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.

Local Leaders Make Progress On Rogers Road Remediation Plan

CHAPEL HILL- The Rogers Road remediation plan has been in the works for nearly two years, but recently Chapel Hill and Orange County each took steps to move the plan forward.

On Tuesday night, Orange County Commissioners unanimously signed off on an operating agreement for the yet-to-be-built Rogers Road Community Center.

Once completed, the facility will be operated by the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association, or RENA. Minister Robert Campbell is the president of RENA. He told the board this is an important step forward for the neighborhood.

“We have an opportunity to bring our community into the future,” said Campbell. “Our children in the summertime have nowhere to go. But now we have the opportunity to help shape and mold them right here in the community.”

Commissioners committed $650,000 back in January of 2013 to build the center on land leased from Habitat for Humanity, but the project was delayed last fall when constructions bids came in over budget. County staffers say the building has been redesigned and the rebidding process should be complete by April.

The community center is part of a remediation plan agreed on by representatives from RENA, Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, to help make amends to the neighborhood that bore the burden of the county and municipal landfill for forty years.

The plan also includes extending sewer service to 86 parcels in the Rogers Road neighborhood, at an estimated cost of approximately $5.8 million dollars.

Carrboro has already set aside its portion of the total, about $900,000. Chapel Hill, however, is struggling to find a way to pay its share, as the area is outside of town limits. Town staffers are currently investigating the possibility of creating a new utility district or extending the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction to include Rogers Road.

In the meantime, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted last week to spend up to $77,400 on preliminary engineering studies and community outreach to determine exactly where sewer lines should go.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said this is work that will need to be done no matter what.

“What this does is, this moves the ball even though Commissioners and Council members just keep talking,” Kleinschmidt told the Council.

The engineering studies and outreach are expected to take up to 10 months to complete. The Chapel Hill Town Council will revisit the question of the extraterritorial jurisdiction on June 16.

High Bids Put Rogers Road Community Center On Hold

CHAPEL HILL- Interim County Manager Michael Talbert told Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday that progress toward a Rogers Road community center will have to be put on hold.

“Today we received bids on the community center. Unfortunately the bids came in substantially over budget,” said Talbert.

Commissioners authorized $650,000 to build a new facility, but the initial project bids ranged from $1.3 million up to $1.6 million dollars.

Talbert said the project would have to be redesigned, but he offered no timeline for when that might happen.

“The county is committed to this project,” said Talbert. “We will begin working immediately with the architect to redesign this project to get it within budget and move forward to rebid the project at some future date after we can come back with a redesign.”

That wasn’t the only setback for Rogers Road residents at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

The board had planned to approve an operating agreement with the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) for the community center, but commissioners pulled the agreement off the agenda, saying a slew of last minute changes required further review by the county attorney.

Despite the delays, Board Chair Barry Jacobs said the commissioners remain committed to the project.

“The Board of County Commissioners has done nothing to delay this, so we’re going to try to deal with things that were unanticipated, that came up that could delay it and try to keep things moving forward as expeditiously as we possibly can,” said Jacobs.

The operating agreement is tentatively scheduled to come back to the board for a vote on October 1.

Funding for the community center is part of a remediation plan for the neighborhood that’s lived with the landfill for 40 years. Commissioners on Tuesday reviewed the final report from a multi-jurisdictional task force charged with creating a plan to extend sewer service to the neighborhood as part of that remediation.

Under the plan, Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Orange County would split the roughly $5.8 million dollar bill to bring sewer service to 86 homes in the area.

The plan is making its way through the three jurisdictions, with both Carrboro and Orange County officials waiting to see if Chapel Hill will extend extra-territorial jurisdiction to the area, as attorneys say that’s the only way the town can invest money in the sewer project.

With the community center on hold and funding for the sewer plan still uncertain, Commissioner Mark Dorosin urged his fellow commissioners to take action to show their support for the remediation plan.

“There is a perception now in the community that the towns are more committed to this than the county,” said Dorosin. “I don’t believe it is true, but I believe it is unfortunate.”

Dorosin put forward a motion to commit the board to future funding for the sewer project, but the motion failed to garner support from any other commissioners.

Jacobs said board members were acting on the advice of County Attorney John Roberts.

Roberts cautioned the board against any action on the remediation plan while the EPA is investigating claims by RENA that the county engaged in environmental racism against the largely African-American community.

“I think it is legally risky to expend funds in this area when the EPA could come in and say, ‘Oh that’s very nice and irrelevant. You need to expend more funds to do X,Y and Z,’” Roberts told the board.

Dorosin, who acted as RENA’s attorney in the EPA complaint before stepping aside in July, said he disagreed with the attorney’s advice. He worried that the board’s silence sent a signal to the community that the remediation plan was losing momentum.

But Renee Price, who co-chaired the task force that developed the sewer plan, said her support for the Rogers Road neighborhood was unwavering.

“In our responsibility as commissioners, we have not forgotten that neighborhood,” said Price. “I’ve been there numerous times. I actually take it as an affront to say that I’m not committed.”

County commissioners will take up the issue of the remediation plan November 21, when the board meets with elected officials from Carrboro and Chapel Hill at the annual Assembly of Governments.

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.