The headwaters of Bolin Creek begin their slow trickle in the center of Orange County, a clay-colored stream thin enough to jump across, winding oxbows framed by tree roots and dark clusters of ferns. Bolin Creek gradually grows wider and turns a thin, clearish-brown beer-bottle color and meanders through farmland, forests, and suburbs until its waters merge to form Little Creek, which drains into Jordan Lake. 

There are around 50 streams in Orange County, but few have been as controversial as Bolin.

Two sections of greenway currently run along the creek—a roughly mile-long portion in North Carrboro in the Hogan Farms subdivision, and a two-and-a-half mile stretch north of downtown Chapel Hill, ending just past Franklin Street. Talks of constructing a paved greenway next to the creek between these two paths have started and stalled repeatedly in past decades.

“I don’t know if there’s a debate so much anymore,” says Chapel Hill resident Patrick Quirk, who lives near the Chapel Hill stretch of Bolin Creek and hopes to see progress on the greenway construction in the coming year. “It’s two camps that just want different things. I don’t think there’s any communication happening between the two sides.” 

A contentious Carrboro Town Council meeting from November 8th, 2009 was intended to conclude months of planning and public engagement with a potential adoption of the town’s proposed Greenway Master Plan. A grainy video shows a handful of residents interrupting town council members, asserting that there hasn’t been enough community input. The town council accedes and ends the meeting directing town staff to re-explore possible greenway alignments.

After more than a decade, Carrboro’s Town Council formally re-opened public engagement on the proposal, with the debate beginning anew at a February meeting this year. The renewal is tied to the shifting winds of Orange County politics. Groups embracing and advocating for responsible growth, such as Next NC, are gaining increasing local traction while established, largely anti-development groups such as the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town are seeing their influence fade. This has happened in tandem with an 11 percent population jump in Orange County since the debate’s inception, as well as a 2021 and 2022 election that altered the makeup of the Carrboro Town Council.

A new petition emerged in April asking citizens to write to town officials and oppose the proposed creekside greenway. A fiery blog post fact-checking and critiquing the petition published just a week later.

 If a tree falls in Bolin forest, everybody will hear about it. Some might even write op-eds. 

It’s March 27th, 2023 and I’m sitting in on a Carrboro Town Council meeting and feeling déjà vu. Copies of a Bolin Creek Greenway Master Plan from 2009 sit on council members’ desks. The three-and-a-half mile connector phases of the Bolin Creek greenway remain unbuilt and controversial, and the council hasn’t addressed the subject until it was resurrected at a meeting on Valentine’s Day. The maps and graphs are also from 2009. Two town council members sat in this same room 14 years ago, as well as some town staff and folks in the audience. The March meeting ends with a six-to-one vote directing town staff to pursue public engagement over potential alignments for the Bolin Creek Greenway, with a deadline to report back by mid-October. 

In mid-June, the Town of Carrboro launched an extensive Bolin Creek Greenway Public Engagement website, the largest concrete measure taken to resolve the greenway debate. The website offers a map with three potential greenway routes, a list of frequently-asked questions, a survey for Carrboro residents available in four languages, a list of events at which to engage with town staff, and a historical timeline. Opponents, notably Bolin Forest Climate Action, characterize the website as inadequate, arguing that the site relies on old information and doesn’t sufficiently educate the public on the environmental effects of paving in a riparian zone. 

Discussions around Carrboro greenways have gone on for decades, with plans for greenways consistently emerging in the town’s planning surveys, conceptual master plans, and parks and recreation plans. Carrboro voters approved a bond in 2003 allocating $291,400 for greenway construction in the town. A 2006 Parks and Recreation Master Plan offered a possible vision for a connecting set of greenways around Carrboro. And the 2009 Bolin Creek Greenway Conceptual Master Plan sought to identify a greenway corridor that would have minimal environmental damage, facilitate outdoor recreation, and provide opportunities for non-motorized transit. 

