Rogers Road Plan Moves Ahead As EPA Wraps Up OC Investigation

With word that the Environmental Protection Agency has completed its investigation of the Orange County Planning Department, County Attorney John Roberts last week gave County Commissioners permission to restart talks about a plan to bring sewer service to the Historic Rogers Road community.

Roberts had previously advised the Board of Commissioners to hold off on discussing the sewer extension while the EPA looked into claims that the planning department had discriminated against the predominantly black neighborhood by failing to apply for grant money to fund new infrastructure.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County are planning to split the cost of the $5.8 million dollar sewer project, but discussion of how county leaders would chip in has been stalled during the EPA’s investigation.

Now that the year-long investigation is complete, commissioners can move forward with the remediation plan for the neighborhood that’s lived with the landfill for four decades. While Roberts said the board is now free to discuss funding for the sewer plan, he did urge caution, noting the results of the investigation have yet to be released.

It’s not clear when the EPA will announce its findings, but county officials say they anticipate that the full report will be released soon.

Aldermen Push For Action On Rogers Road Plan

CHAPEL HILL- Carrboro Aldermen on Thursday pushed Orange County Commissioners to move forward on a plan to bring sewer service to the Rogers Road community, despite an on-going EPA investigation that has dragged the process to a halt.

Alderman Michelle Johnson said she’d like to see commissioners take a stance on the issue, even if the board is hesitant to take action.

“I hope the county will get some clarity from their attorney, I hope you all will discuss it soon, and discussing is different from voting,” said Johnson.

A task force of elected officials and neighborhood representatives has recommended that Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Orange County share the $5.8 million dollar cost to extend sewer service to the area, as part of a remediation plan for the community that’s lived with the landfill for four decades.

But this summer, just as the three local governments were poised to sign off on a funding plan, the EPA launched an investigation into claims that the county discriminated against the largely African-American community by not applying for federal grant money to fund infrastructure improvements.

Since then, the county attorney advised commissioners not to take any action on the plan until the investigation is complete, but after three months and no word from the EPA, county officials sent a letter asking the agency to either speed up the process or drop the complaint.

Orange County Board Chair Barry Jacobs summed it up: “We haven’t heard anything in three months from the EPA, how about just letting us move forward and accepting that we have reached an agreement?”

Commissioner Mark Dorosin sided with the Aldermen, urging his fellow board members to discuss the two possible funding scenarios laid out by the task force and make their intentions more clearly known to federal investigators.

“I think if we could provide some more specifics to the EPA as to what our intentions would be, were this complaint resolved, that might go much more expeditiously than saying ‘dismiss the complaint, we generally assure you that we’re going to possibly implement the task force recommendations,’” said Dorosin.

Although some commissioners signaled they’d be open to more discussion, Jacobs reiterated the board won’t likely be taking action on the plan any time soon.

“It bothers all of us that the EPA complaint is delaying taking any action,” said Jacobs, “We’re not doing this happily, readily or even willingly. We’re doing it because this is the advice of our attorney.”

In the meantime, both boards are waiting to see if the Chapel Hill Town Council will extend its extraterritorial jurisdiction to Rogers Road, in order to fund the town’s portion of the sewer project.

The town council will hold a public hearing on the ETJ plan on Monday.

RENA Rep: Rogers Rd Plan Must Move On Despite EPA Investigation

CHAPEL HILL- Bethan Eynon is an attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights representing the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association, or RENA. She says the EPA  investigation should not put a stop to the work of the Rogers Road Task Force, which has been working on a sewer plan for the neighborhood for nearly eighteen months.

“We don’t believe that the county is prohibited from even discussing the Rogers Road situation and getting sewer infrastructure to Rogers Road through the task force,” says Eynon.

The task force is made up of elected leaders from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County as well as representatives from RENA. During the past year and a half, the group has been developing a remediation plan for the neighborhood that’s lived next to the landfill for four decades.

That remediation plan features the extension of OWASA sewer service to the area, at an estimated cost of about $6 million dollars. The task force was in the process of creating a cost-sharing plan to present to the various local governments this fall, when the EPA announced in June it would investigate a complaint filed by RENA years ago.

The complaint alleges that the county planning department intentionally discriminated against residents of the traditionally low-income African American neighborhood by not applying for federal grants to build sewer infrastructure, even as the county sought similar grants for other communities.

In response, County Attorney John Roberts warned commissioners they can’t take action on the remediation plan or allocate funding while the EPA investigation is ongoing.

Eynon worries the county’s stance will bring the work of the task force to a standstill.

“Unfortunately, if their position is that strong on this issue, I don’t think we can change their mind,”says Eynon. “But we can make it clear to the public and the task force and the other elected officials that we don’t believe their position is necessarily correct.”

After filing discrimination complaints in 2007 and 2011, RENA officials received no response from the federal government, leading many to believe the complaints had been forgotten. Though some are concerned that this new complication could delay the work of the task force, Eynon says it’s not clear if RENA has the authority to drop the complaint.

“We’re not sure if RENA has control over withdrawing the complaint because of the way the complaint was filed with the EPA,” says Eynon. “We don’t want to promise to the county that RENA can withdraw the complaint if it possibly can’t, procedurally. I don’t want the task force and the public to think that was the case, then find out later that we can’t withdraw the complaint.”

Eynon says ultimately, the goal of all parties is to find a way to bring sewer infrastructure to the area. She believes progress by the task force could address the issues raised in the original complaint.

“The end goal of the EPA complaint and the task force is the same, which is to get sewer infrastructure to Rogers Road, and that’s RENA’s first priority, whether it’s through the EPA complaint or through the task force, which we believe has been very productive in the last six months,” says Eynon. “So if sewer is no longer an issue in Rogers Road, then the EPA complaint is moot.”

