What’s the Highest and Best Use of Bolin Creek in Carrboro?

This position paper has been developed by Save Bolin Creek to explain the issues involved in building greenways and bikeways in the area of Bolin Creek in Carrboro. Save Bolin Creek invites comments on this position and may revise it as new information comes to light. September 20, 2010.

Ideas Under Consideration

The Town of Carrboro is developing a plan for Bolin Creek. Several alternative routes have been presented for the construction of a paved greenway either along the creek from Estes Drive to Homestead Road or following other routes through the lands surrounding the creek. The alternative that has attracted the most attention is a paved greenway located close to the creek recommended in a consultant’s report. This alternative has both supporters and opponents. The best decision will come if all the facts about this location are carefully considered.

Is a Paved Greenway Along the Creek Needed for Transportation Purposes?

Supporters of a paved greenway along the creek say that it will provide a bicycle route that will reduce automobile traffic and allow safe access to schools, as well as recreational riding opportunities. However, bicycle routes are already in existence or planned that will provide all these benefits. The bike route that the University is committed to build along Seawell School Road parallels Bolin Creek. It will be a safe, high standard bicycle route separated from auto traffic on the road. There are also existing or planned bike routes along Estes Drive, Homestead Road, and streets west of Bolin Creek. The need for safe bike routes is real, but this is a problem that is well along to solution without a paved route along the creek. These safe bike routes that surround the Bolin Creek tracts on all sides have better connectivity to other streets and neighborhoods and are thus more useful to students and commuters than a route along the creek would be.

Would a Paved Bolin Creek Greenway be as Desirable as Others in the Area?

There are paved greenways along Bolin Creek and Booker Creek in Chapel Hill, plus one under construction along Morgan Creek. In all three cases, these greenways were built where the creeks flow through broad, flat valleys. These greenways could be constructed with minimal land grading. Most important, there was room to build them well away from the creeks, leaving a wide band of trees and vegetation to keep sedimentation and runoff out of the creeks and preserving creekside shade trees to lower water temperature, important for aquatic habitat. These greenways are usually at least 50 feet from the creeks, often much more. In contrast, Bolin Creek in Carrboro is in a narrow valley with slopes coming down to the creek banks along much of its course. Building a paved greenway here would cause much greater environmental damage, because more grading and land disturbance would be required very close to the creek and more stream-side vegetation would be damaged or removed.

Is There a Practical Route for a Paved Greenway Along Bolin Creek in Carrboro?

The concrete Morgan Creek greenway now under construction provides a good idea of how a paved Bolin Creek greenway would look. This greenway passes through a wooded area. The builders are doing a good job of disturbing no more of the forest than necessary. A path for the construction of the greenway has been cleared and leveled. This cleared area is at a minimum 25-27 feet wide, increasing to 30-40 feet where small bridges are built over drainage ditches. How would a paved greenway like this look in the very different setting of Bolin Creek?

An OWASA sewer easement runs along this part of Bolin Creek in Carrboro. There is a dirt trail about 20 feet wide along the easement, which gives OWASA access to the pipe and manholes for maintenance. Some have advocated building the paved greenway directly on the sewer corridor, because this area is already disturbed and might appear to have less severe environmental impacts. However, this corridor is very close to the creek. Building a paved greenway here with the 25 foot wide minimum graded and cleared area would place almost all of the construction in the 30 foot and 50 foot buffers established by the Jordan Lake rules for water quality protection, long stretches of it within the 30 foot buffer. Under state rules, land disturbance in the 30 foot buffer is to be avoided. Locating pavement this close to the stream would damage stream-side vegetation and reduce desirable shading of the creek. The existing Bolin, Booker, and Morgan Creek Greenways have avoided this kind of environmental damage by keeping over 50 feet away from the creeks, except for very short segments.

The Town staff and the Town’s consultant, Greenways Inc., have realized the problems with building a greenway on the sewer corridor right beside the creek.  This is documented in the November 30, 2009 staff memo.  Both the Town and the consultant have recommended that the greenway alternative route which parallels the creek should be located at least 25 feet from the creek bank and out of the floodway and the floodplain if possible. Building further from the creek would allow stream-side vegetation to be protected and restored, and would reduce the sediment problems from land disturbance and construction so near the creek banks. Pulling back from the creek edge would reduce damage to the greenway from flooding and the resultant high maintenance costs. However, given the terrain of this section of Bolin Creek, building at a distance from the creek would involve extensive tree clearing and grading to level a route on the steep slopes away from the creek. The cost of this alignment would be much higher. A new easement would be needed from a private landowner and from the University. But the University is on record as opposing additional tree removal and land clearing, which are inconsistent with the development agreement for Carolina North.

