A brief tornado watch followed by a thunderstorm Thursday night likely depressed attendance inside Chapel Hill’s Town Hall. But several dozen residents of affluent, secluded homes near Cane Creek reservoir, owned by Orange Water and Sewer Authority, made it to the OWASA board meeting anyway, to passionately oppose the Mountains-to-Sea Trail coming through OWASA land near their properties.
“Our homes, our lifestyles, we feel like we’ve been hijacked,” said Ann Charles, her voice quivering. “It doesn’t feel good.”
The neighbors cite a variety of reasons for their opposition: invasion of privacy, potential safety hazards, a spoiling of the natural habitat for rare creatures such as the bald eagle. Some expressed concerns about water quality suffering due to contact with careless hikers or their dogs. One said she was told by her insurance agent that her rate would go up, due to increased risks associated with a nearby recreational trail.
Many objections, however, seem rooted in what those homeowners valued most when they bought their properties. “My wife and I moved in there when I was sixty,” says Cane Creek neighbor Jim O’Connor. “We moved there for the seclusion.”
The county’s parks staff will plot the trail’s route through Cane Creek, though the OWASA board of directors has to approve it. Since extending an invitation for the trail to be built on OWASA land, the board has been creating a list of conditions that need to be met before the actual construction.
The first public discussions about the MST started some forty years ago. Former state senator Howard Lee, who was elected as Chapel Hill’s mayor in 1969, took some credit. “The idea for the trail, obviously, was planted as a seed when I was mayor,” he said at the OWASA meeting. “I made this proposal in 1977 that we have a trail stretching for the mountains to the sea. I couldn’t believe that it would develop to where it is today.”
Since then, the nonprofit group Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, in collaboration with the state parks system, local governments, and other agencies, has worked toward building a continuous trail from the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. Built mostly by volunteers, the MST currently consists of 680 miles of trails and 470 miles of roads connecting them.
Between 2005 and 2007, the state parks division and other stakeholders met publicly to plan a trail through Alamance, Durham, and Orange counties. In 2009, OWASA’s then-chairman, Randy Kabrick, sent a letter to Orange County Board of Commissioners chairwoman (now state senator) Valerie Foushee, in support of allowing a portion of the trail to be built on OWASA property.
Soon, residents living near Cane Creek started pushing back.
John Silva, a Cane Creek resident, describes himself as an avid hiker who generally supports the MST. He’s owned property in the area since the early 1980s and lived there since 1995. “This particular segment of the trail is flawed in many ways,” Silva said at Thursday’s meeting.
Silva and others argue that people often set little fires on trails, which means a gust of wind in the wrong direction could spark disaster. Silva told board members that the residential area near OWASA land is a potential “tinderbox” that would be near-impossible for firefighters to protect.
(Reached by the INDY Friday, Orange Grove Volunteer Fire Company chief Steve McCauley Sr. said he doesn’t see the proximity of a trail as a worrisome hazard. A lightning strike, he points out, would do much the same thing.)
Opponents also warn that the trail could present new opportunities for criminals.
“Unfortunately, trails have become soft spots for crime,” Silva told the OSAWA board. “They’re considered ‘blueberry patches’ noweasy places to go to commit crime and get away with it.” (The Wake County Sheriff’s Office reports zero incidents in the trails surrounding Falls Lake since January 2015.)
Not all residents feel the same way. In fact, at Thursday’s meeting, supporters were about equally represented. Many are volunteers who’ve helped build sections of the MST. Supporters say the trail would be an economic driver for Orange County and a gift to future generations.
“I’m strongly in favor of having the MST trail go through OWASA property,” said Carl Shy, a thirty-four-year resident of Bingham Township, which borders OWASA’s land. “This area has extraordinary scenic beauty, being heavily forested, with undulating terrain bordering the waters of the reservoir. It would be highly appropriate to make this beautiful tract of land available to the public.”
The board didn’t take any action last week. Members talked about looking at alternative routes for the trail. They didn’t rule out the possibility of not allowing the trail on OWASA property after all and said that any site agreement will likely take a couple of years.
“[Board members] really want to be respectful of adjacent neighbors,” says Kate Dixon of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. “We really want that, too. We’re really not trying to invade people’s privacy at all.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Unhappy Trails”