By Rose Laudicina
The UNC Bingham Facility has been the subject of concern and criticism from advocacy organization Preserve Rural Orange and surrounding neighbors for a number of years, and the universityâ€™s recent property acquisition around the facility has only added to the organizationâ€™s discontent.
â€œThe most recent concern is that we learned the university has acquired additional properties [around the facility] and none of these appear in the master plan the university posted publically,â€ said Laura Streitfeld, executive director of Preserve Rural Orange.
Streitfeld said she believes UNC has purchased the property to give to the Bingham Facility so it can expand its operations in the rural community.
However, UNC Associate Vice Chancellor Bob Lowman insists the facility has no plans to expand and the properties the university recently acquired will not become a part of the research facility.
â€œThis is simply untrue,â€ Lowman said of Streitfeldâ€™s claims of expansion. â€œWe are not even adding these properties to the Bingham Facility â€“ it remains at 57 acres.â€
The university purchased a property bordering the facility in 2010 and just recently purchased two more adjacent properties.
Lowman said the reasons behind purchasing the properties were to provide a buffer between the buildingâ€™s activities and the surrounding residents to reduce the facilityâ€™s impact on the community.
Of the three properties purchased, two have houses on them that will be rented out by the university, Lowman said, adding that one already has a tenant.
Despite Lowmanâ€™s assurances that the facility will not grow aside from the installation of a functional wastewater-treatment system for the facilityâ€™s three buildings, Streitfeld and surrounding residents arenâ€™t convinced.
Streitfeld said that due to a lack of accountability in the past regarding activities at the facility, she is doubtful that all of the universityâ€™s plans are being fully disclosed.
â€œProblems have been at every turn,â€ Streitfeld said. â€œThe neighbors have had to go to great lengths to get little pieces of information. The consistency, the accountability and the transparency have just been terrible.â€
Cliff Leath, who owns property adjacent to the research facility, said he too believes the university has ulterior motives in purchasing the surrounding properties.
â€œIt almost comes across that they just donâ€™t want people to complain about the facility,â€ Leath said. â€œI am getting fewer and fewer neighbors out here because [nearby properties] are all being sold to UNC.â€
Leath said there is a certain amount of distrust among the neighbors toward the Bingham Facility due to the lack communication and effort from the university with the neighborhood.
â€œIt has always been on our end a proactive engagement and on UNCâ€™s end a reactive engagement,â€ he said.
â€œIt seems like every 30 days things change 180 degrees, and they are spending money like drunken sailors out there getting wasted.â€
Lowman, who was appointed two and a half years ago to oversee the facility by Chancellor Holden Thorp, admits that the best decisions have not necessarily always been made with regard to actions at the Bingham Facility, but he said that when he got there he tried to uncover all the problems and be transparent.
â€œThere is no way around it, we did some stupid things out there,â€ Lowman said.
Problems at the facility over the years include a now-defunct wastewater-treatment facility on the site leaking highly treated wastewater and the discovery of improper use of unmapped wetlands.
Lowman said that in all instances the problems were fixed and fines were paid when necessary, and since he has been in charge the facility has been reducing its impact on the area.
â€œWe are committed to staying out there,â€ Lowman said.
â€œI hope eventually Preserve Rural Orange will come around and realize that we are there, we are operating our facility appropriately and quietly and abiding by all rules and reducing our environmental impact.â€