Tag Archives: beavers

Explore upper New Hope Creek around Johnston Mill Nature Preserve

The Triangle Land Conservancy’s Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, established in June 1999, protects 296 acres along upper New Hope Creek. Much of the Triangle is in the New Hope basin, including major tributary Northeast Creek, and most of the Jordan Lake reservoir, a source of water for several municipalities, sits in the valley of the New Hope River. The lower end of New Hope Creek meanders across wide bottomlands in the Triassic Basin, while at Johnston Mill the Creek, still surprisingly wide, is clear and rocky like the Eno and there are stony remains of gristmills. I didn’t see any fish when I visited in mid-February, though I also didn’t make a special effort to find them, but this should be a good place to watch fish building their nests and spawning in the spring and early summer. In February a spring bloom of algae grew on cobbles in shallow sections with the increasing warmth and daylength. Much of the surrounding forest is not especially old, though there are some large and old trees, but it still shelters many rare to threatened species and is very biodiverse; for example more than 125 bird species have been seen and there many species of early-blooming and often very uncommon woodland wildflowers. The mix of fields and old to young forest, ranging from dry hilltops down to riparian edges, heightens biodiversity and the Preserve roughly links segements of Duke Forest for species that need large areas of contiguous forest. Being just north of Chapel Hill and near Durham, this seems to be one of the TLC’s busier preserves, especially near the Mount Sinai Road entrance. I found someone’s painted #Rockhunt cobble hidden between two trees far out on the Old Field Bluff Trail.

The reddish soil has numerous rocks, metamorphic or maybe igneous, unlike the generally sedimentary and relatively soft bedrock laid down in the Triassic Basin. Jagged outcroppings, a few supporting Polypodium ferns, and exposures in creek beds reveal vertically upturned bedrock.

The TLC says Johnston Mill has beech up to 150 years old, and there are large oaks. White and Northern red oaks, along with red maples, are common on the hilltops while lower down there are large, uncarved beech and May-blooming tuliptrees, above summer-blooming sourwoods. Elsewhere sycamores, hackberries, sweetgums, shagbark and other hickories, sugar maples, ash, and three species of pine grow above ironwood, hophornbeam, red cedars, black cherries, and occasional hollies. Black walnuts are most frequent in the younger woods in the northwest of the Preserve, along a high-tension powerline, where the forest intergrades with rural farmland and a few houses. Large lianas dangle from the canopy, including grapes and trumpetcreepers, attracting hummingbirds. These massive vines probably grew together with the original woody old field pioneers, such as the tuliptrees and sweetgums. Early-blooming spicebush and painted buckeyes grow near the streams, especially in the northwest section of the Preserve. There might be fringetrees, which bloom later in April. Elms, almost ready to bloom when I last visited, and a few boxelders and birch border the creeks. Throughout the Preserve what must be crownbeard, a tall yellow composite flower that blooms in late summer, is abundant and there are the stems of last summer’s mullein, mint, millkvine, dogfennel, nightshade, and broomsedge. The NC Natural Heritage Program’s inventory of significant natural areas in Orange County says “this is one of the most pleasing forest areas of its size in the county” and “The diversity of spring-blooming herbs is also extremely high and of great aesthetic value,” and includes early-blooming Hepatica, trout lilies, rue anemones, spring beauties, toothworts, jack-in-the-pulpit, and very rare Catesby’s trilliums (I don’t think I have ever seen any trillium species growing wild). Evergreen Christmas ferns, mosses, clubmoss, wild ginger, and May-blooming pipsissewa stood out in the leafless winter forest.

Shortly after walking in from the Turkey Farm Road entrance I saw a golden-crowned kinglet fluttering, gleaning the bare twigtips, a rare sight for me, though maybe not the first time after all, and it was just where Liz Pullman’s write-up for the Carolina Bird Club says to look for them ( www.carolinabirdclub.org/birdingnc/johnston_mill.html ). A belted kingfisher loudly patrolled along New Hope Creek. I saw, heard, or found evidence of 4 to 5 woodpecker species, white-breasted nuthatches, thrushes, hawks, barred owls, turkey vultures, brown thrashers, white-throated sparrows, what I think were savannah sparrows, possibly a phoebe, and several other species. Many warblers, both summer and scarlet tanagers, flycatchers, vireos, and other birds not often seen in yards can be seen in the bottomlands, especially during migration. Turkeys, bobwhites, hawks, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, and similar blue grosbeaks can be seen in the open areas. According to the NC Natural Heritage Program Inventory 21-23 species nested near Old Field Creek annually during the 80’s, including the more montane broad-winged hawks and worm-eating warblers.

