Site improvements underway on Legion Road property while land use plans remain pending

COMMUNITY

By Pamir Kiciman

On a warm January afternoon after a weekend of snow and ice, Colony Woods residents Bill and Anne Brashear accompanied a local reporter on a tour of the town-owned fields and woods located at 1714 Legion Rd. northeast of Chapel Hill. Since the spring of 2020, under the auspices of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation (CHPR), the Brashears have been leading a volunteer effort to remove invasive plant species from the property. About a dozen people attend regularly, and three local scout troops periodically lend a hand. CHPR provided tools, gloves, fencing, debris removal and felled dead trees too large for volunteers to handle.

Anne says the project has been her “therapy” since the start of the pandemic.

“We call ourselves the Legion Park Volunteers,” Anne wrote in an email after the visit. “We use the term ‘park’ to emphasize our desire for the city to make the entire area a community park. »

The most prolific invasive species on the Legion Road property, as well as much of the city, are wisteria and kudzu. Because much of the 36-acre property is forested and has been left largely derelict for many decades, these invasive plants have thrived to the point that some areas now feature what the Brashears called “walls.” of wisteria”.

The Brashears pointed to wisteria branches as thick as an arm. “Imagine this 4-5 foot tall field of wisteria,” Bill said. “These areas that have trees were so overgrown [by wisteria]you couldn’t see below.

Cut down wisteria vines collected in heaps on Legion property. Photo by Pamir Kiciman.

Anne and Bill said that under all the wisteria and kudzu they found trees that were still living. “If you were to walk in there, there’s a whole carpet of all the interwoven wisteria,” said Diane Willis, a Colony Woods resident who took the tour.

“[Wisteria] is a tree that grows horizontally and then climbs,” says Anne. During the visit, the plant was clearly visible, spreading across the ground in all directions.

Bill said wisteria can be so thick that when the ground underneath has eroded, “you can walk on wisteria without touching the ground.”

In addition to cutting and physically removing these invasive plants, the Brashears’ group was trained in the use of herbicides by staff from the Orange County Agricultural Extension Agency. They use a careful and conservative method that avoids spraying.

“The spray has the potential to poison things you’re not looking for,” Bill said. “What we do is cut [the wisteria vine] to the ground and just put a dab of poison on the stem. This is called the “cut and paste” method and must be done plant by plant. Other invasive species that the volunteers have worked to eradicate include stilt grass and the tree of paradise. Bill said it was crucial to apply herbicide to the stem of this last plant because, “once you cut it down, its roots will send sprouts everywhere”.

In addition to removing invasive species, the Brashears and their group of volunteers have established native plants, trees and shrubs, such as horse chestnut and papaya. “If we plant something, it has to be indigenous,” Anne said. The Brashears said that following the removal of invasive species from the site, there has been a resurgence of native trees and plants, as well as a return of local wildlife. They also planted a butterfly garden.

A “wall of wisteria”. Photo by Anne Brashear.

Cleaning the wisteria and kudzu revealed many small trees still alive. Photo by Anne Brashear.

Limited area, multiple needs

The City purchased the property in 2016 from the American Legion Post 6 for $7.9 million. The purchase was the culmination of a year-long campaign by townspeople who wanted to see the town acquire the site, one of the few remaining large undeveloped plots of Chapel Hill, and turn it into a park community.

The following year, the City invited the public to participate in a planning exercise — a “charrette” — to imagine how the land might be used. Many different uses have been suggested, including conservation, indoor and outdoor recreation, civic and educational activities, and commercial and residential development.

Summary of the 2017 public planning exercise. Courtesy of the Town of Chapel Hill.

Colony Woods resident Dan Levine hopes some of the site area will be used to provide housing for low- and middle-income households. “I believe affordable housing and a park are complementary uses for this very large vacant state-owned lot,” he wrote in an email to TLR. “It is disappointing that a handful of park supporters say the site should be a park only. Every affordable housing advocate I know agrees that a park and housing would go well together, especially since the site is 36 acres and adjoins the existing park at Ephesus Park and sports fields and playgrounds accessible to the elementary school public. This site is adjacent to public transport, close to jobs and services… which will make it a privileged place to live for low-income residents. It’s also one of the few sites in the city that scores well on the state’s low-income housing tax credit criteria.

“I want affordable housing in my neighborhood,” he wrote, and cited the city government’s calculation that Chapel Hill has a shortage of over 3,000 homes accessible to those earning less than 60%. of the region’s median income.

The area around the Legion property currently has three publicly subsidized affordable housing communities. The city-owned Colony Woods West neighborhood adjacent to Legion property features 30 older duplex housing units. Additionally, in 2014, the City donated 8.5 acres on the west side of Legion Road, land previously intended for the expansion of the City Cemetery, to affordable housing developer DHIC. DHIC then built Greenfield Place and Greenfield Commons on the site, which together provide 149 apartments for low- and middle-income households.

Diane Willis said development of the property is limited by site conditions. For example, nearly a quarter of the land—8.6 acres—is made up of watercourses, watercourse buffers, wetlands and steep slopes which, by city ordinance, cannot be disturbed or constructed. Since development of other parts of the property would likely involve clearing some of the land, residents have expressed concern about the impact of such development on downstream flooding. Willis said mature trees absorb large volumes of water from the ground.

“If you cut them down to build anything, you take away some of what’s holding the soil down,” she said. “[The soil] sits on clay – it’s all Triassic sedimentation – and the clay doesn’t flow.

“If you follow the creek,” Bill Brashear said, “it goes under Ephesus Road. Just on this side of Ephesus Road are several houses that are in the 100-year floodplain. So if you develop whatever it’s over here, you’re going to flood the houses there. It’s going to cost the city money to repair the damage.

Volunteers are planting a butterfly garden on Legion property during the summer of 2021. Courtesy of Hongbin Gu.

Next steps

The Brashears and their group of volunteers aren’t the only ones working to improve Legion property. Last summer, the City sponsored an effort by several local school and community groups to establish a pollinator garden at the site. CHPR provided soil, mulch and gardening tools and worked with members of the Monarch Butterfly Club at East Chapel Hill High, Chapel Hill Chinese School and the Sino-Chinese Friendship Association. North Carolina American Garden to create a 1600 square foot garden containing 260 milkweeds and 120 bee plants to attract monarch butterflies.

“It was a delightful surprise for us,” said Bill Brashear.

Due in part to the pandemic, land development at the site has not made much progress since a council-appointed task force submitted its report in 2017.

Parks and Recreation Director Philip Fleischmann said the site is currently used for “passive recreation” such as walking, hiking and dog walking. Indeed, on the day of the visit, an open space near the entrance to the property appeared to function as a de facto off-leash dog park (a use that has come under criticism on neighborhood mailing lists) .

Dan Levine wrote in his email to TLR, “I hope today’s elected leaders will find ways to balance [different] interests to support the protection of key parts of the site (such as trails) and the expansion of park amenities and open spaces at Ephesus Park and Ephesus Elementary, while creating affordable housing and market-rate uses that generate tax revenues.

In an emailed statement to TLR, Chapel Hill communications manager Ran Northam wrote, “No decision has been made regarding the future use of American Legion property. City Council last discussed this property at its business meeting on February 12, 2020, just before the pandemic began. At that time, the Board expressed interest in a vigorous public discussion on future use, which was postponed by the pandemic. We expect projects such as the American Legion to be part of the five-year budget strategy discussion in the spring. These discussions with Council, staff and the community will help us prioritize our capital projects and therefore determine our timeline.

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