As the nation fixed its eyes on Washington pomp on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, some Triangle residents were focused on a local commissioners meeting that could mean changes for the entire area.
On January 19, the Orange County Board of Commissioners spent hours discussing Efland Station, a proposed rezoning project anchored by a massive gas station in the northern part of Orange County. The commissioners asked questions and gave comments, grilling the applicant on its plans for the future. They could have voted; they didn’t.
Instead, the board had some conditions to negotiate with Buc-ee’s, a Texas convenience store vying for several parcels of land along Interstate-40 in the unincorporated community of Efland. They voted to send the company’s lawyers back to their lodge to consider the commissioners’ requests.
Orange County residents didn’t speak at last week’s meeting, but they’d already made their voices heard. Nearly 100 people had given public comments across three different meetings, overwhelmingly voicing opposition to the plan. And up until last week, those who couldn’t attend made phone calls and sent emails to their commissioners.
Just one in five public speakers supported the project; the rest made it clear that Buc-ee’s massive development plan was not what they wanted, nor what they expected from the county based on its previously stated goals. A Voice For Efland & Orange—a newly formed group that’s organizing against the development—has mobilized many of the plan’s opponents.
It isn’t often that a rezoning problem takes over the public conversation like this, especially when the focus is on an 800-person unincorporated community that’s generally overlooked by other county residents and big businesses. But this isn’t an 800-person problem: If this beaver makes its home in Efland, it could have consequences for Hillsborough, Mebane, and even Raleigh.
At best, Efland Station would be a multi-phase construction project that could include sit-down restaurants, retail outlets, a hotel, and an urgent-care facility. Its centerpiece would be Buc-ee’s, which describes itself as a travel center with walls of snack options, good-paying jobs, and the cleanest restrooms in America.
At worst, Efland Station would only ever be a 120-gas nozzle behemoth—one of the largest gas stations in the United States—built on top of a watershed that feeds directly into Seven Mile Creek, then the Eno River, then the local water supply. It could be the reason other gas stations in the area close down—or worse, a gas spill could threaten the Triangle’s clean water and create myriad environmental consequences.
Buc-ee’s proposed North Carolina outpost would sit atop the Upper Eno Protected Watershed, which exists near the border of a watershed that is critical for drinking water. When surface runoff inevitably occurs, or if an underground tank ruptures, the oil could eventually pool into the Eno River, a 40-mile body of water running through Orange and Durham Counties.
Buc-ee’s representatives say they have never had a reportable underground spill, and that they try their best to limit the spills on the surface. They also contest the idea that the project would have a potentially negative effect on local water systems: The company said in a statement that it’s “physically impossible for it to happen,” since the site is downstream of Hillsborough’s water source and Orange-Alamance Water System intake facilities. They say they confirmed this with the Orange County Planning Department.
But at a January 12 public hearing, an Orange County Planning Board member said the company left some important details out.
“At the November 4 planning board meeting, the developer stated that this project was not in the Upper Eno Critical Protected Watershed,” Kim Piracci said. “This, of course, is a true statement. What they did not tell us, but the Triangle Land Conservancy did, was that this project has two tributaries that empty into the Seven Mile Creek, which serves as a water supply for Hillsborough, and then eventually Raleigh.”
Environmental groups have concerns about the plans: Orange County’s Commission for the Environment recommended the county deny this project, as did the Eno River Association. College students majoring in environmental studies, university professors, and members of the Sierra Club have also shared their worries with the county commissioners.
Other residents told the commission during the public meetings that they’re worried about potential traffic congestion: Buc-ee’s could close westbound Exit 160, I-40/I-85’s exit for Efland. Residents say this could be a nuisance, and potentially dangerous for residents.
Others aren’t buying the economic benefits promised by the company. Several residents brought up Buc-ee’s Glassdoor page during the meetings: Comments from alleged current and former employees mention that their breaks are short, and that management can be strict and uncompromising with employees. Some speculated that the Lone Star State company’s profits wouldn’t stay in Orange County.
