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JULY 2007

UNC PLANNING CAREFULLY FOR FUTURE

We have partnered with the local community in recent months to engage in conversations about the university's plans for the Carolina North campus. Those discussions have included several well-attended community meetings in which our neighbors had opportunities to share their comments and perspectives about the possibilities for the 900-plus acres of the Horace Williams tract.

The community's extensive feedback will be reflected in a draft concept plan that we will bring to our Board of Trustees this Thursday. We expect to submit a concept plan approved by the trustees to the Town of Chapel Hill in October.

This university has a long history of planning for the future while preserving the most cherished physical features of the campus. I was reminded just how thoughtful and ongoing this process has been over the years when I read in these pages recently, first in a guest column by Town Council member Cam Hill and in a later editorial, that the university consider moving the mixed-use academic development planned for Carolina North to the Mason Farm tract.

This 1,227-acre tract, about 800 acres of it given to the university in the will of Mary Elizabeth Mason, lies to the east of the main campus and is home to the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Finley Golf Course, our Wastewater Research Center, the William and Ida Friday Continuing Education Center, WUNC-FM, several athletic fields, a day care center and other buildings associated with the university or UNC Health Care.

Mr. Hill specifically recommended building on Finley Golf Course, which he would relocate to the Horace Williams property. On the surface, I can understand why Mr. Hill and others in the community might reach that conclusion.

In fact, the university considered that very idea more than a decade ago. Just as the Horace Williams tract has been thoroughly studied by our staff and consultants during the Carolina North planning process, the Mason Farm tract was studied in the mid-1990s. A faculty planning group led by Professor Tom Clegg looked at possible uses for the site, and the university hired the consulting firm Johnson, Johnson and Roy Inc. (now JJR) to do a detailed study of the potential development of both the Mason Farm property and the Horace Williams tract.

Two issues emerged that made extensive development on Finley Golf Course infeasible.

First, a significant portion of the golf course lies in the 100-year floodplain, which means it contains fewer acres that can be developed. Finley Golf Course occupies approximately 215 acres, 74 acres of which lie in the floodplain. Moreover, some 102.7 acres (including the 74) of Finley's total acreage are in the Resource Conservation District. Keeping this conservation district intact means the university would be able to develop less than half of the 250 acres that we now associate with our needs for the next 50 years at Carolina North.

Second, Finley Golf Course (which we spent $8 million to upgrade in 1997) serves as a vital environmental buffer to very sensitive ecologies now in the North Carolina Botanical Garden and Biological Reserve. There are numerous active projects underway at the garden and reserve, many of which depend on the quiet environment of the dense, deep hardwood forests, where audio recording is still possible. Any new development that would bring increased noise and interference with study of the forest communities would negatively affect important research.

The JJR study also looked at the potential uses for the Horace Williams property, establishing key elements of the planning and transportation systems for its development. Next, the Horace Williams Advisory Committee worked extensively with Ayers Saint Gross consultants to develop a concept master plan using the JJR report as a basis, for the highest and best use of the Horace Williams property to fulfill the strategic vision over the near and long term. The work of this committee helped establish more specific concepts of design for the type of mixed-use academic and research campus that could be created at the property.

That campus is Carolina North. And the best place to build it is still the Horace Williams property, where nearly all of the proposed development for the first 15 years will occur on land that has already been disturbed. Even over a 50-year period, the university intends to concentrate development in a 250-acre area of the property, leaving much of the 900-plus acres in the tract -- which includes wetlands and wooded areas -- undisturbed. We are meeting the challenge we have set for ourselves to prepare carefully for the future, remaining ever-mindful of the land-use lessons from our past.

 

 

James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages at jmoeser@unc.edu





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