The 100-acre site for a proposed industrial park at 304 Mount Willing Road in Efland had been targeted late last year for the development of a mega- gas station and retail complex.
Hoping to break into the North Carolina market, Texas-based Buc-ee’s filed an application for a “conditional district” zoning to build a travel center. Then known as “Efland Station,” the Buc-ee’s travel center would’ve featured a gas station with 120 double-sided gas pumps, a 64,000-square foot retail store, restaurant, and office space.
The Buc-ee’s proposal ultimately divided northern Orange County residents into two factions: one side opposed potential traffic congestion and environmental impacts; the other side had hoped it would bring good-paying jobs, long scarce in that part of the county.
Opponents circulated a petition that drew some 6,000 signatures, according to “A Voice for Orange County,” a community group. That group – originally named “A Voice for Efland & Orange” formed in the fall of 2020 specifically to oppose what it characterized as “one of the largest gas stations in the world,” according to its website.
Relying largely on stories published by news outlets in Alabama and Texas, as well as a traffic study conducted for “Buc-ee’s at Efland Station,” opponents called and emailed the seven Orange County commissioners to vote against the rezoning application for Buc-ee’s. “Buc-ee’s at Efland Station will most certainly: Severely intensify traffic congestion; pollute our water and air; strangle future sustainable growth in the area; and downgrade our quality of life,” the opponents contended.
The “Voice for Efland & Orange” group scheduled weekly planning meetings to coordinate their opposition, which they based on their belief that construction of the Buc-ee’s would increase air, light, and noise pollution from “tens of thousands of Buc-ee’s visitors that will heavily impact the overall quality of life for the immediate neighborhoods, residences, and farms;” that fuel runoff from the site would threaten water quality in the Seven Mile Creek, which flows into the town of Hillsborough’s water supply; and eventually lead to higher crime in the area, straining existing emergency services personnel, according to the group’s petition that eventually garnered thousands of signatures.
By comparison, a traffic study that the developer for the proposed industrial park, Oppidan, commissioned estimates the project would add 217 new vehicle trips during peak weekday morning hours and 161 new vehicle trips during peak weekday afternoon and evening hours in the area around Mount Willing Road, based on the traffic study that the Kimley-Horn firm in Raleigh conducted for the project.
There were 8,100 total vehicle trips per 24-hour period along the part of Mount Willing Road that sits north of the interstate, based on traffic counts taken by DOT in 2017, the latest period for which the data is available, according to the Kimley-Horn traffic study.
“Recent counts taken before the pandemic are useful,” said Chuck Edwards, the engineer for the division that includes Alamance, Orange, and three other Piedmont-Triad counties. No recent projects have been approved for the area where the Efland Industrial Park would be built that would’ve drastically altered the traffic volume since 2017, he said in a recent interview with The Alamance News.
Dramatic changes in traffic volume last year would’ve skewed any counts taken in 2020, the DOT engineer added, apparently referring to the steep drop-off in roadway travel that occurred after Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide school closure on March 14 and the subsequent statewide stay-at-home order on March 30, 2020.
Historic data indicate that the traffic volume in the immediate area surrounding the proposed site for the industrial park will continue to increase at annual rate of about 1.5 percent, “due to non-specific growth,” according to the traffic study that was conducted for the industrial park’s developer.
Kimley-Horn projected that the volume of traffic there would increase by 2 percent annually through 2023, the target completion date for construction of the Efland Industrial Park, according to the firm’s study, which describes the project as “general light industrial space.”
The primary entrance into the site would be about a mile up the interstate, off exit 161, at Ben Johnson Road, according to the Kimley-Horn study, which describes that stretch of road as the “U.S. 70/I-40 connector.” There were approximately 5,900 vehicle trips per 24-hour period along that portion of Ben Johnson Road as of 2018, the latest period the traffic counts were taken by DOT.
By comparison, there were approximately 116,000 vehicle trips per day along the portion of I-85/40 between exit 160 (Mount Willing Road in Efland) and exit 161 (described as the “U.S. 70/I-40 connector,” which runs perpendicular to the interstate, based on traffic counts taken by DOT in 2019.
For context, the existing and projected traffic volumes are based on rush hour counts, Edwards told the newspaper. Once DOT finishes its review of the traffic study that Kimley-Horn conducted for the developer, his division will go over the proposal to “get some consensus with [Orange County officials] and then go back to the developer to discuss potential traffic improvements,” he said.
The increase in traffic estimated for the Efland Industrial Park – 217 during the morning rush hour and 161 during the afternoon and evening rush hour – appears to be far less dramatic than the traffic that “Buc-ee’s Efland Station” would’ve generated, the DOT engineer pointed out in the interview. A traffic study that was completed for Buc-ee’s project that project would yield 35,000 new vehicle trips per day, Edwards confirmed for the newspaper. “The current proposed development is an entirely different land use and traffic,” he added, “than the previously-proposed land use.”
