There’s a yard sign stuck in the ground beside Route 70 that’s been there for months. Its text is too small to read from the road; you could drive by it every day and not know what it’s for.
Del Ward, a 26-year-old Efland native and full-time musician, did that at first. He probably passed it nine times, until one day he didn’t.
“NOTICE OF ON-LINE NEIGHBORHOOD INFORMATION MEETING,” the sign said. It was for a September 16 review of potential rezoning for what would be called the “Beaver Crossing commercial development.” It was being held by the Orange County Planning Department and Buc-ee’s Limited, the sign said.
Ward wasn’t allowed at the meeting. Despite living in Efland, an unincorporated community with about 700 residents, he says only those who lived less than a quarter-mile from the potential project were able to attend.
He later found that the small sign and its tiny text was a signal of something much, much bigger: the county planning department was in talks with Buc-ee’s, a Texas-based gas station and convenience store chain, to build a 104-acre development called Efland Station (formerly Beaver Crossing) that could eventually become stores, offices, and restaurants.
Efland Station’s crown jewel would be the first Buc-ee’s in North Carolina, complete with 120 gas nozzles and a 64,000-square foot retail space. It would be just shy of the world’s largest convenience store, a record currently held by the Buc-ee’s in New Braunfels, Texas.
That sort of massive development would stand out anywhere, but especially in Efland. It isn’t your typical small town: 44 percent of Efland is non-white. It isn’t even a town; Efland is an unincorporated community with no municipal government.
The Buc-ee’s station would create up to 200 jobs, according to the development’s website. It would allegedly generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state and local governments.
It may also sit practically atop a protected watershed.
The Upper Eno Protected Watershed, less than a mile and a half from a critical watershed, is classified as such because of how it affects drinking water. It would also mean that runoff—or any gas leaks—could eventually pool into the Eno River, the 40-mile body of water running through Orange and Durham counties.
Monty Hagler, a Buc-ee’s spokesperson, says that it’s their understanding the property isn’t a critical watershed, or a protected watershed.
“If it was a protected watershed, then it would not currently be zoned to allow for someone to build a huge distribution center on the land,” Hagler told the INDY. Currently, he says the area is designated for a factory or distribution center.
However, this contradicts the company’s own Efland Station website, which says parts of the overall planned development are classified as protected watersheds, but not critical watersheds. The Orange County Planning Department’s website identifies the area as part of the protected watershed, but note in their comments to the board of commissioners that streams and wetlands are located in “open areas,” where the developers aren’t allowed to put buildings or parking lots (although they’d still be able to landscape). However, they also mentioned several concerns.
“Staff is concerned about fuel storage, and potential impacts arising from a leak, but the [Unified Development Ordinance] does not contain a measurable standard by which we can regulate,” the planning department writes. “Storage tanks are permitted through the State.”
The Eno River Association, a decades-old nonprofit dedicated to conserving the river, has detailed their opposition to the plans. They also concurred that the development sat on top of a protected watershed with high-quality, sensitive waters. They mention that despite the company saying they would adhere to the proper local, state, and federal regulations, the conservation group is concerned about how the development would potentially impact the “preserved” areas of the property plans.
“While development is important to our communities, it must be done in a way that fits with existing uses and preserves our natural assets,” Jessica Sheffield, the nonprofit’s executive director, said in a statement to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.
Aside from the potential environmental impacts, Ward mentions that he and others are concerned for the traffic congestion, and how the permanent closure of I-40/I-85’s westbound Exit 160 will affect access to EMS and fire department services.
“I’m not fighting the idea of development, that’s not my job,” Ward says.
“What I’m fighting is a development that will drill multiple massive gas reservoirs into a protected watershed. What I’m opposed to is a development so big that it runs 24/7, and there have been no environmental studies done to see what the impact of this development is going to be.”
