulation.