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Posts published in “Environment”

As the city eyes expansion, county residents push back

Sherron Road. Doc Nichols Road. Baptist Road. Olive Branch Road. These roads run through  southeast Durham, connecting small townships and farms, overhung by pine branches. Quaint brick homes and churches sit nestled in the forest, near elementary schools and fresh produce stands. But along the shoulders of the roads, orange zoning notices dot the tall grass like a new species of flower, and landscapes fade from green forest to orangey-red dirt, topped with rolling hills of mulched trees. Bulldozers graze in the fields, and pink flags mark the sites where construction blasts will next rattle the backyard wind chimes. 

Unfortunately for the folks who prefer the quiet life, it looks like rural Durham is next up to be devoured by urban sprawl– but not if the new group Preserve Rural Durham can help it.

On Thursday, June 9, city-county planning department staff members Scott Whiteman and Alexander Cahill met with Preserve Rural Durham and other rural residents at Oak Grove Ruritan Club to discuss Durham’s new Comprehensive Plan draft and hear concerns from attendees on the plan’s 227 objectives.

The comprehensive plan guides what can be built where in Durham, and most importantly to a Preserve Rural Durham, determines the city’s Urban Growth Area boundary. A new plan is long overdue, as the most recent iteration was written in 2005, 17 years ago. In a place as rapidly growing as Durham, 17 years is a long time.

The last comprehensive plan recommended expansive development into rural areas to help ease the housing crisis. The new document includes many of the same goals. However, Preserve Rural Durham has a different vision.

The nonprofit, founded by retired science teacher Pam Andrews in February, is dedicated to protecting rural areas of Durham that are threatened by the region’s rapid development, particularly southeastern Durham County. The June 9 meeting is part of a series of meetings Durham planning staff are holding to discuss the comprehensive plan with rural residents and others.  

On Thursday, attendees trickled into the wood-paneled meeting room at the Ruritan Club, many clad in green and tan t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Preserve Rural Durham.” Before the meeting, the core team, made up of Andrews, her husband, and other volunteers ranging from young farmers to retired scientists, invited attendees to sign up for the group’s weekly e-mail listerv and to pick up the bright green and yellow yard signs  protesting development. (“John Deere-colored, so you can see them driving by!” said Andrews.) 

Whiteman began the meeting by sharing a statistic. The planning commission predicts the county’s population will increase by 130,000 by 2050, he said. That expected growth is fueling the need for rapid expansion, and southeastern rural Durham has been designated as the best place for this growth, he said. 

“You can’t stop population growth,” Whiteman said after the meeting. “There’s no practical way to do that.”

Residents, however, voiced concerns about the proposed expansion, noting the city’s failure to follow its previous comprehensive plan. While that plan called for  “low-density residential development” with two-four units per acre in rural areas, the city instead approved complexes of townhomes with 8-12 homes per acre, speakers said. Higher-density housing is necessary to create affordable housing and to remedy Durham’s current housing crisis, said Whiteman and Cahill. Residents, though, see it as a threat to the natural beauty and quiet space they value. 

Attendees said more high-density housing will increase traffic, and they questioned whether southeast Durham has the necessary infrastructure to support more development. Resident Antonio Jones complained that as congestion increases in Oak Grove and neighboring townships, getting to basic necessities like grocery stores and schools has become an ordeal.

“We all know, getting to the Food Lion is a mission at this point,” said Jones. 

Residents also said area emergency services, such as fire stations and emergency medical services, are already insufficient. Whiteman and Cahill replied that future development would not begin until funding is set aside to provide more emergency services. 

Some residents also seemed concerned about more than losing their quiet lives to rapid development. Preserve Rural Durham’s mission includes bringing awareness to the environmental impacts of rapid development on surrounding areas, such as Falls Lake. The group has compiled evidence of environmental degradation caused by development, such as what Andrews calls “tomato soup.”

Tomato soup in this context is no delicious lunch to be paired with a grilled cheese—it is red, muddy runoff from construction sites. Often chock full of nitrates and phosphates from bulldozed farmland, the mud flows into Falls Lake and neighboring creeks and provides nutrients for toxic algae to grow and pollute the lake, Andrews said.

The new draft plan includes promises of environmental protection. Yet the city’s previous plan also pledged to protect watersheds and other environments, said former scientist Tom Freeman. Degradation of floodplains and water sources still occurs, he said.“Go out there and look at the land, folks,” he said. “I hope you see a disconnect.”

One theme dominated many residents’ comments: representation.

The planning department that is drafting the comprehensive plan serves the city and the county jointly, with county commissioners and city council both given say in matters of zoning and development. However, when land falls within Durham city limits, city council has the final say. 