Catawba rhododendrons, galax, trailing arbutus, saprophyte sweet pinesap, and foamflowers (another wildflower I have only seen cultivated) grow a short distance downstream in Duke Forest, at least partially accessible from Mount Sinai Road. There more typically western and montane plants, nesting cedar waxwings, red salamanders, and large red sumo mites meet more eastern dwarf waterdogs, yellow-bellied sliders, and snail bullheads.

Eastern chipmunks live in Duke Forest if not here, and the leafy nests of gray squirrels were very visible in late winter. A dog off-leash flushed out three or more hidden deer, and a small herd stood by Turkey Farm Road in the twilight as I left; the deer warning signs in the area are very appropriate. There were signs of beavers; river otters live in parts of New Hope Creek, possibly including Johnston Mill.

It was sunny and cold, but what were probably upland chorus frogs sang briefly near the Turkey Farm Road bluff in early afternoon. It didn’t feel that cold, but the temperature might have been in the 30’s and the wind picked up later. Marbled and spotted salamanders, Northern cricket frogs, and others breed in the bottomland while four-toed salamanders and gray petaltails, rare and primitive dragonflies, breed in hillside seeps. I saw a pickerel frog, similar to a leopard frog but earth-colored, with rectangular spots, and poisonous to other frogs, in rural Orange County when I was very young and never again anywhere else, though they can supposedly be found statewide, and they have been seen hereabouts. I am also impressed that queen snakes, a species more common in western NC and specializing in crayfish, especially recently molted, ‘soft-shelled’ ones, can be found downstream in Duke Forest.

Despite the lingering cold I found some arthropods, a small brown ant and small gray spider, as well as a large mantis eggmass, possibly from a Chinese or praying mantis, and many hackberry leaf galls. Getting to Johnston Mill small yellow daffodils, brilliant blue bluebirds, and a thrush were out as spring approached.

This is a re-edited excerpt from my article in the March – April issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at local libraries, gardens, and stores and also posted online at www.trianglegardener.com.
For a trail map, etc. see: www.triangleland.org/explore/nature-preserves/johnston-mill-nature-preserve

NC55-Hopson and Bull City Townhomes rezoning hearing comments

Below are some comments on the NC55-Hopson and Bull City Townhomes rezoning hearings coming up tomorrow evening, Monday, February 7th, at the “virtual” City Council meeting at 7pm. There will also be a hearing on the proposed 3602 Westminster Avenue rezoning, but that project isn’t in the Northeast Creek basin. People who want to speak at the hearings have to register by 2pm Monday:  cityordinances.durhamnc.gov/OnBaseAgendaOnline/Meetings/ViewMeeting?id=507&doctype=1 Most of this has been posted here before in some form. First there is a shorter summary of some issues with NC55-Hopson and then longer comments on the two proposals, mainly on the first.

Some points on NC55-Hopson

The NC Natural Heritage Program recommended in the most recent Durham County Inventory that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority. These slopes provide denning areas for terrestrial species, as well as refuges during periods of high water” while the 1999 Jordan Lake Inventory recommended that “No more utility corridors should be allowed in the area” along Northeast Creek between 55 and 751.

In light of the above, where would the utilities be placed for building in this part of Durham, including along Grandale south of Northeast Creek? It seems like new roads would be worse than utility corridors.

Harm to public land and its users can be seen as harm to the public, and people can benefit from or enjoy the gameland without ever going there to hunt, hike, etc. There is also the issue of things that currently happen at little or no cost, but might become externalities paid for by the City, neighbors, etc. because of construction.

What are Scannell’s plans? Recently roads were bulldozed at the northwest end for detailed surveying, so they would appear to already have a plan for where buildings and roads will be placed, but aren’t revealing it to the public. Since last year they have been planning to begin building this spring – building what, where?

I am against the extension of Hopson and Grandale, mainly because of the impact on the gameland and wildlife, as well as already existing dangers for pedestrians and cyclists on Grandale and nearby roads, though maybe these impacts could be partially alleviated. There are already connecting roads in roughly the same place. Could they be improved, instead of building a new road? Speeding on residential parts of Sedwick Road, far above the 25mph limit, should be addressed. On the other hand it might be beneficial if parking were improved to access the gameland.

What about light pollution? Would streetlights be placed on Grandale and the Hopson extension, harming nocturnal wildlife in a public natural area? Would NC55-Hopson include large greenhouses, which would impact my quality of life, miles away, and those further away, not to mention wildlife in the adjacent gameland? Currently that area is pretty dark and except for air traffic to or from RDU little or no artificial light is directly visible in places such as the middle of the powerline corridor between 55 and Grandale, probably one reason the gameland has so many fireflies, of several species, and nocturnal birds now very rare in the Triangle have been seen a short distance away.

An increasing issue – are Durham’s new blue streetlights worse with regard to light pollution than more conventionally-colored lights?

I am against blasting levelling hills, as has happened on the east side of 55. Also, the neighbors and possibly I would hear this construction and blasting going on. I’m more concerned about traffic noise, but long periods of loud construction noise might bother the neighbors and wildlife as well.

Building new roads obviously contributes to climate change, aside from the traffic and deforestation, and it would be redundant.

Runoff and any other pollution from these projects would quickly get into neighboring Northeast Creek and then into Jordan Lake, and if something toxic to humans leaked, people live not that far away. Non-native species and GMOs would also escape into a so far relatively pristine natural area. I doubt a “business park” would be interesting in managing its property to not harm the gameland, for example by limiting lawn chemical use and the amount of close-cropped, unnaturally green lawn and non-native plants. People would no doubt be watching for violations during construction, though it is a somewhat remote area. On the other hand Northeast Creek would probably turn from relatively clear to conspicuously opaque yellow or red at the well-travelled Tobacco Trail trestle, even if erosion regulations were followed completely.

Is building around the gameland in Durham and Cary going to end deer hunting, and cause overpopulation, leading to overgrazing and danger on roads? Someone, perhaps the City or neighborhood associations, would then have to pay to control the deer population, where before hunters and nature checked the deer population at little or no cost. A high deer population can eliminate plant species from an area. Fews Ford at Eno River State Park seemed like a highly-grazed area when I was last there, which would make sense since hunting is banned in much of that part of the Triangle.

The former claypit has some value in itself and could be preserved in some form, though it would probably be difficult to erase completely anyway.

Historical names for the area and geographic features could be used in future construction, rather than naming things after “Southpoint” when they are far from the Mall, etc. In this case at least Kit Creek isn’t that far away to the south, though I don’t think it drains much or any of the site. One location was called Togo/Genlee and I will have to look up whether Oyama/Few was also in this area. Burdens Creek and its major tributaries, once all having names, is nearby, though it does not drain this site. People seem to like former industrial history downtown, and here is a rural site, possibly the source of some of the red brick buildings downtown.

NC55-Hopson

I am not necessarily against building anywhere on this vast site but I have several concerns about this application and some issues tied to this application but not addressed in any public meetings that I am aware of, especially road expansion.

The entire property and I think what is proposed for annexation extends from east of Highway 55 to within sight of Grandale Road, an area probably a mile or more across, and this is the site my comments address, not just the smaller, but still very large, portion the applicant wants rezoned Industrial Light. It appears that the staff report recommends just zoning Industrial, if IL is deemed acceptable, but I have not looked into what that would allow. There are also connected issues covering a larger area.

There is too much ambiguity about what would be built and where. It seems like the applicant might not want to build at the very north end, but there is no commitment and surveying is going on up to the powerline corridor as if something will be built there soon, visible from Grandale, especially with the Wrenn land clearcut. There would be few limits on construction near the neighbors, and much of the site was clearcut, including the portion closest to Audubon Park and Parkwood at the north end. The clearcutting is very convenient for the Kimley-Horn memorandum on the environmental condition of the site, though it should be noted that a field or young pine forest is still habitat for some species. Rare plants such as pink ladyslipper orchids might prefer relatively young pine forests and red-tailed hawks hunt over fields and clearcutting probably benefits the deer and maybe woodcocks. Kimley-Horn is listed as an “agent” in the Zoning Map Change Application, attachment 11, and therefore would seem to have a conflict of interest in evaluating the environmental conditions.

