Coal ash concerns prompt Chapel Hill police to consider new department location

Orange County News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Concerns about coal ash contributed to the Chapel Hill Police Department’s desire for a new station.

Town planners are in negotiations for a location at University Place mall, next to the Silverspot Cinema. The new municipal facility will include a police headquarters, administrative offices for the fire department and the parks and recreation department, as well as public space for members of the community to use.

Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development officer, said the current building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was constructed in the 1980s.
“Probably wasn’t the best construction when it was built. The building has a lot of issues. It’s not quite big enough, to say the least,” Bassett said.

“The police station is sitting on a coal ash site, and we’ve been trying to work out how we’re going to deal with that remediation. It just seems like there’s bound to be a better place for our police station than back on top of that coal ash.”

Inspectors determined coal ash was dumped at the site by Bolin Creek back in the 1970s after dirt was excavated for construction projects in prior decades.

The top of the building has as many issues as the bottom.

“Some of the struggles we’re having with the maintenance of the building centers around this roof. We’ve put patch upon patch, and it’s getting to the point now where we’re going to have to start looking at a new roof which will be a very costly expense,” Assistant Chief Jabe Hunter said.

“We’ve also kind of outgrown it over the years. We’ve taken every bit of open space and kind of subdivided that into some offices, so at this point, we’re at the max capacity for this building.”

Town planners reached an agreement a few years ago with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to begin construction this summer on the campus-owned property on the Estes Drive Extension, near Carrboro. Bassett said there was a joint agreement with the university in case the school wanted to build on the site as well.

The town planned to lease the land for 99 years, but a new policy approved by university leaders in 2018 requires approval from a long list of UNC administrators as well as elected officials including the governor for leases of more than 10 years. 

“The Board of Trustees changed how they wanted to deal with real estate in the future, and so what we had kind of agreed to didn’t work any longer,” Bassett said.

Town planners pursued other options and settled on University Place as an alternative location. The mall is undergoing a major makeover after its sale in late 2018 to Ram Realty.

Bassett said the new site is in a much better location than the UNC site, as it is.

“It’s almost perfectly centered within our corporate limits. It’s good road access to go north, south, east or west, and that’s one of the things that was important,” Bassett said.

“It’s accessible to our transit, we have two transit stops here so people could easily access it if they need to come by the police station or parks and rec, so made a lot of sense from that standpoint,” he said.

“We’d be helping to facilitate taking this property that’s struggled, and redevelop and be a part of that.”

The new site will likely cost about $30 million to develop and build. Bassett said it will be paid for with a bond project which has been in the works by town leadership for several years.

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