Through “voluntary annexation,” developers can opt to be incorporated into the city limits in order to use city resources like water and sewage. Once a piece of property has been accepted into the city, the city council—not the county commissioners— has the authority to approve or deny zoning. Rural residents, including many  Preserve Rural Durham members, live outside the city limits and so don’t vote for city council. So once a property is annexed into the city, rural residents lose the power to choose who has the final say over development bordering their property. 

“We can’t vote for the people who are making the decisions,” an exasperated Andrews said at the meeting, echoing comments by several other speakers. 

Cahill and Whiteman acknowledged residents’ frustration, recommending that they use a feedback survey about the plan. Meanwhile, another meeting is scheduled for June 21 at the Bahama Ruritan Club, and on June 23, four more tracts of county land are set to be voted on for annexation. Residents can also offer feedback by attending a virtual session on June 28. 

Preserve Rural Durham will continue to show up.

“That’s how things go down in Durham,” said Jones. “Go down there and raise hell.” 

Editor’s note: More information about the comprehensive plan is available here. Survey responses about the plan will be accepted through June 30.

Above: Bulldozers clear land for a new housing development near the Oak Grove township in Durham County; Pam Andrews leads the new group Preserve Rural Durham. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

The piedmont’s first conservation cemetery is rethinking burial

Maybe you’re an avid environmentalist with an eye to the conservation of native habitats. 

Maybe you’re chemical conscious and can’t imagine contributing to the 827,060 gallons of carcinogenic fluids buried in the ground each year.

Maybe you want your children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy your final resting place as more than a cemetery — as a place for recreation, refuge in, and reverence for nature.  

Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you’re interested in conservation burial. You’re in luck: Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten are bringing the nation’s thirteenth conservation cemetery right here to the Piedmont. It’s called Bluestem.

Bluestem practices green burial — which Heidi says is “just a new name for how we used to bury long ago, how many cultures still bury, where there’s no embalming, no vaults, and biodegradable materials instead of metal caskets and steel.”

Current burial norms took shape during the Civil War, when wishes for the bodies of deceased soldiers to be returned home in preserved condition led to the development of embalming technology. But because only licensed embalmers could offer this service, families who wanted embalming could no longer bury their own: they needed the help of morticians and funeral homes. The decades progressed, and families increasingly laid their loved ones to rest in steel caskets and concrete vaults beneath monoculture lawns kept green with pesticides.

The status quo — of clearcutting and manicuring the land, making space to barricade our dead selves from the earth — has reigned for seven score and seventeen years (or so). Now folks like you are searching for something new.

To reach Bluestem, you navigate roads that weave and wind through rolling hills and quaint farmhouses until you arrive at Hurdle Mills Road, where Bluestem sprawls across 87 acres of Cedar Grove in Orange County. 

You bounce along the dirt road and roll to a stop in what Heidi calls the “anteroom” of the cemetery. It’s the first of Bluestem’s “outdoor rooms.”You’re greeted by Heidi, who wears her hair cropped and a stud in her nose, and Jeff, who sports a red cap embroidered with the Bluestem logo. Both have kind eyes etched by years of laughter.

Together, you stroll towards the cozy cabin that serves as Bluestem’s office. The cabin is a ripe 140 years old, and Bluestem’s choice not to renovate or expand it is a conscious one, Heidi says. “We’re trying to promote that idea that nature is enough, so we don’t need to bring a lot of human impact to develop.”

Bluestem took twelve years of dreaming, five years of building. Now they’ve found land and are set to open this June. 

Bluestem is a conservation project at heart, so choosing its home was something Heidi and Jeff did with “great intention and respect.”

“Restoring these agricultural fields back to grassland is a key attribute of our project,” Jeff  explains. Monoculture, the cultivation of one crop in a certain area, is efficient for food production but can lead to damaged soil and loss of biodiversity over time. With the help of volunteers, the project will work to heal the land by planting grasses native to the Piedmont region — including Bluestem grass, for which the nonprofit is named.

“The grassland habitat will be a huge refuge for pollinators, for diversity of wildlife,” Jeff says. “There are migratory birds that fly through, looking for seed sources along the way. Bluestem will provide that.”

The grasses’ root systems will sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and reach some five feet into the ground. “So the grass actually serves as a large carbon sink,” Jeff says.

“This is part of our ethos of thinking globally, acting locally. We’re not moving a world needle on climate change. But maybe we’re getting people to be more cognizant of how we’re impacting the world.”

You want a tour of the property, so you follow Jeff and Heidi out of the cabin and through the “anteroom” to the barn. It’s as old as the cabin and equally picturesque. Delightfully anachronistic. The barn serves as the Information Center, as well as a place people can gather with their loved ones or host their faith communities during the burial process.

“It’s an invitation to any faith communities to come and hold services,” says Heidi. “But also, for people who don’t have a particular faith, this can be a reverential space to come into nature and have your own spiritual experience. To feel one with nature.”