The publicly-owned bottomlands along Northeast Creek are noted as a “buffer,” but they are not that wide and I would like to hear some concern to avoid harm to this public land and those who use it. At times many vehicles can be seen parked along Grandale on a weekend. If deer hunting decreases because of building hemming in the Wildlife Resources Commission-managed, Federally-owned gameland there might be an increase in the deer population in nearby neighborhoods, which is probably already high compared to other counties in the State. I like our neighborhood deer herds, but there could still be problems. There is also the issue that some species might need larger areas of forest than just what is protected as public land, or species might need upland as well as bottomland habitat, so buildings and roads could lead to the loss of species within the gameland. There is also the issue of species associated with human activity, such as English ivy, Norway rats, and feral cats, coming in with building and harming native plants and animals, not that I liike seeing rat traps around shopping centers. Near the site I have seen some non-native trees common on vacant land downtown growing on the clearcut land and utility corridors, though so far they are uncommon.

There is talk of a 40-50-foot buffer around the site, but most of the land was completely cleared of trees. Since then a growing woods around 20 feet high or more has sprouted since then, so the site is again wooded, but it once had larger trees and more hardwoods. A wooded buffer could have been had freely, but if non-native species are planted, they could easily escape into the adjacent gameland, and clearcutting spreads some non-native plants.

The NC NHP inventory reports noted nesting black-and-white warblers and probably nesting sharp-shinned hawks and the presence of ribbon snakes as rare animal species in the areas studied along Northeast Creek at the south end of the County, as well as Douglass’ bittercress and other state or regionally rare or unusual plants, and there were otters and mink along the Creek. The area has not been re-surveyed since 1999. The most recent Durham report recommended that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority. These slopes provide denning areas for terrestrial species, as well as refuges during periods of high water” while the 1999 Jordan Lake Inventory recommended that “No more utility corridors should be allowed in the area” along the Creek between 55 and 751. These recommendations directly relate to this rezoning application, but aren’t being brought up. I suggested to the Wildlife Resources Commission and US Army Corps of Engineers that the proposals in this area should be of concern to them.

This site is already vast, and I suspect that the Wrenn family’s land to the west, which was also recently clearcut, is available for sale. Does the applicant know something the public doesn’t? I am concerned that approving the rezoning under consideration will be the signal to sell more land in the area, so the near future of a larger area is in question today. Similarly there was a large amount of change along Ellis Road over a short period. The application seems to say that housing will be built along Grandale, as well as a new road. I only found out recently that the DCHCMPO plans to extend Hopson Road from 55 to Grandale and extend Grandale south in Chatham County. What are Cary’s plans along the county line? Is their plan to burden Durham to benefit Cary and other locations not in Durham County?

Until recently the government’s road plans in the area were only rumors for me; I thought the idea of a connecting road had been defeated decades ago and I was not aware of any proposals regarding Grandale. While it might not be ideal, there is already a connection between 55 and Grandale along the county line, but made harder to use by the changes along 55 around a decade ago. Speeding is a problem on Sedwick Road, but is the solution to increase traffic and no doubt speeding on Grandale? Would traffic on already dangerous Scott King Road, future site of an elementary school, increase? It seems like speeding traffic coming over sharp hills and around bends is such a problem on Scott King that even birds get killed. If Hopson were extended, there would still be a jog to get to Scott King Road, so would the DCHCMPO next want to extend Hopson to 751, crossing the very large and mostly unbroken publicly-owned forest along Northeast, Crooked, and Kit creeks and the Tobacco Trail? Or is this the reason they want to extend Grandale, presumably to O’Kelly Church Road, crossing Kit Creek? This application shows a road passing north of the abandoned claypit, which I think is also part of the site that still has older trees and steep slopes, and Federal land is located there. A lot of blasting would be required, since 4-lane Hopson currently ends at a steep hillside, on one of the highest ridges in the area. When they blasted away the hill at the corner of TW Alexander and 55 nearby, it could be heard for miles through the night, including where I live, and I think there were complaints to the police from Scott King Road. On the other hand it might allow easier access to the gameland it would degrade.

Building new roads obviously contributes to climate change, aside from the traffic and deforestation, and it would be redundant.

