The Orange County Board of Commissioners met with residents Tuesday night for the last of three public hearing sessions that began in mid-December. The hearings regarded a proposed rezoning that would allow Buc-ee’s, a Texas-owned gas station and convenience store company, to build their first North Carolina branch in the small unincorporated community of Efland.
The proposed development would be split into two phases. It would create jobs and potential tax revenue for the county, but it would also mean the creation of a 120-nozzle fueling station that requires six large underground tanks to be placed on top of a protected watershed.
As predicted, the opposition largely outnumbered folks in favor of the beaver‘s new playhouse. Comments at the January 5 public hearing followed a similar pattern. The points largely revolved around environmental impacts, traffic congestion, and the chain’s work environment.
Kim Piracci, a member of the Orange County Planning Board, told commissioners that she wished she could rescind her vote to send the rezoning application to them.
“At the November 4 planning board meeting, the developer stated that this project was not in the Upper Eno Critical Protected Watershed,” 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.”
Buc-ee’s says they have not had a reportable gasoline spill, but Piracci pointed out that a spill can occur without needing to report it, because spills of 40 gallons or less don’t need to be reported to a local or state agency, she said.
“When I connect these dots, multiple small spills could add up to a lot of gasoline leaking into Hillsborough’s drinking water,” Piracci said.
Alexandra Griffin, an Efland resident, recounted a story where her daughter had a seizure decades ago. When emergency services tried to get to the house, it took longer than it might have otherwise because of the lack of convenient existing roads and the rural nature of the area. She worried that such a massive development and its construction would only make things worse.
“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for other parents now, with all these ‘you can’t turn left, you can’t turn different directions,'” Griffin said at the meeting. “It’s really restrictive. It’s really hard to describe how difficult it is already.”
Supporters of the proposed rezoning were largely outnumbered throughout the three hearings; 19 people spoke in favor of Buc-ee’s, while 80 voiced their opposition in total. Originally, more than 110 people were signed up to comment.
One supporter was Bonnie Hauser, a member of the Orange County School Board and United Voices of Efland Cheeks (which is separate from A Voice For Efland & Orange, the opposing group).
“Efland Station advances plans that community leaders and county planners had been working on for a very long time,” Hauser said. “These plans establish this particular site as industrial because it sits in between a busy interstate and an active rail line. Your board invested $4 million to bring sewer services to the site in order to attract businesses just like this. According to your planners, the project complies with the county’s strict noise and lighting ordinances, and exceeds your requirements for a pervious surface and stormwater management.”
Other supporters included lifelong Efland residents who wished to see more jobs in the area. Several mentioned previous projects that were rejected after community input.
“Any project that we’re going to do, no matter what it is, there will always be some pluses, and there will be some minuses,” Kenneth Woods said. “What we gotta do is take the pluses, put them on one side, put the minuses on the other side, and see which one carries the most weight.”
“I hear some of you saying ‘Let’s wait for something better,'” Woods continued. “Will there ever be anything better for us in Orange County? Especially in northern Orange?”
Several people speaking in opposition to the rezoning plan mentioned their ties to the Eno River Association and other environmental groups. Others identified themselves as students studying or intending to study sustainability.
The most impactful environmentalists weren’t initially scheduled to speak: siblings Gwenyth and Garrett explained the importance of salamanders to the commissioners after their mother, UNC-Greensboro science education professor Edna Tan, gave her three minutes to them.
“Every year we visit Auntie Cathy and Uncle Tim’s rental pool at their house in Efland to study salamanders,” 8-year-old Gwenyth said. “We put on waders and we go carefully into the rental pool slowly. We count egg masses: one time we counted up to 100 egg masses. Auntie Cathy also sets up traps that we pull in to look for baby newts and baby salamanders.”
“We think children need to be able to experience and learn about salamanders and other amphibians in their natural habitat,” 10-year-old Garrett added. “It is important to our science learning and for us to find out how animals live naturally in their habitat. Seeing a salamander in a glass case at a science museum is not the same.”
The commissioners are set to vote on the rezoning plan on January 19. Although hearings are over, they are still accepting written comments and phone calls.
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