The OWASA sewer pipe along Bolin Creek is an old concrete pipe with a smaller capacity than the newer iron pipes both upstream and downstream from this section. At some time it will need to be replaced. Both the Town and the consultant have said that greenway construction should be coordinated with the replacement of this sewer line. But the sewer line replacement is not funded or scheduled by OWASA. It would not make sense to build a paved greenway on top of the old sewer pipe and then have to tear it up and rebuild it when the sewer line is replaced. Who would pay for this? Neither would it be wise to build a paved greenway away from the creek until the sewer line replacement schedule is determined. This would result in two parallel disturbed corridors (the new greenway and the existing sewer corridor) with a double loss of forest and habitat.

The Jordan Lake rules prohibit land disturbance within the 30 foot buffer along Bolin Creek. Exceptions can be made for small incursions in the buffer area where no alternatives exist. But in this case, building the greenway on the sewer corridor would place long stretches of it entirely within the 30 foot buffer. Also in this case there are not only the alternative locations for the greenway within the tracts of land surrounding the creek, but also the existing or planned bike routes entirely surrounding Bolin Creek, especially the off-road route paralleling the creek along Seawell School Road which will be built according to the terms of the Carolina North Development Agreement.

Taking all these factors together, there is not a practical or acceptable location for a paved greenway along Bolin Creek.


The cost of building a paved greenway along the creek was estimated at well over $3 million. This estimate is based on a conceptual plan. The cost will be likely to increase significantly as the difficulties of building in this location are looked at more realistically. The primary purpose of building a paved greenway to such a high construction standard is for bicycle transportation. Since these Bolin Creek tracts will soon be surrounded by high standard bike routes with better connectivity to neighborhoods and main roads than the proposed route along Bolin Creek, is it justified to spend so much public money for this proposed project?

The Best Plan

The existing Bolin and Booker Creek greenways are built in narrow land corridors with housing developments close by on each side. The Morgan Creek greenway is being built between a busy highway and a power line right of way. A paved greenway fits the best use of land in these highly developed parts of town.

Bolin Creek in Carrboro sits within an entirely different context. Carrboro purchased the Adams Tract to preserve its botanical and wildlife richness and its natural beauty. The Town of Chapel Hill negotiated a development agreement with the University to preserve an extensive part of the Carolina North site adjacent to Bolin Creek to be managed for wildlife habitat and nature study and appreciation. Bolin Creek is thus the heart and centerpiece of an extensive nature preserve. The goals for this large tract of land should guide decisions about the greenway.

Bolin Creek in Carrboro is presently enjoyed by large groups of walkers, trail runners, bicycle riders, and appreciators of nature. The dirt path along the creek is a welcome change from pavement. The natural surface path engenders a slower pace and a more contemplative approach that is treasured by many. This beautiful creek, surrounded by lands dedicated to preservation, is like Battle Park, the NC Botanical Garden, Eno River State Park, and Umstead State Park, all natural areas surrounded by urban development and managed to give urban dwellers an experience of nature not transformed by pavement. In these other parks, simple dirt trails allow access, but do not destroy the natural experience.

Bolin Creek and the surrounding preserved lands should be managed the same way as these other urban parks. The best solution for Bolin Creek is to stabilize and restore the creekside trail and environment at a very modest cost, while avoiding the environmental damage and loss of the natural experience that a 25 foot wide cleared swath with a paved greenway would bring. The cleared area (the greenway plus the sewer corridor) could be a minimum of 60 feet wide if built outside the 30 foot buffer. Not all stream corridors are alike and not all should be managed alike. The community will be richer if we have variety: both paved greenways and more natural paths where each is appropriate. The best plan for Bolin Creek respects the purpose of the extensive conservation lands surrounding the creek and maintains the natural beauty and wildlife value of these lands by avoiding the extensive clearing, grading, and paving that a paved greenway would bring.

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