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.
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 lead 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.”
***Listen to the full account of the history of RENA’s complaint***
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.
ORANGE COUNTY – The Rogers Road Task Force agreed Wednesday to move forward with two options for providing a sewer system, with out water services, for the community.
The first option will cost about $5.8 million and will serve 86 properties. The second option will cost $3.7 million, providing sewer services for 67 properties in the historic area of Rogers Road.
An expanded plan, costing more than $17 million and providing water services as well, was proposed in an earlier meeting.
The task force, made up of members form the Chapel Hill Town Council, the Carrboro Board of Alderman and the Board of Commissioners, in addition to representatives from the neighborhood, agreed to discuss those two, less expensive options with their respective governing boards.
The new cost-sharing plan was discussed as well. The cost-share for the Town of Chapel Hill has been lowered so it can put money towards the community center, with the county and Carrboro paying the majority of the costs. The Carrboro Board of Aldermen and the Chapel Hill Town Council have made offers on what they will pay. Carrboro has committed a price of no more than $900,000. Orange County Commissioners haven’t voted on what they are willing to contribute.
Though there was some progress towards moving forward, Rogers Road resident Jeanie Stroud says after decades of waiting, she is tired of empty promises.
“As a new group comes in, the promises fade out. They say that can’t stand behind previous decisions because they don’t have it in the records or whatever,” Stroud said. “The feeling in the community is frustration and that’s why you don’t see many people coming to the meetings. They are either dead, burned out on the issue, or warn out.”
Because the neighborhood is stretched over Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County jurisdiction, making decisions on how to provide services to the area hasn’t been an easy feat.
“There is a sincere and deep-rooted frustration in the Rogers Road community that has been going on for too many years, since the beginning of the landfill opening,” said Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade.
A point of frustration for Slade and fellow BoA member, Michelle Johnson, was when Commissioners Renee Price and Penny Rich said that County’s agenda was full until the fall, and a formal discussion could not be had until that time.
“We had, coming out of the last meeting, made a motion asking that each of the board share these proposals with their boards so that the conversation over the summer would be an informed one having a true sense of where the boards stand,” Slade said.
Price said that the Board of County Commissioners would be able to informally examine the options to a certain extent.
Another point of contention was which plan would ultimately be better for the community. Some members of the task force seemed to favor the smaller, less expensive sewer system plan, while others wanted to provide more service to more residents.
“I don’t want the neighborhood to make a choice out of a sense that the alternatives aren’t viable. But if the alternative is a problem to the Historic Rogers Road Community because it does represent a little more time required to implement, then I’m respectful of that,” Slade said.
The task force will meet again July 17at the Solid Waste Administrative Office on Eubanks Road. The group plans to begin drafting a report of what action will be taken. By August 21st, the members then hope to review the drafted report to present to their respective jurisdictions.
Lee Storrow, of the Chapel Hill Town Council, said that annexation should not be an option. He said it would place too much burden on the residents to have to then pay higher taxes. Some members agreed that an ETJ, or Extraterritorial jurisdiction, could be an option. ETJ is the legal ability of a government to exercise authority beyond its normal boundaries.
According to Michael Talbert, Assistant County Manager, if the agreement between the three municipalities had been drawn up this summer, OWASA could have broken ground by next year, in the late summer or early fall.
Talbert said that as each year passes, the costs of installing a sewer system will continue to increase.
“The fact that this is a jointly owned public property represents an opportunity for us to really find creative ways to encourage affordable housing on those spaces, to provide green space for folks who already live there, and expand more affordable housing in an area in both of our town where things are getting really expensive and a lot of people can’t afford to be here,” says Slade.
The Greene Tract is adjacent to the Rogers Road Study area and the Town of Chapel Hill city limits. The 2006-2009 Rogers Road Small Area Plan Draft called for 86 acres of open space in the area, with 18 acres also earmarked for affordable housing.
Slade says the affordable housing aspect is an important one for the continued development of both the Rogers Road community and the town of Carrboro.
“It’s one way in which to guarantee that we have and maintain a diverse community,” says Slade. “Carrboro used to be the other side of the tracks and in a way; we have been a victim of our own success. Prices have pushed people out and we’ve essentially become gentrified, so we have to be very proactive in ensuring that it doesn’t get worse and that we try to maintain that diversity.”
Slade says localized commercial development is another potential option for the area.
Rogers Road is a historically African-American neighborhood located north of downtown Carrboro and Chapel Hill. The area has long not only been neglected but also the source of broken promises from local government.
The Orange County Landfill has been located near Rogers Road since 1972. The Board of Aldermen also passed a resolution Tuesday night allowing Town Manager David Andrews to negotiate with either Waste Industries or the City of Durham to send their trash across county lines.
The Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted last month to extend the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood Task Force an additional six months with the condition that they report to the commissioners on or before September 17 of this year. Slade and fellow Aldermen Michelle Johnson serve on the committee as representatives of the Town of Carrboro.
Other plans for the area could involve a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school. But Slade says a new school may not be the best use of the land.
“One of the challenges when we talk about a public school is that public schools are not so far from there,” says Slade. “There’s this question of using public property to build another public school or taking the opportunity to use that property to build affordable housing.”
The school would be in addition to two proposed community centers serving the area–one a public center jointly financed by local governments and one owned by St. Paul A.M.E Church which plans to relocate to the neighborhood in the near future.
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