ORANGE COUNTY – The Rogers Road Community has fought for sewer services for a long time with out seeing any results. The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans recently to investigate claims of racial discrimination by the Orange County Planning Department toward the neighborhood. This has created questions how much the county can do now to help and how all this will affect the work of the Rogers Road Task Force.
“We’ve just heard so much of the same things before. I think that this final document coming in August should clarify a lot of things and get us back on track. That was one of the better parts [of today’s meeting] that there were definite dates and times for our expectations on getting a lot of things accomplished,” said David Caldwell, president of the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA), following Wednesday’s task force meeting.
Because the neighborhood is stretched over the jurisdictions’ of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County, decisions on how to provide services to the area have been challenging. That’s why a task force, made up of elected leaders from the three municipalities, was charged with finding a solution. The group plans to compose a final report, detailing plans to help provide the Rogers Rd. neighborhood with the service(s) denied to them for years, and then to present the report to their respective boards.
RENA filed the EPA complaint in 2007 alleging that the county’s failure to apply for federal grants to fund the Rogers Road sewer extension was because of intentional discrimination. After six years, the EPA announced it’s jurisdiction to follow through, complicating an already complex issue.
Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich, who serves on the task force, told WCHL prior to Wednesday’s meeting that she was concerned that county could not move forward with any recommendations due to the investigation. Fellow commissioner Renee Price echoed the same sentiments.
“This is just an investigation; there may be no mediation. Who knows what will happen? Right now it’s just an investigation. We have no idea whether there’s going to be a need for some type of settlement,” Price said to the task force.
Beth Eynon, a community inclusion attorney fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights (the office representing RENA in their EPA complaint), said that an investigation does not mean that the county’s action will be halted. Rich disagreed and said the county attorney ordered that they not vote on any final decisions.
However, Rich said the county representatives can move forward with discussions in the task force meetings.
Eynon explained because it is a complaint, and not law suit, it most likely can’t be dropped and a timeline for resolution is unknown. She said there’s a possible option to seek mediation between the county and RENA through EPA investigators. Eynon additionally added that if the task force were to move forward with a recommendation for sewer infrastructure, investigators would likely work with the county at that point.
Caldwell acknowledged to the task force that the investigation has complicated the process, effectively putting Rogers Road neighbors in a “catch-22.” Still he said it was a necessary action.
“It was something that the organization had to do to get things started. We were in a learning phase. It was one of those things that opened some eyes. I’m surprised it took as long as it did,” Caldwell said.
Despite the looming EPA investigation, the task force did make progress on several measures. The group passed a motion to preference a $5.8 million sewer plan that will serve 86 properties. The group passed then passed a recommendation to move forward with a 43 percent Chapel Hill; 43 percent Orange County; and 14 percent Carrboro cost sharing proposal.
Caldwell said RENA would support the plan as long as there was a definite timeline given and a commitment to follow through.
The proposal, however, is contingent upon Chapel Hill extending extraterritorial jurisdiction to include the neighborhood. Lee Storrow, of the Chapel Hill Town Council, explained the council’s rationale to consider an ETJ extension.
“I don’t want to treat our first step as an immediate endorsement by all nine members of the council of an ETJ process, but we felt that if we didn’t start and get moving, we were going to keep punting the ball and not making decisions,” Storrow said.
The task force agreed to explore a second $3.7 million option providing sewer services for 67 properties in the historic area of Rogers Road if the first plan doesn’t pan out.
Price and Rich noted that BoCC can’t discuss either proposal until their next meeting in September, at the earliest.
Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil said the various had met with their staffs to discuss an approach to Rogers Road. He wanted to “add meat” to the task force’s report.
“I think there’s way for us to proceed and put this together to compliment what you [the task force] is already doing. I think this will have the potential to speed it up and provide resources to do things in a faster way.” Stancil said.
The task force then passed a motion to hear a report drawn up by the municipalities’ town mangers on their suggestions for the project. That report will be presented to the task force next month.
The group also recommended moving forward with discussions calling for Chapel Hill to annex properties in the Neville Tract, with the hopes of providing water and sewer services to that area. Additionally, Town and County Managers will make suggestions to the task force concerning the entire Greene Tract area.
The task force’s next and final meeting is set for August 21 when they hope to have final draft of the report.
Caldwell said that though decisions are being made he does not feel satisfied. “I haven’t felt good in a long, long time,” he said.