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The Orange County Landfill

or how an historic community of color
​was "dumped on" for more than 40 years !

Due to population growth and increased development, landfills were full or nearing capacity in the late 1960s in the Chapel Hill area.  The search for a piece of land to build a new landfill began in 1971 shortly after the election of Howard Lee, Chapel Hill’s first African American mayor.

The Orange County Commissioners were and are the central decision makers for community landfills, and on November 2, 1970; the first mention of a countywide landfill was brought up at a BOCC meeting.  They first explored a 200-acre area of land near the site of Camp Chestnut Ridge.  However, the commissioners were met with stiff public resistance to the prospect of a landfill near the camp.  Many felt that this land was not suitable because of the cost of the land, the proximity to the camp, and the number of children who could potentially come into contact year round with the landfill.  The community was also upset by the failure to disclose this decision to the members of surrounding neighborhoods.

In June of 1972, the Chestnut Ridge site was dropped, and a new site was proposed.  However this new site had to be rezoned for a landfill to be possible.  The Orange County Planning Board and the Orange County Commissioners scheduled a public hearing to discuss rezoning of the land under consideration from “residential” to “rural industrial.” This rezoning made the Rogers-Eubanks Road site possible.  Members of the Rogers Road community, similar to those close to the Chestnut Ridge site, began to fight a landfill in their home.  The New Hope Improvement Association was created to organize vocal advocates; the group grew to have approximately 500 members.

The County Commissioners faced a difficult decision, a growing amount of waste, and opposition to all landfill sites.  Resident and current RENA community center Program Director, David Caldwell remembers Mayor Howard Lee of Chapel Hill visiting the area when he was a young boy.   Caldwell remembers Lee telling his father, “We want to put a landfill out here. To do it, if you’ll allow us to do it, we’re going to pave your road.  When the landfill is full, we’re going to turn it into a recreation center for you.” After Mayor Lee’s promises to the community, the opposition gradually weakened but did not disappear.  Author David Vallero, points out that since Howard Lee did not represent Carrboro, Hillsborough, or Orange County, his promises were not considered binding by other government entities.

On September 5, 1972 the Town of Chapel Hill declared a solid waste emergency. On September 14, the Chapel Hill Alderman voted unanimously to proceed and purchase the 200-acre site in the Eubanks community for $235,000. The Commissioners argued that Eubanks Road was sparsely populated and would be less objectionable than the Chestnut Ridge site.   They proceeded with the development of the landfill against the advice of the Orange County Planning Board.  The New Hope Improvement Association filed a suit against the County which was heard in late September and denied in early October.  Yet in late 1972, an unlined landfill was built on 80 acres of land on Eubanks Road.

The Rogers Road community had their doubts and fears but they also had based on promises made by Mayor Lee.  Several residents voiced their concerns to the commissioners throughout the discussion of landfill location.  Sidney Usery, chair of the Solid Waste and Vector Control of the State board, wrote in the book Rogers Road,

“There are a number of residences in the vicinity of Eubanks, particularly to the south in the Rogers Road community, whose occupants rely on wells, shallow and deep…The seriousness is aggravated in the Eubanks case by uncertainty to the actual ground water level, the presence of several springs, and the complexity of the underlying geology, which makes it difficult or impossible to predict ground water flow.”

                                    Mayor Howard Lee, Mayor Robert Wells Jr. and Chairman H.D. Bennett
                                    signed the full agreement
 about the landfill on November 30, 1972.  The two
                                   towns and the county agreed to share the capital costs of the facility, land
                                   ownership, and operation management.

The Rogers Road Community remained a tight knit community.  The community took a hit during times of economic downturns and remained a relatively low-income area. However the group regularly gathered for neighborhood celebrations at Faith Tabernacle, in people’s backyards, and at the old youth center that was a mobile home owned by Mr. and Mrs. David Campbell.  The landfill continued to be a burden on this community.  It lead to truck traffic, foul odors, poor water quality, and unwanted pests.

The ultimate shock came in the 1980’s when the County announced that rather than closing the landfill, they planned to expand the facility.  The events of the years to follow were a repeat of the events of 1972 when the rural areas of the city and town were having decision made about them and having their fate decided for them.

This community has dealt with Orange County’s landfill in their backyards for almost 40 yearswith little compensation.  While the county commissioners voted in October of 2011 not to extend the landfill, many issues still remain.  The community continued to ask for sewer, water, and reduced traffic on their roads.  Many of these homes rely on well water and have failing sewer systems.  In 2010 studies were conducted on 11 wells in the Rogers Road community.  The study released results that only two of the eleven tested wells supplied water that was within the EPA’s water standards.  Once water lines were run to the community, the sewer and water hookup fees were so high that these households could not afford them.  The community has also been burdened by illegal dumpsites.

The garbage trucks start running early in the morning and go late into the evening.  Many of these trucks carry and drop their waste into illegal dumpsites.  The same can be said for people who go to drop their waste off at the landfill during hours it is closed. County officials continued to disagree on how to handle a landfill search and what to do with the county’s waste.  The Rogers Road community continued to advocate for their homes, families, and property.  As of now, there is not a long-term solution in place for the Rogers Road community.  After the landfill closes the waste will be shipped to a waste transfer station in Durham.  But, this is just a short-term solution.  The Town of Chapel Hill has plans to find long term sustainable ways to handle their waste however, it is unlikely that the county will choose an option before the landfill hits capacity.

The 67 properties in that are hooked up to backyard wells have been promised water hookups but there is not a timeline on this committment.  The estimated cost of these hook ups is $288,000 and the county planed to use solid waste funds to conduct these hookups.  However, public funds are not able to be used to hook up private homes to the system, so they are only able to pay for water lines to the property lines not to the houses themselves.   Once these houses are hooked up another issue arises when the residents are not able or willing to pay the monthly water rate.

The community is also burdened with illegal dumpsites.   The board decided in October of 2011 to move forward with the clean up of 50 of these sites which is estimated to cost $50,000.

And on February 21st, 2012, The Orange County Board of Commissioners Voted Unanimously to close the landfill June 30, 2013!

Mrs. Nunn at the gate.jpeg
Howard Lee.jpeg

Howard Lee

David Caldwell, Mrs. Gertrude Nunn, Robert Campbell at the closing of the Landfill gates.

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