Heidi and Jeff lead you on the pedestrian trail, where you trod on damp amber oak leaves and occasionally brush against a spindly branch. The trail system spans four miles, looping around a glassy silver pond and unfurling into distant woods. But now you’ve reached the middle of a clearing. 

You stop, throw your head back, and look up. 

Green leaves dotting slender branches swirl and play in endless fractals across deep blue sky. It’s almost like stained glass. Like you’re in a cathedral. 

You see what Heidi was talking about: this really does feel like an outdoor room.

And something else, too. Since you left the barn, you’ve traveled about 70 feet downhill. The hill shields you from the last vestiges of sound from the road. All you can hear is birdsong and quiet.

“This land sang to us,” says Heidi.

Beyond the pond is a sweeping field, where the horizon reveals itself. “It’s like the big sky of the West,” says Jeff.

“When you come out here, you can let go of all the city life that you carry,” Heidi says. “You arrive here, and the sky opening up… it’s a release.”

“This place will be able to carry the souls of the people who will be buried here. And we think of that as an incredibly healing opportunity.”

You emerge from the forest and amble down a dirt road. Then Heidi stops, sweeping an arm in the direction of the large field that fans out in front of you. “This is our big, wide-open field for grassland burial.”

At Bluestem, one can choose between grassland burial in the fields, and woodland burial amongst the trees. 

“We’re trying to limit those things that have a sizable environmental impact,” Jeff says. So for grassland burials, “we won’t be mowing pathways to each grave.”

These aren’t comfortable ideas for everyone. When trying to find a home for Bluestem, Jeff says many potential neighbors “shook their head or turned white or talked about zombies.” Others worry about whether animals will dig up graves. (“Our colleagues have not had a problem with that whatsoever,” Heidi says.) You can’t put up a bench, or that traditional veteran marker with the flag: headstones are welcome, but they’ll have to be flat to the ground. If you choose a woodland burial, a tree might fall on your spot and it might have to stay there. 

“It will challenge a lot of people,” Jeff acknowledges. “But our philosophy is that it’s less about the individual space, because the whole of Bluestem is the memorial to each individual here. You become integrated into it.”

Jeff explains that the grasses help to hold soil in place. “So when someone is buried, nothing is removed from the site. All of the soil that comes out will go back in the same hole, so it will be mounded. And over time, as decomposition occurs, it will subside and become flat again.”

A tangible reflection of incorporation into the earth.

You stroll on until you’ve passed the large field, and you stand, looking out at another field for grassland burial. It’s bordered by a distant forest, where woodland burials will take place. 

Before Bluestem, Heidi and Jeff led careers in conservation: Jeff worked as conservation director at Triangle Land Conservancy and Heidi as the Southeast program manager for Land Trust Alliance, and the two later joined forces to launch a local conservation consulting firm, Landmatters. Then Jeff met Billy Campbell, co-founder of the nation’s first modern conservation cemetery. Campbell spoke of cemeteries where each burial supports the conservation of the land.

“With conservation burial, you’re not burying your wealth,” Heidi says. “Instead, it’s going into preserving a living, healing space.” (And the pricetag doesn’t hurt: what you’d pay to be buried at Bluestem — sans embalming, fancy caskets, and vaults — is about half the cost of traditional burial.)

Campbell inspired them, but starting their own cemetery still felt out of reach. In 2006, Jeff says conservation burial still seemed “a little bit ahead of its time for the Triangle.”

Then in 2015, Heidi’s mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. She didn’t have long. Heidi dropped everything to take care of her.

Shortly after, Jeff’s father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and he became the caregiver for his father.

“After we helped our parents to their end, we realized that the way our parents chose to be for their final disposition… it wasn’t what we wanted,” Heidi says.

Jeff agrees. “We thought, there’s another way for us to think about this.”

Heading back, you ascend what you now realize is a slight hill. Heidi and Jeff point out additional fields that will someday be used for burial. Until then, they’ll be filled with wildflowers.

Choosing a conservation burial means participating in the ecosystem financially, in body, and in spirit. Heidi and Jeff have already spotted 32 species of birds on the property. It’s a peaceful thought, to think of yourself as contributing to this community of grasses and wildflowers and birds. 

Heidi and Jeff say Bluestem will serve as a living memorial to the souls that dwell there. 

“It’s something that’s not just after the fact,” Jeff says. “It’s not a feeling of, ‘Oh, I’m choosing a place where my remains will be.’ It’s choosing a place that I want to be when I’m alive. And for my family, when they come to visit after I die.”

Heidi agrees. “We don’t have to be terrified of death. We can make space for the fact that we’re all impermanent. And so, when that time comes, why not become part of this gorgeous place?”

You like the sound of that.


Bluestem is not currently selling burial plots, but volunteer opportunities and group tours are underway. 

Above: Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten, creators of Bluestem Conservation Cemetery. Photos by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal