Orange County

Duke Forest steps in to save an Orange County natural heritage area from development

Duke University has paid $2.5 million for 27 acres on Eubanks Road, ending a developer’s eight-year plan to build offices, a general store and dozens of homes north of Carrboro.

Deeds filed with Orange County show the deal closed Tuesday. The land is assessed at roughly $574,000 for property tax purposes.

It was a disappointing but necessary outcome, said Omar Zinn, whose development company Parker Louis LLC has owned the land for over a decade.

In 2017, Zinn submitted a rezoning application with plans for offices, retail, and dozens of homes and apartments on the land, located near Old N.C. 86 and Morris Grove Elementary School.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I saw — not that my project wouldn’t get approved, because I truly feel like it was what the town of Carrboro wanted — but it was going to keep taking longer and longer, more of these experts are going to testify and give their opinion, so at the end of the day, my brother and I made the decision to sell the property to Duke Forest,” Zinn said.

Omar Zinn and his brother Adam Zinn were approached by the town in 2011 about the possibility of developing the land and held community workshops to draft options. The Board of Aldermen approved a new flexible zoning district in 2016 for projects like the Zinn proposal.

But the project ran into a snag in May when a group of residents questioned how it could affect the Meadow Flats natural heritage site that runs across the Zinn property and into Duke Forest.

Meadow Flats, which the town had not considered, is one of three naturally significant areas in Orange County with rare plant and animal species and “the best example of an upland depression swamp forest in Orange County,” according to Duke Forest supervisor Tom Craven.

The Zinn property also abuts Duke Forest’s 1,117-acre Blackwood Division, which is used for teaching and research.

Development concerns

Efforts to reach Duke Forest director Sara Childs were unsuccessful Wednesday.

She previously declined to comment about the pending land deal, but she and other Duke officials have expressed concerns to the town about how development could affect the land and the research conducted in Duke Forest. Duke Forest’s preference is for the land to be permanently protected, Childs has said.

In a statement Tuesday, Duke Forest officials announced the land deal.

“We are excited to add this acreage to the Duke Forest’s Blackwood Division, which is critical to our research mission,” the statement said. “The Blackwood Division has long been an important national and international destination for studies related to climate change, atmospheric chemistry, ecosystem health, and more. The addition of these lands helps preserve the integrity and viability of ongoing and future research and enhances our commitment to natural resource protection.”

Zinn said he understands the concerns and that people have a right to express them, but it’s also frustrating because of the time and money they’ve spent planning for the site’s development. He noted the town also has invested time and money in the work that staff, advisory boards and the Board of Aldermen have done.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro need to decide where they want dense projects to happen, because the available land is limited and growth is going to continue, he said. If that growth doesn’t happen in Orange County, businesses will continue to build in adjacent counties and take their sales and property tax revenues with them, he said.

“Would we have made more money developing the project? Sure. Everything has a price and everything has a cost,” Zinn said. “There are headaches involved in any business, but the headaches involved with development in our little village are more than what they should be.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.