The 2009 master plan introduced the controversial Bolin Creek stretch—following an existing OWASA sewer easement—as the preferable alignment. It’s a particularly beautiful stretch of creek. Steep hills cut almost right up to the river bank, tall rock outcroppings sprout laurels. In the cold months, leaves lie, penny-colored, under barren trees and the only green comes from the needles of junipers and red cedars and pale lichens clinging to silver-gray bark. In the warm months, the creek is bordered with a green underglow of river oats; water bugs cast speckled shadows on the creek floor and tadpoles wiggle their tails in standing water by the side of the dirt and gravel path. 

Would laying down a path here unnecessarily bring in more traffic and degrade one of the most serene urban forests left in the Triangle? Or would it allow more residents to access, utilize, and cherish a natural resource nestled in the heart of their town?

Sources on both sides of the issue hold similar academic and professional credentials, as well as largely aligned political values—everyone interviewed for this story says they care for the environment and are pro-greenway, generally. But the same sets of facts consistently produce disparate, wildly variable conclusions among stakeholders. 

Chuck Flink, the owner of Greenways Incorporated, served as a consultant on the Town of Carrboro’s 2009 Bolin Creek Greenway Conceptual Master Plan, and designed a separate section of greenway along Chapel Hill’s Bolin Creek in the 1990s. Flink has helped design greenways in 36 states and says Carrboro’s controversy is not unusual for highly educated university communities. 

Disagreements center primarily around the creekside greenway alignment’s transit benefits, potential environmental impact, and location on the OWASA sewer easement. 

Proponents argue that a greenway would seamlessly connect Carrboro’s northern neighborhoods, and Chapel Hill High, Smith Middle, and Seawell Elementary School with Chapel Hill’s approved greenway extension to Estes Drive, creating a safe, car-free route to travel from Northern Carrboro all the way down to University Mall. Proponents also argue that having accessible greenspaces nearby would enhance residents’ connection with nature and reduce their need to drive to further-away forests. 

“I … started hiking in those woods over 40 years ago, and at the time, there wasn’t even a path going down to get you down the stream,” says Carrboro resident Melva Fager Okun. “I don’t need to drive to the mountains to do a lovely stream walk. I don’t need to even drive to Duke Forest or to a state park to walk in a lovely wooded area.”

Opponents say there are better alignments that offer the same transportation benefits. They liken the project to paving the creek. 

“It isn’t like you order carpet and they come in and roll it out and all’s well,” says Carrboro resident and Friends of Bolin Creek member Diane Robertson. “It isn’t something that lies flat on paper and you see a line and you say ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have a pathway right there?’ It is a major construction project in a fragile ecosystem.”

Tranquil as it is, Bolin Creek is still an urban forest. Some sections of the creek back up against higher-end subdivisions. Children can wander from their swingset to the creek’s edge, residents’ living rooms look out onto green treetops. The residential proximity, the existing network of trails within Carolina North Forest, and the sewer easement’s wide clearing have created a well-worn creekside trail, albeit unpaved for now. 

An afternoon stroll on the easement sees kids lugging backpacks, slobbery-tongued dogs trotting along on-leash, mountain bikers with mud-splattered wheels, and silver-haired professor types wearing athleisure and ambling along with hiking poles. 

The existing path is rugged and muddy at points, with the occasional cone-shaped sewer cap poking out of the forest floor and thin black pipe crossing over the creek’s smooth waters. Trees stand on either side of the easement corridor, holding up the creek bank on one side and the hillside on the other. 

“There would definitely be loss of trees,” says Carrboro resident and Bolin Forest Climate Action supporter Linda Haac. “If you were to pave [the OWASA easement], you’d have to dig down deep enough to have a road. The subsurface would be tree roots. Those tree roots go to the trees along the bank on either side. You cut the tree roots, you lose the trees. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen.”

