Growing smart – Celebrating 30 years of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Rural Buffer

Roger Waldon is a former planning director for the town of Chapel Hill.
Roger Waldon is a former planning director for the town of Chapel Hill.

A very smart planner once advised me that, while most people look at their community as a snapshot – the way things are today – it is the job of a community’s leadership to see a moving picture: to be thinking about what has already taken place and how we got here, current trends, and what our prospects are for the future.

Think back to the mid-1980s, if you can. The nation was just coming back from a severe economic downturn. Development was accelerating. Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which had been growing at 2 to 3 percent per year, were suddenly looking at annual increases of 10 percent or higher.

There were serious questions about whether this new growth might mean the end of the rural and agricultural character just minutes outside our town boundaries and what that might mean for the character of our communities.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County elected leaders began a discussion that resulted in a Joint Planning Agreement, executed in 1987, for how we wanted to see development patterns take place. The agreement was followed in 1988 by establishment of an Urban Growth Boundary beyond which town limits and services like water and sewer lines would not be extended.

This area was labeled a “Rural Buffer,” and was composed of 36,000 acres of farmland, forests, and watershed protection areas. The boundaries were drawn to align with easily recognizable natural and man-made features. The intent was to avoid the suburban sprawl that was happening in so many other places. Orange County and Hillsborough soon followed with a similar agreement that limits the geography of growth and helps protect the Upper Eno and Eno River State Park.

Fast-forward to the present. The Rural Buffer has stayed intact for 30 years. Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Orange County, and OWASA have all fully respected the rules and the intent. Public investment strategies have been drawn to provide services like water and sewer efficiently within the urban area, with no extensions into the buffer. Future school sites were identified and acquired with knowledge of where populations would and would not be living. Everyone benefited from the certainty of knowing where development could and could not occur.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro have maintained and enhanced their nature as walkable communities. OWASA has permanent protection for the watershed area surrounding our drinking water reservoir. And we all enjoy the uniqueness of being a vibrant urban community with farms and forests just beyond our doorstep.

We were not the first community in the U.S. to establish an urban growth boundary, but we were one of the first. And over the last 30 years our accomplishment has served as a model for other places in North Carolina and around the country.

What about the future? We have done a good job of managing growth in Southern Orange County over the last 30 years in a manner that has accommodated healthy and growing urban areas, while preserving the vitality of rural and agricultural areas, while maintaining and enhancing community character.

Can we keep it up? Absolutely.

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Rural Buffer is a good opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished, and to reaffirm our commitment to this successful approach to growth management. The Urban Growth Boundary and Rural Buffer made sense when they were established 30 years ago, and they make sense today.

Roger Waldon, Chapel Hill’s planning director from 1984-2005, is a planning consultant with Clarion Associates, working with communities across the Southeast U.S.

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