As currently envisioned, Efland Industrial Park would consist of four buildings with a total of “approximately 900,000 square feet of industrial distribution use and associated infrastructure,” according to the preliminary plan that the developer has filed with Orange County’s planning department. The site would have two entrances; the primary entrance would lead from U.S. 70 into the industrial park, which would have 596 parking spaces.
Dozens of community leaders in Orange County had rallied around the earlier proposal for Buc-ee’s Efland Station. Former Orange County commissioner Ben Lloyd, an Efland dairy farmer, wrote opinion columns and letters to the editors of the newspapers in Hillsborough and Durham, praising the potential to create good-paying jobs that would enable Orange County residents to work near where they live.
More than two dozen other current and former leaders – including former Orange County commissioner Stephen Halkiotis, who served 20 years on that board and later served on the Orange County school board – endorsed the Buc-ee’s proposal in an op-ed that ran in multiple newspapers in the Triangle area earlier this year.
Opponents of Buc-ee’s project appeared to be unaware of the years of planning and millions of dollars that were spent to extend sewer infrastructure to the site, the supporters wrote in their op-ed. Despite a unanimous recommendation by the planning board and “months of intense analysis from engineers, hydrologists, planners and more, the project is ensnarled in a disinformation campaign that is infuriating,” the supporters wrote. “Many opponents are unfamiliar with Efland, the site, or why this project is a good fit.”
Instead, “Opponents lectured us about climate change, clean water, and the future of fossil fuels without regard to the facts about the site and protections in the zoning and project plans,” the supporters wrote. “Opponents looked down on cashiers and custodians, even though Buc-ee’s living wage jobs, with vacation and benefits, are double the income of the average Efland resident. Efland was once a thriving rural community with a bank, post office, and other businesses. Local businesses and jobs have been gone for a long time… Efland Station will change that.
“Buc-ee’s had estimated that its project in Efland would create up to 200 jobs, with an average wage of $15.00 per hour, “equal to and above the Orange County living wage,” currently set at $13.90/hour for jobs that include employer-paid health care as a benefit, according to an analysis of the potential financial impact prepared by Orange County Economic Development in December 2020. Buc-ee’s also promised a capital investment of between $35 and $40 million that would yield $25 million in gross annual taxable sales, according to the county’s economic development department.
Opponents : ‘All of the issues are still of concern’
That was not to be. Buc-ee’s withdrew its zoning application earlier this year, after Orange County’s commissioners asked the company to cut the number of gas pumps in half and to scale back the size of its signs, according to documents that are on file with Orange County government, memorializing the earlier proposal and discussions.
This time, the “Voice for Orange County” group appears to be opposed to the newest plans for the property at 304 Mount Willing Road, citing environmental problems that its members believe the industrial park will create.
“The project will cause far fewer traffic issues for the area than a massive 24-hour gas station would have,” the group said in a statement posted on its website. “The industrial park also leaves a considerable amount of land to be preserved that Buc-ee’s would not have, mitigating the potential damage to the land and our ecosystem. While light and air pollution, drinking water contamination, and all of the issues residents were concerned about with Buc-ee’s are less of a concern, they are still of concern with the industrial park plan. As long as a proposed development puts drinking water at risk, A Voice for Orange County will continue to oppose them wholeheartedly.”
The group also notes that Orange County’s commissioners have long-advocated to retain Efland as a rural buffer. “We’ve heard from most [commissioners] about how we should focus on nurturing local businesses, preserving our agricultural lands, and protecting our drinking water,” A Voice for Orange County said in its statement. “Even though the Efland Industrial Park project is within current zoning regulations, it is the antithesis of what many [of our commissioners] have campaigned on and the desires expressed by the community in the Efland Mebane Small Area Plan… Our group has made clear that we are not anti-development, but we do not see how paving over useful farmland to build warehouses is a sustainable way forward for Orange County.”
S.L. Efland Heirs, the LLC that owns the site of the proposed industrial park, was created in 2015 and has four managing members, who reside in Georgia, Oregon, and California; Burlington attorney Joseph Kalo, IV serves as its registered agent, according to the latest annual report that has been filed with the Secretary of State, which describes the nature of the business as “investing.”
Affected property owners were notified in mid-October about the application and site plan that have been filed for Efland Industrial Park, according to Orange County’s planning department.
As it stands, the preliminary plan requires no public hearing or approval by Orange County’s commissioners, since the proposed uses conform to established land-use standards, the planning department noted in a report issued earlier this fall.
The internal review process remains ongoing, according to the Orange County planning department.