The timeline for the investigation is unclear, but Eynon argues that’s no reason for the group to lose momentum.

“We don’t feel like everyone should assume that it will take a long time and use that to further delay the task force meetings,” says Eynon.

EPA officials declined an interview request from WCHL, writing in an email: “We are committed to processing and resolving complaints as expeditiously as possible. The investigation is currently open, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the details of the investigation.”

Eynon says she’ll be consulting with EPA investigators to clarify RENA’s position moving forward. Meanwhile, the task force is preparing to hold its final meeting on August 21.

At that meeting the town managers will present a report examining the logistics of extending sewer service, but its not clear to what extent county officials plan to participate.

EPA Investigation Could Halt Rogers Rd Remediation

CHAPEL HILL – Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich says she’s worried that a year and a half of work by the Rogers Road Task Force might be grinding to a halt as the Environmental Protection Agency launches an investigation into claims that the county’s planning department engaged in racial discrimination.

“I’m concerned about it,” says Rich, who, along with Renee Price represents the county on the task force. “I think that we’re going to still move forward with recommendations. I think Chapel Hill and Carrboro can keep moving forward. Orange County on the other hand might have to stop.”

After decades of discussion and dozens of reports, plans, work groups and task forces, elected officials from the towns and county are on the cusp of crafting a cost-sharing plan to extend OWASA sewer service to Rogers Road, the traditionally low-income African-American neighborhood straddling Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County that’s hosted the landfill since 1972.

The sewer project is part of a landfill remediation plan that’s estimated to cost approximately six million dollars.

The Carrboro Aldermen say they’ll chip in nearly a million. The Chapel Hill Town Council wants to explore extending extraterritorial jurisdiction to the neighborhood to make it easier to spend municipal tax dollars on the Rogers Road sewer project. But Orange County Commissioners, who up until now have led the charge to make amends for the landfill, are keeping quiet.

That’s because the EPA recently declared it has jurisdiction to launch a federal investigation into allegations that the county planning department and OWASA discriminated against the largely African-American community by failing to provide water and sewer service to Rogers Road.

To read the EPA’s letter to the Orange County Planning Department, click here.

Rich says the county commissioners can’t take action on the task force’s recommendations until the investigation is concluded.

“We actually need to be very careful with how we move forward with this,” says Rich. “We know that it could take months, up to a year or more for this investigation to be complete.”

At stake could be a federal grant of $1.3 million awarded to bring sewer service to the Efland and Buckhorn communities in western Orange County.

The complaint filed by the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association, or RENA, alleges that the county’s failure to apply for similar grants to fund the Rogers Road sewer extension amounts to intentional discrimination.

The Efland-Buckhorn sewer grant was awarded to the county in December 2010. At that time, there was not a concerted effort underway by the towns and county to bring sewer service to Rogers Road. The current task force didn’t get its start until 2012, when the county commissioners’ decision to close the landfill spurred action on a remediation plan.

The EPA’s announcement that it was launching the investigation this June took many by surprise, including those who originally filed the complaint against the county in 2007. That complaint was expanded in 2011, following the allocation of the Efland-Buckhorn grant money.

Up until recently, Mark Dorosin was the lead attorney representing RENA. He says the federal agency took so long to respond to the allegations that RENA leaders thought the complaint had been abandoned.

“The EPA complaint was just sort of out there for a long time without any sort of information or feedback about what was happening,” says Dorosin. “They collected some information and then folks just didn’t hear anything.”

In the meantime, Dorosin was elected to the Orange County Board of Commissioners, one of the three local governments responsible for funding the sewer extension.

At the board’s last meeting in June, Dorosin put forward a resolution pledging the county to provide funding for the yet-to-be determined sewer plan.

The motion failed in a 5-2 vote, in part because other commissioners were wary of taking action during the on-going investigation. Speaking at that June meeting, Commissioner Alice Gordon argued against the resolution.

“The county attorney has advised the commissioners to exercise significant restraint when authorizing expenditures in this area,” warned Gordon. “I think we’re in a much better position if we just let [the task force] go forward.”

Since then, Dorosin says he’s decided to recuse himself from deliberations that involve the EPA’s investigation. He says he’s also stepped away from his role as RENA’s legal counsel.

“I have now withdrawn as legal representative of RENA with regards to that complaint, because obviously I would have a conflict representing RENA and being on the county commission,” says Dorosin. “I’ve also recused myself from the commission on any discussion or matters or any meetings related to that, so there can’t be any concerns about actual or potential conflicts of interest.”

But Dorosin hopes the work of the current Rogers Road task force can continue.

“It is good public policy for us provide those promised services and benefits to that community,” says Dorosin. “I hope that I can continue to be an advocate for that. I think it is not just in the best interests of Rogers Road, it is in the best interests of all Orange County that we honor those commitments and address the harms and impacts that that community has suffered.”

The task force is set to meet on Wednesday. It’s the next to the last meeting of the group, and elected officials are hoping to come up with solid recommendations to take back to each governing body in the fall.

While Chapel Hill and Carrboro may be ready to take action after the summer break, Orange County leaders could have their hands tied for the foreseeable future.

Penny Rich has served on the task force first as a Chapel Hill Town Council member and now as a county commissioner. She says she also wants to make sure that the remediation efforts don’t lose momentum while the EPA conducts its investigation.

“We can talk and talk and talk, but its not until we take action that it feels like it is really happening. My hope is that the investigation goes quickly and we can move forward with some action to help the neighborhood that has not been helped for so many years.”

The task force meets at 4:00 p.m. Wednesday July 18 at the Solid Waste Administration Center on Eubanks Road.