How would a new road change traffic patterns? Traffic has increased on Grandale, probably because of all of the recent building in Wake and Chatham counties, and there is a lot of roadkill at times. I saw a report demonstrating that the government knows that Grandale around Northeast Creek is a chokepoint for wildlife movement. Would the bridge be raised so that wildlife might tend to cross underneath, as was discussed where expanded 15-501 crosses New Hope Creek? A road basically paralleling Northeast Creek would be a problem for animals migrating between the uplands and the bottomlands, such as toads and marbled salamanders. The bend at the bridge on Grandale isn’t very safe for pedestrians and bicyclists and neither is Scott King Road, site of a future elementary school. A huge number of turkey and black vultures used to or still roost near Grandale at night and might be driven off, as well as other wildlife. The Kimley-Horn memorandum notes a report of a waterbird colony and I saw a large heron rookery near Grandale. I have heard that building new roads tends to increase traffic overall, rather than alleviating congestion, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

It would be less polluting if the existing freight rail connection could be used for freight or passengers, but the tracks on the east side of 55.

If Grandale were widened, it would be good to improve parking at the bridge and maybe more traffic would decrease the risk of harassment and dumping there. I use that area and monitor the fireflies for the Massachusetts-based Firefly Watch program and there are other people who hike, hunt, or fish, and people probably still drive ATVs on the City, County, Federal, and Parkwood Association land. On the other hand maybe a new business park would be like the Ellis Research Center on Ellis Road east of 147 and put up permanent signs threatening the public on a public road and reflecting badly on Durham.

An IL zoning allows many possible uses, and there is not a guarantee about what would actually be built. I see that the applicant has now committed to forego certain uses on certain parcels, but there still isn’t a detailed site plan and other areas near Northeast Creek have no prohibitions. What would be built along 55 at the northeast corner of the site, near Northeast Creek and County facilities? It is possible that an office-type business park would be more environmentally benign than housing, though possibly an unkempt junkyard would be more benign than a business park with close-cropped, agrichemical and fossil fuel dependent, unnaturally green lawn and giant impervious aand unshaded parking lots, creating heat islands. Freight would increase traffic, air pollution, and windblown litter and waste management would probably also increase litter and air pollution.

Would IL zoning allow large greenhouses? There are some at research or manufacturing facilities in and around RTP. The “buffer” provided by Northeast Creek would not be enough to prevent a significant impact on Audubon Park and Parkwood. I live miles away from greenhouses near the intersection of TW Alexander and Highway 54 but I see an area of very bright orange or yellow light reflected by low clouds (higher clouds also get lit up, but the light is less glaringly obvious) for much of the night and when it is clear that light is still there, obscuring my view of the sky. This is a huge impact, but the UDO classifies all of this stray light as indoors and therefore not regulated, though the night sky is lit up for miles. I’m not sure that I have ever seen the Milky Way and light pollution in the Triangle most likely increases every year. The Stonesthrow apartments on South Alston next to Burdens Creek are adjacent to the greenhouses and have little need for streetlights when there are low clouds.

Greenhouses would have a large impact on the bottomlands along Northeast Creek, and there is the more ordinary light pollution from streetlights, parking lots, area lights and also noise. The area is currently relatively dark and this large rural area of forests and fields probably serves as a refuge for many nocturnal species. Fireflies of several species are numerous and for more than 10 years I have observed at a location on Grandale for the Firefly Watch program. Fireflies are much more abundant at Grandale than along my street and I see more species there, though I live near a small protected woodland. Bobcats have been seen not very far away at Jordan Lake and it is possible that they live at the south end of Durham and bobcats have been given as an example of a rare species driven out by human activity. I thought birds such as chuck-will’s-widow and whip-poor-wills had been driven out of the Triangle, but then I encountered one at the future elementary school site on Scott King Road, obviously trying to lead me away from a nest or chicks. River otters live in the Northeast Creek basin not far away if not near the site, and turkeys, prothonotary warblers, beavers, etc, have been seen adjacent to the rezoning site. At the neighborhood meeting a year ago someone mentioned seeing a bald eagle, and when I checked two weeks ago a bald eagle was audible from the rezoning site and landed on a tall snag nearby. I also saw wood ducks, a woodcock, red-headed woodpeckers, etc. similarly nearby.

