In the end, Buc-ee’s decided Efland Station wasn’t the right fit for its planned travel center. The Texas-based company had, for months, set its sights on an area of land off Interstate 40 near Efland, between Mebane and Hillsborough. But after pushback from community members who questioned, among other things, the environmental impact of the project, and recent requests from the Board of Orange County Commissioners, the developers sent a letter to the Orange County Planning Department announcing it was withdrawing the plan.
“We appreciate the support we have received from hundreds of people in Efland and northern Orange County who were excited about the opportunities and jobs Buc-ee’s and Efland Station would bring,” said Stan Beard, director of real estate for Buc-ee’s in the release. “Unfortunately, Orange County Commissioners were not receptive to 200 jobs with starting pay of $15 per hour and full benefits, more than $1 million in direct tax revenue and multiple services that would create additional jobs, tax revenue and benefit a sector of the community that has been historically under-served.”
The Buc-ee’s travel center, which would have included 60 fueling stations and a 57,000-square-foot store, was the first phase of the two-phase plan for Efland Station, a 104-acre site near the interstate. The plans for Phase 2 potentially included a hotel, restaurants and office space. Without the Buc-ee’s development, plans for Phase 2 have also evaporated.
Orange County community members who were sensitive to the potential environmental impact of the project viewed the decision by the leadership from Buc-ee’s as a victory. As do residents who bristled at the possible increase in traffic or the effects of traffic being rerouted through areas ill-equipped for congestion. Many of the same arguments were made by residents last summer when the Research Triangle Logistics Park plan came before the BOCC. RTLP encompasses 161 acres of land in Hillsborough between I-40, Old N.C. 86 and Davis Road. While the project ultimately was approved by the board of commissioners, it came after lengthy negotiations, adjustments, and months of protests and campaigns to block the project.
Board of Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee is frustrated at the loss of the Buc-ee’s development. “I feel that Orange County missed a golden opportunity to address the issues of jobs,” McKee said. “We also have lost our opportunity to gain additional revenue from a transients source, which would be the folks, driving up and down, I-85, and I-40 there at Efland. Those folks would have pulled into the Buc-ee’s travel center and bought fuel. They would have probably gone inside that 57,000-square-foot travel center and purchased additional products of some amount. Regardless of what they bought, some percentage of their purchase would have gone to taxes and a percentage of that would have come to Orange County to help support our programs, our schools, and everything that that we currently provide for the county.”
McKee said he would have voted in favor of the Buc-ee's development at Efland Station "had it not been for the fact that some commissioners insisted on reducing the size scale, number of pumps, essentially changing Buc-ee's' business model." McKee said he believes this is what ultimately pushed Buc-ee's away from Orange County.
Del Ward, a vocal opponent of the Buc-ee’s development and one of the organizers of the group A Voice for Efland and Orange, saw the withdrawal by the Texas company as a good thing, and expressed the need to re-evaluate the county’s planning process.
“Orange County didn’t miss an opportunity, we avoided a disaster,” Ward said in a statement to the News of Orange County. “This process has shown some massive flaws in our planning process. We are excited to use our momentum to push a dialogue between this community and our public officials to bring sustainable and necessary development to a part of Orange County that has been underserved for decades.”
But what is the right kind of development for Orange County?
Frustrated proponents of Buc-ee’s have been asking a similar question: If not Buc-ee’s, what? Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce CEO Kim Tesoro also believes getting an answer to this question may require a better defining of criteria.
“It is time that we work together to create a ‘playbook’ for developers to follow when considering moving into Northern Orange County,” Tesoro said in a statement to the News of Orange. “Our criteria should be clearly defined for achieving the previously stated goals, and the opportunity for misinterpretation should be minimal. We should strongly consider the importance of correcting the socioeconomic disparity between Northern Orange and our neighboring towns south of I-40. We need to fully understand that the terrain is different here, both literally and figuratively and allow for the influence of our strong agricultural setting as an important factor.”
Tesoro alluded to a belief that the southern areas of Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill and Carrboro, can skew the perceived needs of the county, going so far as to say the geographic representation of the county by the BOCC is out of balance.
“The Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce is looking for partners who are willing to commit time and talent towards an alliance with a goal of defining a recruitment strategy for Northern Orange County. One that brings applicants who can be supported by our elected officials,” Tesoro’s statement said.
Commissioner McKee said Orange County Planning already documents what’s allowed in that development zoning, and that Buc-ee’s met the current requirements, with the exception of a rezoning need to allow for a fueling station. But McKee argued that the environmental concerns raised by opponents of the project, which he agreed were legitimate and worth discussion, did not outweigh the employment benefits of the travel center. In fact, it was the derision of the promised jobs that most bothered McKee.
“I saw that as a blatant example of privilege and a very elitist attitude toward what is an acceptable job,” he said. “I would be willing to argue, or discuss the environmental concerns, many of which are valid. The traffic concerns, many of which are valid. The concerns with the appearance. I felt these were valid discussion points. But the constant barrage of people that were denigrating jobs at this particular facility, while many of our other businesses, be they fueling stations or downtown shops that do not pay $15 an hour, offer three weeks vacation, health insurance, and 401(k), don't seem to gather that same opposition.”
In the Buc-ee’s letter, Stan Beard said the company would continue to explore communities in North Carolina that would be better suited for its project. “We remain committed to North Carolina, and are confident we will find another location that is suitable to the unique travel experience BUC-EE’S brings.”