Haac and other members of Friends of Bolin Creek have concerns about complications related to replacing the sewer line if the greenway is paved on top of the existing easement.

OWASA Engineering Manager Allison Spinelli confirmed that OWASA is not scheduled to perform maintenance on this section of sewer line until mid-2028 or 2029 at the earliest. Spinelli says replacing sewer lines underneath a paved trail would be business as usual for OWASA. But the impact on any hypothetical construction timeline is unclear and would likely factor in after the public engagement process. 

Flink, of Greenways Inc., notes that municipalities often choose to build greenways on top of sewer easements. This has been done in Cary, Hoover, Alabama, Denver, and Ramsey County, Minnesota, among other places. 

“I’ve never had one municipality come back and say ‘Boy, we should’ve never built that trail on top of our sewer line or near our sewer line or whatever,” Flink says.

Greenway supporters also cite the 2009 Master Plan’s note that the sewer easement is an already disturbed area. Trees have been cut to clear a path wide enough for maintenance vehicles, and the sewer line is treated to prevent roots from growing into the easement and cracking the pipes. 

Dr. Johnny Randall, conservation director at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, sees paving the pathway as preferable to the existing dirt trail. 

“Paving a perpetually disturbed easement, even next to a stream, was always far preferable than leaving it to erode every time it rained and put sediment in the creek,” Randall says. “If you go out there and look at it when it rains, you’ll see that the water either runs off or pools up in ruts on the greenway.”

Friends of Bolin Creek Director Tom Cors feels differently. 

“Why would we want to further impair a system knowing what we know—that putting in impervious surface in a riparian zone is not good for an ecosystem,” Cors says.

Friends of Bolin Creek Director Tom Cors

Other opponents echo Cors’s environmental concerns, and repeatedly emphasize concerns over constructing a greenway next to a flood-prone creek. They worry about reduced tree canopy, impacts on the macroinvertebrate population levels in the creek, and the destructive effects of construction. 

It’s hard to find new ground in an argument that has gone on for so long. Any point that one side makes has a ready-made rebuttal from the other. An opponent to paving says they’re worried about reducing Bolin Forest’s ability to trap carbon. Those in favor say paving will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by taking cars off the road. That same proponent argues that the greenway would provide students another route to school and reduce rush hour traffic. Opponents assert that children wouldn’t use the path in rainy or cold weather, and that high school students would never walk or bike to school—they have too much stuff to carry, or they prefer their friends’ cars. 

Still, 14 years on, the conversation has reemerged, and the town is finally embracing it. Former Mayor Mark Chilton, who was in office in 2009, sees the renewed debate as an opportunity for Carrboro to take meaningful environmental action. 

“Most of the things that our planet needs to do on a grand scale are not within the control of our local governments,” Chilton says. “But we do have control over this, over where we develop and how we develop, how we build our transportation infrastructure, whether it’s car oriented, or whether it’s bike- and bus-oriented.”

“Let’s do it,” he adds. “Let’s build a bicycle, pedestrian, and transit friendly future.” 

Ryan Byars & son Wayt, Alyson West, and Allison DeMarco members of Carrboro Linear Parks Project
Ryan Byars & son Wayt, Alyson West, and Allison DeMarco members of Carrboro Linear Parks Project

The Carrboro Greenways Commission, a volunteer-staffed board, is charged with “recommending policies, programs, and actions that may assist the Town in safeguarding the water quality, environment, and livability of the community by establishing greenways.” But past and present members of the commission say that they were told not to discuss proposed phases three and four of the Bolin Creek Greenway in their meetings. 

“Anytime there came a discussion, the town staff had to say, ‘you can’t discuss Bolin Creek,” former Carrboro Greenways Commission member Charlie Hileman says. “Anytime Bolin Creek was brought up [the Greenway Commission] was told no, that’s verboten, this is Voldemort, we’re not allowed to discuss this, can’t go forward.”

Former Carrboro Greenways Commission member Charlie Hileman

Emails from town staff to Greenway Commission members (dated as recently as November 2022), internal emails between Carrboro town council members (dated November 2019), a video of Carrboro Town Council meeting from June 2016, and town council meeting minutes from June 2018 confirm Hileman’s assertion.

In short, it became clear that charting a path forward was the council’s responsibility, and delays in doing so rested on their shoulders.

“Oftentimes, [politicians try to] keep everyone happy,” says Carrboro Town Council member Sammy Slade. “But, in this instance, the image I’ve always had is that it’s like a festering wound, where not following through with what we said we were going to do is de facto taking action by leaving the status quo.”

Slade adds that there’s “a certain group within the community” that wanted to table the discussion indefinitely. 

“But what we told the community we were going to do is actually go through a process and thereafter make a decision,” Slade says. “The reason why it’s taken this long is, a majority of the council, over all these years, has been reluctant to be decisive.”

Slade also cites construction of other phases of the proposed greenway as a reason for the delay. Carrboro mayor and longtime former council member Damon Seils echoes Slade’s view. 

“It’s been easy for the council to just let it sit … because we know that there’s been some controversy in the past about the project,” Seils says. “The reason …the discussion’s moving forward now is that, frankly, there are people on the council who just want it resolved.”

Former Mayor Lydia Lavelle noted strong and concentrated community opposition to the project.

“It’s a greenway that runs through people’s backyards,” she notes. “That’s where you find sometimes people get the most upset and the loudest … They were people who did live along it or used it a lot or on the cross country teams or are really familiar with it. As opposed to greater Carrboro that doesn’t even realize what an amenity this is or could be.”

Frustration that hardline persistence against seeing a paved greenway shut out debate or progress on the issue and the council’s continual stalling meant town staff never planned for phases three and four altogether, as emails between council members from 2019 show. 

But recent elections saw enough turnover on the council to usher in a pro-development majority, specifically with the ouster of creekside greenway opponent and longtime council member Jacquelyn Gist and election of newcomer Danny Nowell in 2021 and with the special election of Eliazar Posada in 2022, who were both endorsed by NEXT NC.

Gist did not respond to a request for comment.

The March meeting saw town staff walk away with a clear timeline for a public engagement process on the proposal. The Bolin Creek public engagement website will remain live until late September or early October, giving town staff time to condense findings for the mid-October report back to the town council.

Beyond this, officials hesitate to offer any potential construction timeline. Town staff point to the multi-step process outlined in the original 2009 Master Plan, including identifying funding sources, project design specifics, and meetings with local stakeholders as next steps in the process.

Officials on town council remain optimistic regarding momentum on the greenway.

“We’re finally getting some movement,” says Slade. “There’s a majority on the board that understands we should follow through with what we said we’re going to do.”

Town Council Randee Haven O’Donnell, the lone dissenting vote in March’s meeting, has reservations about moving forward with public engagement. 

Credit: Carrboro Town Council member Randee Haven O'Donnell. Photo courtesy of the subject

“The scope of work that was offered up was one that did not put the education and the information and the need for data up front,” O’Donnell says. “And without that being present, you’re asking for [the] community to make uninformed decisions.”

O’Donnell says they have questions regarding potential carbon sequestration loss, effect on water quality, data and numbers for who would potentially use the greenway and for what purposes, and more. O’Donnell says they hope there is room for compromise moving forward.

“What are the compromises? Where do we find that level set middle ground? Because if that’s not our objective, then we’re looking for further polarization through the process,” O’Donnell says. “The work that has to be front-loaded right now is one of community building, through the expectation that we’re going to find compromises on all sides.”

But Seils, who is retiring at the end of this year, says he is hopeful that Carrboro will find a way. 

“This is not unique,” Seils says. “There are greenways all over the world, including in places just like this one. We have a lot of other examples to look to that can be instructive and informative and help us make this decision.”

Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.