Orange County

People are sure to notice when these trees fall in Chapel Hill, Carrboro

Property owner Kathryn Butler wants to harvest most of this 14.7-acre tree farm at the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Her forestry consultant says a lot of the trees are damaged and should have been harvested many years ago.
Property owner Kathryn Butler wants to harvest most of this 14.7-acre tree farm at the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Her forestry consultant says a lot of the trees are damaged and should have been harvested many years ago. tgrubb@heraldsun.com

Big changes are coming in the next few years to the tree-lined corridor of Estes Drive, one of the major east-west connections between Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Although no plans or permits are in place yet, Chapel Hill resident P.H. Craig Jr. recently contacted town officials about his desire to harvest timber from 77 acres he owns near the Carolina North Forest and Bolin Creek Greenway.

Craig’s land lies mostly in Carrboro, with a sliver in Chapel Hill. It’s been largely untouched for about 50 years, he said, but state tax rules for timber land, the age of the trees and the risk of fire threatening nearby homes is forcing his hand.

“When they get in there, I’m going to cry like a baby,” Craig said. “I don’t want to see my trees go, but it’s too much jeopardy ... I could lose it all, either to forest fire or pine beetles.”

Insects, age and lightning already have made a mark on trees at the northeastern corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, forestry consultant Barny Bernard said.

The 14.7-acre tract has an existing forestry plan but has not been touched in more than 25 years, said Tom Colhoun, a real estate agent representing landowner Kathryn Butler. Bernard said the primarily pine forest is roughly 45 to 80 years old.

“There’s very little hardwood. It’s rather insignificant compared to what the pine is,” Bernard said. “Everything needs to go. ... They’re all of the same age, and when they get to those ages, they need to be harvested.”

Logging also will allow light to reach the younger trees, he noted.

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A forestry sign has been posted identifying this tract of land at Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as a tree farm. Tammy Grubb tgrubb@heraldsun.com

Logging typically takes about three weeks, he said, and it could start anytime between May and autumn of 2019, depending on the weather and what the timber mills need.

Butler has a permit from the town that limits the logging trucks to right-in, right-out only turns from Estes Drive and requires loggers to protect an ephemeral stream on the site, which holds water only during storms. The permit also limits work hours to ease traffic tie-ups.

Central West district

The Butler logging operation could coincide with construction of the Chapel Hill Retirement Residence on 6.4 acres to the east. The Town Council approved developer Hawthorne Retirement Group’s 152-unit, three- and four-story independent living center a year ago.

It’s the only project approved since the Central West small-area plan was approved in 2013.

Mark Lowen, with Lenity Architecture, said work on the retirement center could begin in the next 30 days. The project could coincide with Estes-MLK intersection improvements, including new bike and pedestrian amenities, noted Kay Pearlstein, the town’s senior planner.

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Butler, meanwhile, has been working to develop her property for seven years, Colhoun said.

Carolina Flats, the first development plan submitted for her property in 2011, included a four-story hotel and 190 apartments. The plan was revised and resubmitted in 2012 as Chartwell, a five-story hotel, restaurant space, and 190 apartments and townhouses.

Opposition to both projects led the town and community members to create a plan for Central West – 97 acres on the eastern side of the Estes Drive-MLK Jr. Boulevard intersection. The Central West plan shows three- to four-story, mixed-use and apartment buildings on Butler’s land.

That prompted a third concept plan for Butler’s property – the North Estes Mixed-Use Center – in 2017. The Town Council advised Butler’s developer to do more with the site, such as include more green space, parking decks and uses that make the site an attractive “destination” for more people.

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The town’s response was frustrating, said Colhoun, who contends the now-defunct North Estes plan matched the Central West vision.

“They spent all this time and energy on getting the Central West small-area plan approved and ... adopted it, and now they won’t rezone the property [for a project that meets] a specific small-area plan they approved,” he said. “How do you do that?”

The problem with Central West is it was supposed to be more dense to complement UNC’s future Carolina North campus, said land planner Scott Murray, who worked with the North Estes project developer.

The town approved a plan for UNC’s 250-acre research and academic campus in 2009 on land that includes Horace Williams Airport, but it languished without state money, leaving in place an airport hazard zone that limits how tall surrounding buildings can be.

UNC’s Board of Trustees voted last fall to close the airport; it could happen this spring.

The town’s vision for a more urban project with parking decks and green space won’t work without the people that Carolina North would bring, Murray said.

“You can’t even finance that,” he said. “The small area plan was done at the time Carolina North was right on the short horizon. Had that been the case, then it probably should be a more intense site.”

Council member Michael Parker has said the North Estes plan did address some aspects of the Central West vision. However, Parker, a former co-chairman of the Central West committee, also urged the developer to include less-visible parking, better street and trail connections, and changes that create a sense of community.

The small-area plan isn’t “a blueprint that you can follow or not follow,” he said last week. “It provides principles and objectives and some direction, so it is possible for reasonable people to differ on whether or not a specific plan accords with the small area plan.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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