Sunday, October 2, 2022

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“Rats as big as cats,” snakes, and a jungle befitting a Tarzan movie, resident complains of City Park overgrowth

Mayor assures resident that “jungle” in City Park is about to be tamed

When people speak of the “urban jungle,” it generally isn’t to describe a densely forested landscape in some metropolis that practically demands a machete to cut through the undergrowth.

But that, according to one Burlington resident, is precisely what he sees when he visits City Park, where a state-funded stream restoration program has created a thick tangle of vegetation that he personally likens to a scene straight of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

John Cole, who resides near the grounds of this park, didn’t hesitate to make this striking comparison when he shared his concerns with Burlington’s city council during its latest regular meeting on Tuesday.

John Cole

“I’ve seen rats there as big as cats; snakes everywhere…How bad does it need to get before somebody will make City Park look like it used to look?…Why isn’t the city taking care of what I consider a gem?…I want it to be like it once was.”

– Neighborhood resident John Cole

Burlington mayor Jim Butler

“We have all known for some time that [the overgrowth] was a danger and an eyesore. But by contractual agreement, we could not touch it.”

. . . “We are now out from under [the deal], and we can start addressing some of the issues that you brought up…So, I think you’re going to see some significant changes.”

– Burlington mayor Jim Butler

“My problem is that City Park now looks like they’re about to film a Tarzan movie in it,” Cole told the council during a designated public comment period that evening. “I’ve seen rats there as big as cats; snakes everywhere…How bad does it need to get before somebody will make City Park look like it used to look?…Why isn’t the city taking care of what I consider a gem?…I want it to be like it once was.”

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Yet, the vivid vignette which Cole painted for the council wasn’t entirely new to the city’s elected officials – who have, for years, heard a veritable Amazon of complaints about the unruly vegetation along City Park’s stream.

The seeds that gave rise to this overgrown waterway were originally planted in 2007 when environmental regulators in Raleigh made the city an offer that, at the time, struck most of its leaders as just too good to refuse.

That August, officials from the erstwhile N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources offered to conduct a stream restoration project within City Park that they promised would not only help the municipality meet some rather stringent new water quality rules but wouldn’t cost them a dime.

The city’s leaders went on to accept this interjurisdictional bargain and were initially pleased with the results, as state-subsidized contractors painstakingly rebuilt the stream’s weathered banks and reintroduced vegetation to prevent any future erosion.

It wasn’t long, however, before city officials noticed the Mephistophelian catch to this deal, which forbade them to do anything to interfere with the resurgent flora as it took over the newly restored stream banks. Bound by a contractual agreement that they simply couldn’t afford to break, the city’s leaders had little choice but to step back from the stream banks and endure the growing complaints that this vegetative buffer was drawing.

In response to Cole’s criticism on Tuesday, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler tried to give the aggrieved resident a sense of the predicament that he and his colleagues have faced due to this stream restoration agreement.

“We have all known for some time that [the overgrowth] was a danger and an eyesore,” the mayor explained after Cole shared his concerns. “But by contractual agreement, we could not touch it.”

Butler added that it was only a few years ago that the city finally began to make headway with the state-level officials responsible for this project.

“We started having a series of meetings,” he recalled, “and we used some of our crime statistics and pleaded our case. [The project’s administrators] readily admitted that the program they had put us in worked well in rural areas but it didn’t work well in urban areas. So they admitted that they had made a mistake.”

Butler added that the city finally obtained the means to free itself of this obligation when then-state senator Rick Gunn secured the revenue that Burlington needed to buy its way out of the deal. Since then, the state has gradually allowed the city to reclaim control over the buffer – as Bob Patterson, the city’s water resources director, explained at the behest of the mayor.

“It’s an interim process where we go in and remove vegetation and do some selective pruning,” Patterson went on to elaborate. “But we still need to leave a buffer as part of the rules to protect the water quality there.”

In any event, Butler told Cole to give this new arrangement some time to ferment – at which point, he insisted there should be some tangible signs that City Park’s impassible jungle is at last being tamed.

“We are now out from under [the deal],” he assured Cole, “and we can start addressing some of the issues that you brought up…So, I think you’re going to see some significant changes.”


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