What would be done to prevent chemical releases, including gases, adjacent to Northeast Creek? The applicant notes how far Audubon Park and Parkwood are from the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant and compares it to the distance between those communities and this site. At one time the WWTP probably had a large quantity of gaseous chlorine on site and it is my understanding that in the event of a serious leak that buffer would have been far too narrow for safety. Things have improved, but at one time the WWTP and/or the sewer lines could be smelled strongly in the Frenchman’s Creek and Audubon Park neighborhoods if not in Parkwood and the Creek had a strong chlorinated smell as it left Durham County around Grandale. I have heard from local government employees that Northeast Creek or other creeks have elevated copper levels because of fallout from a smelter downtown and organic chemicals that might come from nearby freeways. There is also the possibility of the escape of GMOs and disease-causing organisms.

Where would the utilities be located? Fragmenting a forest by putting in utility easements can end its utility for deep forest species and are literally in roads for cowbirds and non-native plants. I think there was discussion of building a pipeline for 751 South through here at one point. At that time I thought Durham had a policy of not extending water utilities south of Scott King.

The staff report lists many items that might be good to have in the planning process, but they are rendered useless without a development plan. There are obviously plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems on the site, since it is a location on the living Earth, though after mass grading the site would like more like a tract on a lifeless celestial body. It is very easy to not find things. I would be surprised if there are not any steep slopes, such as around the claypit and near 55, and the site must include wetlands, such as along the powerline. The claypit might also count as a wetland and looks like a lake in the City’s aerial photo.
There must be at least scattered archaeological remains on the hillsides overlooking Northeast Creek, not likely to be noticed during mass grading. and there is a small cemetery on the north side of Green Level Church Road near the claypit and 55. Small old cemeteries have been mistreated by builders in the Triangle.

I think local universities found significant reptile fossils in the claypit and it is part of the area’s history, so it would be good to preserve it in some form. I found plant fossils a few miles away. The claypit is a former industrial use, but as far as I know it is not at all a “brownfield,” and has been left in a natural state, without any buildings, though there have been tobacco barns in the general area. The area also once had a name, probably associated with a rail stop, that could be used for referred to today.

There are also igneous rock outcroppings in the area, which could encourage rare plants, besides the low level of disturbance by human activity in recent decades, aside from the clearcutting. Rare plants might be present along 55 and many not so uncommon wildflowers grow on the gameland and rural roadsides. The igneous rocks would probably complicate cutting through the hills for a road.

The scenic small stream flowing under 55 isn’t very intermittent and harbors surprisingly large fish, salamanders, crayfish, and other species even upstream, possibly holding water well because of the hard bedrock just beneath. It seems like an unusually diverse and valuable clear stream that doesn’t dry up completely, despite its short length.

Bull City Townhomes

If people live next to steep slopes or retaining walls, they might be tempted to throw their trash over the edge, as has happened elsewhere in Durham, and the trash might then wash into the tributary of Northeast Creek on the site and go into Jordan Lake.

Apparently the large pond at the corner was drained or broken by rain, which is unfortunate.

I find it hard to believe that the application claimed in an earlier document that there is basically no life in a waterway and that it is ephemeral, then intermittent, then ephemeral again – where does the water go? This is apparently based on inspections in April and May 2021, and there was an unusually severe spring drought that year and maybe the dam breach washed away the usual aquatic life or it was temporarily killed by unusually dry conditions. Should these determinations be based on such limited observations? Mistreating headwaters such as at this site is where the problems in Jordan Lake begin, and then Durham has to pay to fix them. It seems bizarre to buffer one section and not all of it and the neighbors would benefit from buffering along the property edge. Would they put a stormwater pond there? What would they plant? Non-native bushes, often introduced for buffers along roads and landscaping, are a problem along waterways upstream from Ellis Road. Beavers and fish live in the larger though still quite small tributary of Northeast Creek paralleling 147 nearby.

If I lived in the neighborhood I might not want more townhomes there and traffic seems like an increasing problem on Ellis. If I am not mistaken dense housing has also been approved nearby to the south on Ellis Road and east of 147. I don’t think there are any bus stops or continuous sidewalks in this formerly kind of rural area and commercial areas aren’t very nearby. The shoulders on Ellis and other nearby major roads are often narrow, deeply rutted, or soft and not very good for bicycling or parking, unless they have been improved recently.

Durham could have started an environmentally benign Northeast Creek trail network in the Ellis Road area, but it is losing the opportunity. There are some new private trails.