“They’re interested in gaining money for themselves and essentially taking it back to Texas,” John LaRusso said at the final hearing. “We, as a county, need to think about ourselves. No one else is going to think about us. We need local business owners to build things in our county.”
Some residents just think it’ll be a headache—an I-40 version of South of the Border, or a truck stop with tacky advertisements up and down the interstate. Many mentioned that they originally chose to live in northern Orange County because it’s quiet and rural. Buc-ee’s contests this, since the area includes an interstate and an active railroad.
“It’s more like a general store where fresh food is prepared onsite, local arts and crafts from North Carolina artisans, household goods—they’re actually the third-largest retailer of Lodge cookware,” Buc-ee’s lawyer, Beth Trahos, told county commissioners. “They have hunting and fishing gear, toys, games, books, et cetera.”
“Buc-ee’s is to Sheetz what Wegman’s is to a Piggly Wiggly,” Trahos continued. “These things are not the same.”
Buc-ee’s supporters want residents to focus on the jobs the development will bring to the area: jobs that meet living wage requirements for Orange County, and ones that potentially offer benefits.
“I’ve been troubled by the criticism of some about these jobs, which again will pay $15 an hour—the Orange County living wage—which we’ve just heard will provide benefits, which I don’t believe are even provided to the folks who, you know, clean our schools,” Commissioner Mark Dorosin said at the January 19 meeting.
Trahos brought up what she perceived to be an inconsistency on the part of Orange County residents: She says Wegman’s has a starting salary of $9 an hour, and that the company received tax incentives from Chapel Hill, but those jobs aren’t scrutinized. Commissioner Earl McKee reminded the board that the county is losing its younger residents without college degrees, who are being priced out to Alamance and Chatham Counties.
Though outnumbered by detractors, several residents spoke in favor of the proposal, too. The land has been on the market for years, they said. They mentioned that the Board of Commissioners had rejected multiple other proposals for the area.
“I hear some of you saying ‘Let’s wait for something better,’” Efland resident Kenneth Woods said at the final hearing. “Will there ever be anything better for us in Orange County? Especially in northern Orange?”
Despite the “general store” sales pitch, Buc-ee’s spokespeople are tied to the gas pumps. When asked by multiple commissioners whether scaling down was possible, a Buc-ee’s representative said that the size of the store, including its five dozen gas pumps, is what “makes it work.”
Commissioner Amy Fowler told her colleagues that she would consider the project if the gas station could be scaled down to at least a third of its proposed size. Although Buc-ee’s spokespeople said that sort of scaling back wasn’t possible, it’s one of the conditions they now have to consider.
It’s unclear if the Texas-sized Buc-ee’s can fit in the progressive Orange County framework. Commissioners recommended adapting the height of the Buc-ee’s sign, adding solar panels to the first phase, securing partners for the second phase, having fully functioning electric vehicle charging stations, and reducing the size of the project.
The decision to consider the conditions passed 5-2. Chair Renée Price and Commissioner Jean Hamilton were the only dissenters; the other five, even those in support of higher wages, were on the fence about the project overall. Buc-ee’s and the planning department will return to the board at the February 16 meeting to see if they can make it work.
If the commissioners deny the plan, or if Buc-ee’s withdraws its proposal, the parcels of land can’t be rezoned this way for a year, according to county planner Michael Harvey. A different company could buy the land to use for the current zoning, which allows for office buildings and factories. The commission may or may not consider other types of rezoning for the site in the future. It’s also unclear if Buc-ee’s has its eye on other parts of North Carolina
If the commissioners approve the project, A Voice For Efland & Orange doesn’t have a concrete plan yet for how it would respond. “We’ve talked about what we do if it goes forward; we also have talked about we do if it doesn’t go forward,” organizer Jared Cates says, “and how we can stay connected as a group of rural folks who have made some connections with folks in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to stay more engaged in our county processes and hold our elected officials and county departments accountable.”
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