The Vanishing of the Bees Part II: Local Efforts

Last week in Part I of my series on bees, I reviewed the importance of pollinators to our food supply, the science behind the dramatic reduction in global population of honey bees, and the status and psychology of attempts to understand and solve the problem. This week, rather than further exploring the global issues, I want to address what we can and should do about this crisis right here at home.

Before we proceed, let me be clear on my personal expectations as a citizen of Chapel Hill and Orange County. I expect that environmental matters will be given high priority, that attempts will be made to use best-in-class approaches, that a data-based, forward-thinking mindset will be applied to policy making, and that all governmental bodies within Orange County will strive to set an example for the rest of the state and the nation. I am aware that not all of my fellow citizens agree with me on this, but our local election results do suggest that a majority do.

Due to the vital importance of pollinators, including North Carolina’s hundreds of native species of bees and butterflies, Orange County should enshrine supporting them as a vital environmental priority. Doing so is not difficult, will save us money, and will make a big difference.

Many of the changes we need to make involve land use, including those listed below:

  • Public spaces, road sides and gardens adjacent to government buildings should all be planted with native, perennial wildflowers. Many of these spaces are currently occupied with either grass or mulched beds of non-native, annual flowers. In addition to supporting pollinators, this approach would reduce maintenance expenses due to less need to mow, mulch and replant.
  • While I am certain that there would be legal challenges, I’d like to see legislation to prevent private homeowners associations from adopting and enforcing rules which are detrimental to pollinators. In many neighborhoods in Chapel Hill, homeowners are prevented from devoting portions of their property to natural areas and wild flower beds. This needs to change.
    • Following on the point above, I’d like to see our local culture move away from the cult of the lawn. Lawns consume tremendous amounts of energy and water. The chemicals that we apply to them to meet the standards of our homeowners associations are a significant source of water pollution due to runoff. Lawns provide little or no support for wildlife, pollinators or otherwise. And to top it all off, as a look around on even a sunny spring day will confirm, we rarely use them.

I am endeavoring to follow these measures myself. I own a home in Chapel Hill and a 16 acre farm in Orange County, of which 14 acres are wooded. Last year, I planted several native wild flowers beds. The results were immediate and amazing. As I walked through the farm last summer, I was enveloped in a floating sea of butterflies. I also saw many species of bees and insects I had never encountered before, many of which were extraordinarily beautiful.

This spring at both the house and the farm I have devoted even more space to wildflowers, including milkweed for the Monarch Butterfly. At the farm I am co-planting a variety of crops which depend on pollination, including tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons. I plan to post an update on these efforts over the summer, along with pictures and video.

The benefits of supporting pollinators in Orange County are clear and compelling. I also think we are long overdue for a bold new local environmental initiative. I challenge one of our local leaders to take up the banner for pollinator positive policies. I think many of the voters will be pleased.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to

CHTC Eyes New Zoning Tool For Ephesus-Fordham Area

CHAPEL HILL- Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt made it clear at a work session on Wednesday that he wants to see big changes to the area around the Ephesus-Fordham Boulevard intersection.

“We have an under-performing strip mall there. We have intersections that are impossible to navigate,” said Kleinschmidt. “We have these dysfunctions there and that distinguishes it from about everywhere else. You know, other parts of town have their problems, but this has got all of them at once.”

Lee Einsweiler is a consultant hired to update the town’s land use management ordinance. He says if applied correctly, form-based code has the power to transform parts of town that are currently underutilized.

“We’re talking about going from an auto-dominated portion of the community to a mixed-use walkable portion of the community with a much more intense development pattern than is there today,” said Einsweiler.

The Ephesus-Fordham area is under consideration for Chapel Hill’s first experiment with form-based coding.

Using a community-generated small area plan as its base, the council would designate certain development parameters like building height, setback from the road and parking, but beyond that, Einsweiler says approving new development in the 150 acre area would be an administrative function.

“In an ideal world, a form-based code is the result of great small area planning, great, tight coding to that small area plan, and therefore, with very proscriptive standards you can simply have a checklist for approving development,” Einsweiler told the council.

This would be markedly different from the current rezoning and Special Use Permit approval process, in which the council often bargains with developers to add affordable housing, transit infrastructure and a host of other concessions. Einswieler called this the “Mother-May-I” approach.

But some on the council worry the new method would come at a cost, as the form-based code does not allow the council to specify density within a development.

There is also no mechanism for requiring a developer to provide affordable housing, traffic impact analysis or energy efficient technologies. Council member Jim Ward said that would be a loss for the community.

“To me this seems like a loss from what we have now, the exactions that we have now,”said Ward. “This process doesn’t allow us to get an exaction on energy efficiency and public art and those are important to this community. They’re important to me.”

But Einswieler suggested that the code could provide the predictability developers are looking for. He said it might be enough to change Chapel Hill’s reputation for being a tough place to do business.

He stressed that the code would not be town-wide, as it would be tailored to only apply to certain areas designated by the council for redevelopment. Further, he said the council could allow the public to give input on design, landscaping and building materials by participating in project reviews by the Community Design Commission.

Though Kleinschmidt said there are some specifics to be ironed out, he welcomed the concept as a way to revitalize a major entrance-way to Chapel Hill.

“There is regulation here, this is not, you know, Wild West,” said Kleinschmidt. “That’s not what’s going on with this form-based code idea. There’s a lot of code, read rules, that have to be followed if you want to build in this district. We’re going to be writing them into it; we’re not going to be having three-year conversations about what the abandoned Volvo dealership should be. What we know it shouldn’t be is an abandoned Volvo dealership. I mean it’s ridiculous.”

The plan to create a form based code is still in its early stages, with no action from the council planned until next spring. Town officials are seeking public comment on the proposal by September 17.

In addition, town planners are preparing to launch a process to update the land use management ordinance. Staffers will be accepting public comment and answering questions at a series of events later this month.

CHTC To Discuss Land Use Code Rewrites

CHAPEL HILL – At a work session Wednesday, the Chapel Hill Town Council will discuss plans to rewrite the town’s land use codes to fit the new comprehensive plan laid out in the Chapel Hill 2020 process.

Later this month the town will host a series of events to get public input on topics including stormwater controls, commercial signage and regulations for bed and breakfasts.

Wednesday a consultant with Code Studios will present the timeline for the project and highlight key milestones for the council.

The work session begins at 6:00 p.m. in Meeting Room B at the Chapel Hill Public Library.