Storm is warning against rush to development

July 9, 2013 

How is Chapel Hill going to afford the necessary storm water upgrades for ANY development when it can’t even handle or afford to upgrade what’s currently in place? The recent floods are Mother Nature’s message that there are limits to the amount of buildings and new streets we can add to an already stressed system.

I’ve never opposed development as long as development fits in, fills a need, protects natural features, and doesn’t harm the health, safety and welfare of adjacent residents. In a town like Chapel Hill, which prides itself on stream buffers and set-backs and a comprehensive set of requirements for commercial developers, I am shocked that the Town Council intends to press ahead with developing zoning details for Central West, Obey Creek, and Ephesus Road through the summer when most locals and council members are taking vacations.

We all now understand the meaning of “flash flood” and having lived here 28 years, I’ve never seen anything like it. Scientists predict that these weather extremes are here to stay. In the time I’ve lived here, I have seen Bolin Creek so high the “greenway” pavement lifted, moving its ominous mass down stream toward the lowlands to Jordon Lake and beyond.

After watching a river run down my driveway and another river run along my side yard, knowing it was all heading at record pace to Bolin Creek, I was curious to see how the low land was faring. Bolinwood was a river. The greenway had disappeared. Whole hillsides had fallen away down onto the trail and into the creek. Everywhere there was a manmade structure in the path of the flood -- pavement, buildings or manhole structures -- the force of the floodwater had cut deep gullies. The Bolinwood apartment pool house was standing in two feet of water, and students’ cars were submerged.

A student looking at his car shared how he’d worked his four years of high school saving up for his 2012 Honda Accord that was now under water, slammed with large branches and debris. Sure insurance may cover his mess, but it most likely won’t cover all of it. There were MANY like him down at those apartments, and countless who are now displaced due to flooding at Camelot Condos and area apartments. The amount of trash and broken glass along walkways ain’t pretty but can be cleaned up, but the damage to creek channels, eroded hillsides, and structural damage to storm water facilities, homes, apartments and businesses will take a long time to fix.

What can we learn?

This flood can teach us what will happen if the town proceeds with its plan to put a 10-foot wide pavement on the south side of Bolin creek between MLK and Umstead Park. The plan would remove creek side trees and roots holding the soil along the steep hillside, and the pavement is guaranteed to cause havoc in the next flood. OWASA did the right thing when it decided not to disturb this same area by putting the new sewer main underneath Umstead Drive instead. Booker Creek will need the same diligent protection as well.

And why rush to build more office space and student housing when we have enough approved commercial in the pipeline to satisfy our needs for the next decade and beyond? Between the mega redevelopment projects in Glen Lenox and Ephesus Church Road, the student housing along MLK and Rosemary presently under construction, Carolina North, Obey Creek, and Central West, there’s gonna be a lot more water running downhill than anyone can possibly imagine -- except that now we can.

I urge the Town Council to SLOW DOWN on ANY approvals of development in this town until a serious storm water action plan is implemented.

Callie Warner lives in Chapel Hill.

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