Protect the gamelands along the Durham-Chatham-Wake county line

I’m not sure that it was printed anywhere, but below is a letter I sent to newspapers about what is planned in the Highway 55 to Grandale Road area. The agenda for the City Council Zoom meeting this Monday starting at 7pm has been posted at durhamnc.gov/AgendaCenter/City-Council-4/ Clicking on the NC55 and Hopson agenda item brings up the associated documents. I just started looking at the updated materials for this second hearing, but the main change seems to be a written commitment not to use some parts of the site for certain types of facilities apparently allowed under Industrial Light (IL) zoning. The site is made up of several parcels, and certain uses would be prohibited on four parcels the applicant wants rezoned from residential and commercial to IL, while the large area near 55 already zoned IL would have no special prohibitions. There have been indications that the applicant might not intend to build at the very northwest corner of the site, overlooking Northeast Creek and close to Audubon Park, but there are no commitments and there is still no indication of where the 1 million square feet of “industrial buildings” would be placed, and presumably the most likely impervious “parking and loading areas” are not included in the above figure and will sprawl over a large area and extend Durham’s heat island south.

Very little has been done to prevent encroachments on the environmentally vital land ‘owned’ and both passively and actively used by the public. I have doubts that the NC Natural History Program recommendations have mattered much in what has happened at this end of Durham County and instead of protecting what remains it seems likely that there will be new roads, Grandale will become busier if not wider, new utility easements and infrastructure seem likely, and construction of some density will extend up to the edges of the gameland on all sides. If housing is soon built along Grandale, where are the utilities going to be located? Species that live in the gameland today might be driven out by impacts from NC55-Hopson and the roads, along with human users of the gameland. The government bodies managing the gameland can’t or won’t give Durham a strong warning that what it plans to do could have serious consequences for public property and water quality. There are obviously limits to their authority, but they don’t seem interested in defending the public interest as long as road construction, etc. is not on the Federal land, even if it is right next to it, and it seems obvious that there will be work on Grandale impacting the adjacent gameland if new roads are built. The environment has become a common talking point in political campaigns, such as in the elections this year, but these piece meal land use changes add up create the environmental problems that then seem possibly too big to fix, such as climate change, mass extinction, and local flooding. For what it is worth I will at least comment in writing on all of these proposals, and I commented on the DCHCMPO’s 2050 transportation plan (the comment period ended February 1st).

A young forest of mostly loblolly pines around 20′ tall, along with some tuliptrees, wax myrtles or bayberries, etc. has regenerated on the clearcut Triangle Brick Co. land in question and a grid of small roads was recently bulldozed for detailed surveying up to the powerline and close to Audubon Park. Scannell must have plans, but nothing has been revealed to the public, except that they have been planning to start the first stage of construction this spring. Each facility would take about 9 months to build and construction would extend over 3-4 years, with an announced total of around 5-6 buildings. It is a somewhat remote area, but people will no doubt watch for silt management violations if this goes ahead. I have observed for Firefly Watch ( www.massaudubon.org/get-involved/community-science/firefly-watch ) in the area for over 10 years, so I might be able to see how new light pollution effects the firefly population. I’m not sure what zoning large greenhouses fall under, but there isn’t a commitment not to build them here and there are a few at similar research or manufacturing facilities in and around Research Triangle Park. Grandale is a good dark location for stargazing, but I’m not sure that it is far enough from light pollution to be that much better than easier to get to locations in southern Durham County, and light pollution to some degree obscures the stars over much of the world and is hard to escape.

At the Planning Commission hearing a neighbor, I think in nearby Audubon Park, mentioned seeing a bald eagle, and a week ago [actually the snow was two weeks ago] I went to the vicinity and there an eagle was, conspicuously flying around and loudly calling from the top of a tall snag. I saw two or more wood ducks in the Creek closer to Grandale, and as usual I didn’t know they were there until they shrieked and swiftly flew downstream. On a brushy hillside a woodcock suddenly flushed, seemingly from a sunny patch free of snow at the base of an oak. Maybe the males can be seen displaying around twilight here and there might even already be eggs. I have seen turkey tracks here before and I think chuck-will’s-widows or whip-poor-wills have nested recently in this part of Durham. Grasses such as broomsedge and Indian grass, along with the seedheads of last year’s mullein, teasel, vervain, asters, goldenrods, cattails, and other wildflowers (some introduced in this case) are evident under the powerline, while the stalks of grasses such as river oats nod in the woods. A Polypodium fern grows on an ash leaning over a sharp bend of the Creek. In a younger part of the bottomland forest a few very large loblollies linger while the area closest to Grandale is mostly deciduous. It seemed like there weren’t a lot of tracks in the snow, but the signs of small birds, small rodents and maybe shrews, beavers, deer, squirrels, possibly foxes, etc. were visible. Snow covered the tire tracks, but it seems like there is still some prohibited ATV activity on the gameland, though the Wildlife Resources Commission or the Army Corps of Engineers have taken steps to discourage them. There were spiky white ice crystals on moss and lichen-covered boulders and where the snow had begun to melt the day before. Red-headed woodpeckers were very conspicuous in an area of sloughs against a hillside with many beech and there were various sparrows, cardinals, towhees, wrens, and other songbirds out in the bottomlands.