Ward joined other Efland and Orange County residents to create “A Voice For Efland and Orange,” a collective opposing the development and putting pressure on the Orange County Board of Commissioners and the county’s planning department. The group’s petition has garnered almost 5,000 signatures, and about 60 people attended a rally in Hillsborough on December 5, Ward said.
Because Efland is an unincorporated community, the decision on the proposed Efland Station is left to the county. Whatever the Orange County Commissioners conclude is likely the final word on the matter.
On Tuesday, December 15, community comments are slated to be heard by the commissioners before they decide whether or not to rezone the property so that it can be sold. The vote has yet to be scheduled, although Commissioner Earl McKee believes it will be voted on in early January, he told the INDY. The board already planned to split the public hearing into two sections, anticipating the community response.
Ahead of Tuesday’s commissioners meeting, Voice For Efland and Orange has been doing virtual and in-person outreach: putting up signs, protesting in Hillsborough, and answering questions on their Instagram page. Commissioner McKee says he has not kept count of the number of people who have reached out to him from either side. He mentions that more people opposing the development have emailed, and more people supporting the development have called.
“I make it a point never to go into a public hearing with a position,” McKee says. “I will freely admit that I like the idea of additional revenue. I like the idea a lot, even more so than the revenue, the idea that there will be $15 an hour jobs available. But I’ll also freely admit that there are downsides: environmental, traffic. There are a lot of downsides, but I go into these public hearings with an open mind.”
Buc-ee’s is a Texas chain that slowly built up a cult following in its home state before beginning its expansion across the South in 2019, just shy of its 40th anniversary. It’s the sort of chain that Texans will defend with their chests puffed out, similar to Californians and In-n-Out or North Carolinians and Cheerwine. Some may say it’s more than that—Texas Monthly reported that in 2012, ten thousand customers came to the opening day of one location.
The Texas Monthly writer also told Buc-ee’s founder Arch “Beaver” Aplin III that his map of potential Buc-ee’s locations looked like a planned invasion. The completed out-of-state Buc-ee’s are strategically planned: Efland, of course, is three miles away from the fork between I-85 and I-40.
It wouldn’t be the only gas station in the area; there are already several along nearby highways. But Buc-ee’s advantage is its pricing. The gas station charges less than market rate for its product, which led to a 2019 lawsuit in Alabama for breaking state law, according to reporting from Alabama Media Group’s AL.com. In its opening weeks, the company marketed its gas prices 7 cents below that state’s set price.
Buc-ee’s and the larger plan for restaurants and offices could mean a big shift in the economy of Efland: the station’s website says it could bring in up to $10 million a year for county, state, and federal taxes.
A Voice for Efland and Orange dismisses this: they say calculations based on numbers from the county’s Office of Economic Development show that a little over half a million would go specifically to Orange County, and about $8 million would be generated overall.
Buc-ee’s would also bring an influx of jobs: their spokesperson denotes $15 starting hourly wages to their employees—over twice North Carolina’s minimum wage—as well as health benefits for their full-time employees and even the option to start a 401K. Hagler, the company spokesperson, says the travel center could bring at least 175 jobs to Orange County.
But Ward says it isn’t what people in Efland want or need, and argues it isn’t worth the environmental and traffic burdens.
“We want a grocery store,” Ward says. “We want restaurants to eat at that aren’t fast food. We would like better schools. We would like warehouses where we can get trade-level jobs, where all you would need is a GED to do these jobs that pay well above minimum wage and aren’t 10 hour shifts, but are maybe eight hour shifts and treat the workers fairly.
“That’s the thing,” Ward continues. “We are not opposed to development. That’s not something that we’re fighting against. Medline was just built in Mebane, that’s 650 jobs. Two hundred fifty of which have already been filled, all of which pay above minimum wage. We’re not opposed to a warehouse where traffic isn’t going to be going 24/7. It’s going to be maybe 300 to 600 cars that travel in, park, work for eight or 10 hours, and then leave. Buc-ee’s is not that. I don’t know how else to say it: It’s just not what anyone, whether they know it or not, wants or needs.”
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