Hillsborough leaders to soon address rezoning, land use for proposed jail site

The land adjacent to the North Carolina Highway Patrol center along U.S. Highway 70 to the northwest of downtown Hillsborough could be the site of a future jail/detention center for Orange County. The Hillsborough Planning Board is hosting a March 15 meeting, in which it will make recommendations for the Town of Hillsborough's Commissioners regarding potential rezoning and land usage for three parcels of land, totaling 21 acres, that Orange County has under contract with landowners Betsy Ann Tilley and Mary Eleanor Copeland. 

The contentious debate over whether or not to build a new Orange County campus along U.S. Highway 70 adjacent to West Hill Avenue, northwest of downtown Hillsborough, will be reaching a climactic phase in the coming weeks, as Hillsborough city leaders decide whether or not to approve the rezoning and land use plan for the properties involved. 

A pair of sisters - Betsy Ann Tilley and Mary Eleanor Copeland - are currently under contract with Orange County to sell three parcels of land, totaling a combined 21 acres, for construction of the proposed facility. 

Orange County leaders envision a multi-use campus on the property, including a single-story jail/detention justice center, an agricultural/environmental center, and eventually office space and operations for the county’s Parks and Recreation Department. Orange County is an applicant to the Town of Hillsborough for the purposes of rezoning the properties from agricultural/residential to suburban office zoning. In order for the proposed site to move forward, the Town of Hillsborough would have to approve including the properties into the city’s Economic Development District. 

An overflowing crowd attended a public hearing at the Town Barn in downtown Hillsborough on Thursday, February 15, where they addressed their feelings, both for and against, the idea of a new jail and detention center for Orange County at this particular location. 

Supporters of the proposed site contend that the parcels are suitably located adjacent to multiple local highways, yet outside the hustle and bustle of the Hillsborough Historic District. However, numerous neighbors insist that a new Orange County campus which includes a jail/detention facility will decrease their property values, and adversely affect the quality of life of their families and their pets. 

These neighbors - including numerous relatives of Tilley and Copeland - have rallied support against the proposed site, with hundreds of local residents signing a petition against rezoning this location for the purpose of a new jail/detention facility. 

The February 15 public hearing was the primary opportunity for residents to voice their concerns to local elected officials. On Thursday, March 15, Hillsborough hosts its regular monthly planning board meeting, where they will make recommendations on all the public hearing items for transmittal to the Town Board. 

According to Hillsborough Planning Director and Assistant Town Manager Margaret Hauth, while the board has the option to accept additional public comment at that meeting, they are not required to, and the tradition is to not accept further comment outside of the formal public hearing. 

“We hold joint public hearings so that everyone who is involved with the decision making can hear the same testimony at the same time. I would hate for a lot of folks to come to the meeting expecting to speak, and then be told they cannot,” Hauth explained in an email.

Should the Planning Board approve the proposed rezoning, it will then go before the Hillsborough Town Commissioners at their March 26 session. Hillsborough city leaders have expressed a desire to keep the new jail/detention facility out of the Hillsborough Historic District, which has been conveyed to Orange County officials. 

In multiple public hearings, including a session with the Orange County Commissioners and the February 15 joint public hearing with the Hillsborough Town Commissioners and Hillsborough Planning Board, County Director of Asset Management Jeff Thompson explained that replacing the current 90-year-old Orange County justice facility with a replacement in downtown Hillsborough was not feasible. 

Should the Town of Hillsborough formally approve the project, the Orange County Commissioners will then weigh in at some point during the month of April whether or not to follow through with purchasing the properties from Tilley and Copeland. If Orange County formally approves the consummation of the land deal, construction on the site will begin later this year, with a projected completion in 2020. 

Orange County’s decision will be based solely on whether or not to close the land deal with Tilley and Copeland. The question of land use and rezoning lies solely with Hillsborough. 

“The town makes the decision on the land use plan and rezoning; the county is an applicant,” Hauth explained. “The county’s decision is that of applicant – they will decide whether or not to acquire the property from the current owners based on whether the town approves the rezoning. The county doesn’t have the authority or jurisdiction to make a decision on the rezoning since the parcel is in the town’s jurisdiction.”

According to Hauth, the agenda and informational packet for the March 15 Planning Board meeting should be published to the Town of Hillsborough’s website (hillsboroughnc.gov), by March 9. The agenda and packet for the Town Board meeting on March 26 will likely be published to the website around March 21 or 22.