I heard a few gulls flying overhead, possibly going to nearby Parkwood Lake. The Lake was mostly frozen over, and mallards, Canada geese, cormorants, gulls, and a small flock of what seemed to be ruddy ducks, the first time I have seen this species here, had gathered in the unfrozen area by the dam. An Eastern phoebe and myrtle or yellow-rumped warblers were foraging amid the willows in a swampy part of the frozen Lotus Pond near the trail. Later I saw a small hawk and heard a flock of cedar waxwings along Clermont there. Near the pool birds I couldn’t identify were searching the branchtips at the tops of shortleaf pines. I heard a few yellow-bellied sapsuckers, I think all in built-up areas. Near Parkwood’s giant white ash a garrulous red-winged blackbirds have been frequenting bamboo groves and I think I saw the conspicuous resident hawk pair mating a few days ago. It seems like there have been few owl calls and the deer have been scarce this winter, possibly because of the new trail through the woods from Seaton to McCormick, though I did see a buck with pretty large antlers in January. The trail’s bare yellow clay turned to mud as the snow melted. I realized that there is second colony of what must be dwarf pawpaws near the Fire Station.

Back on the gameland, for decades I have known a beaver pond, for many years mostly a marshy abandoned beaver pond that still holds some water, and I was surprised to find that it has been restored to almost its former state. I don’t remember there being a lodge before, or not conspicuously, the beavers instead seeming to live in a burrow, but now there is prominent lodge towards the back. The pond has been a breeding site for amphibians and fish such as American toads, cricket frogs, bowfin, and sunfish, and though it isn’t particularly large, migrating waterfowl and shorebirds sometimes visit. Mistletoe is conspicuous on the bare limbs of some of the surrounding red maples. Herons, red-headed woodpeckers, and no doubt birds that use their abandoned nests have nested nearby, but I’m not sure if there are still adequate large snags. I heard that some other ponds have also been restored recently, so there is some positive news that what was lost has returned, at least for a time.

February 7th there will also be hearings on the proposed Bull City Townhomes, at the corner of Ellis Road and Southern Drive, near Rada Drive and Ed Cook Road, north of RTP, in the upper Northeast Creek basin, and a hearing on 3602 Westminster Avenue, in the Neuse River basin.


Protect the gamelands along the Durham-Chatham-Wake county lin

February 7th the City Council will hold a second hearing on the rezoning of an area extending from east of 55 to within sight of Grandale Road for a research/manufacturing-type “business park,” with Hopson Road extended west. Hopson and Grandale extensions are included in Amendment #4 to the DCHCMPO’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan, accepting comments through February 22nd (links at northeastcreek.org).

This rural section includes a large area of protected public land. The Northeast Creek bottomlands’ significance was recognized by the NC Natural Heritage Program, which recommended the “Preservation of upland buffers” and a moratorium on new utility corridors there.

Despite the parkland, species could still be lost. The rezoning application considers the State gameland only a “buffer.” There is no public site plan and industrial light zoning allows many uses. If large greenhouses are built, reflected light would be obvious for miles, likewise with blasting and traffic noise. What of spills? Hundreds of fireflies of several species glimmer, gathered amphibians roar, and herons, nightjars, and likely turkeys have nested nearby. If hunting ends, will deer overpopulate? I would like consideration for the welfare of this valuable, public land. Additionally, the claypit has paleontological significance. I suspect that rezoning would trigger more land sales, like the boom (of moonscaping) along Ellis.

Durham claims to care about emissions, but plans to level ridges for a redundant road. Nearby roads already seem unsafe and Grandale threatens wildlife, which the government knows. Does the Council need to see the roadkill from a short stretch?