This article was published in the CHALT newsletter in October, 2014
One of the ways that Chapel Hill differs from its sister cities in the Research Triangle is that when you are standing in the center of town at the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets, with a modern high-rise apartment building a block to one side of you and a world-class research university a block away in the opposite direction, you are also less than 10 miles away—a comfortable bicycling distance—from working dairy farms and beautiful agricultural landscapes. This didn’t happen by accident.
Back in 1986, Chapel Hill’s elected officials thought ahead and wanted to put in place progressive land use rules that would encourage growth in the right places. They saw increased development coming and wished to avoid urban sprawl—or “slurbia” as former Mayor Jimmy Wallace used to say—gobbling up the countryside just outside Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
They established a 38,000-acre low-density “buffer zone” in southeast Orange County whose rural character would be maintained. It wasn’t easy to do. The negotiations among Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro elected leaders were occasionally contentious, but the negotiators persisted and ultimately reached agreements on watershed protection measures, an urban services boundary, transition areas and other features that define the rural buffer.
These agreements were codified in the Orange County Joint Planning agreement signed by the three governments in October 1986 and, to encourage the governments to preserve the agreement, were incorporated into an N.C. legislative act. Almost 30 years later, despite ever growing development pressure, the rural buffer remains intact, a testament to the visionary leaders who argued it into existence.