Friends of Lower Haw ask county to invest in Haw River Trail now

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PITTSBORO — The Haw River is an important natural resource the county should invest in before rapid Pittsboro development ensues, the all-volunteer group Friends of Lower Haw River State Natural Area told county commissioners at the board’s meeting last month.

In addition to wanting to see a Haw River trails corridor/feasibility study completed, the organization’s president, Gretchen Smith, said the group would also like to see the board use money from COVID-19 relief funding, bonds and revenue from the county’s Article 46 sales tax to invest in conservation at the river — namely through the construction of sustainable trails and paddle sites.

“The main thing of concern about focusing on the Haw River is because of its geographic location in relation to population growth,” Smith told the News + Record. “We’re running out of time if we want to try to create this Haw River Trail in Chatham County, because once the land is developed for residential purposes, then it’s harder to go back after the fact.”

The Haw River flows 110 miles from headwater springs in eastern Forsyth County down to Chatham County where it meets the Deep River to become the Cape Fear River in Pittsboro. The watershed encompasses about 1,700 square miles.

The Lower Haw River State Natural Area was added to N.C.’s State Parks system in 2004 and includes more than 1,025 acres along both sides of the river in Chatham, where it stretches from U.S. Hwy. 15-501 near Bynum to below U.S. Hwy. 64 at Jordan Lake. The land is undeveloped, but heavily used, Smith said, leading to unsustainable informal footpaths and paddle sites.

With large residential growth expected in Chatham over the next decades, the group said the Haw River is subject to major residential development pressures. By using a “conservation through recreation” strategy, Smith said the county could help conserve the resource while also allowing the public to enjoy it.

“As I said in my presentation, it was added to the state park system back in 2004, but not a whole lot has happened with it,” Smith said. “In 2006, this Haw River Trail partnership Memorandum of Understanding was signed and Alamance County got busy fulfilling their part of the partnership by working on their land and paddle trail. But not much else has happened with any of the other local governments who signed on.”

In 2018, county and Pittsboro commissioners separately adopted a resolution in support of the Lower Haw Trails Plan. The county resolution stated that “the Chatham County Board of Commissioners supports the Lower Haw Trails Plan and urges N.C. State Parks to adopt this Plan as a priority implementation project to be funded by the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF).”

This past spring, a Haw River Trail Steering Committee was formed by Friends of Lower Haw and the county government, including partnership with more than two dozen environmental stakeholders.

Still, the work isn’t happening fast enough, Smith said, especially in comparison to Alamance County’s efforts. Since beginning efforts in 2006, Alamance has conserved 475 acres and created 14 sustainable paddle accesses, 40+ miles of paddle trail and 20+ miles of land trail.

During her September presentation to the board, Smith said developing a Haw River Trail in Chatham will take prioritization by local governments and state parks, voluntary land acquisition and easements and diversified funding that doesn’t depend exclusively on grants.

In its consent agenda for that September meeting, Chatham commissioners approved a grant application to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) for a Haw River trails corridor/feasibility study. At the time, Smith said she was glad to see that agenda item.

“I’m hopeful that the county will be awarded this EDA grant. However, partners on our steering committee have made it clear they are not interested in being on yet another ‘all talk, no action’ committee,” Smith told the board. “And we are at risk of becoming just that if visible progress doesn’t start happening soon, or at least by January.”

Board members expressed commitment to the study, but didn’t want to take formal action that might sabotage their grant application.

“I don’t think there’s a member of this board who would oppose funding it,” said Commissioner Jim Crawford, “but I don’t think we should make any kind of a vote or decision that more or less jinxes our potential standing to get the grant.”

Smith said that once funding is secured for such a study, it would likely take six months to develop a plan, not including the time it will take to implement it.

“Like I mentioned to the board, Alamance County started 15 years ago,” she said. “So they’ve had the luxury of time to work on theirs, but with the development pressures that are going on in the Chatham County section of our river corridor, we don’t really have that luxury of time”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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