This list of questions is intended only to give an overview of Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs). For specific and legally binding information, please refer to Chapel Hill's Land Use Management Ordinance. For all these issues, and any further questions you may have, please stop by the Planning Department in Town Hall or call 919-968-2728 to discuss the process and specific requirements for building on your property.
What is a Resource Conservation District (RCD)? In 1985, Chapel Hill established the Resource Conservation District as an overlay zoning district to protect stream corridors and prevent property damage from floods. Underlying general-use zoning (e.g., Residential-1,Neighborhood Commercial, etc.) establishes what uses are permitted on a property, along with dimensional standards for structures. Overlay zones, such as the Historic Districts, Airport Hazard District, and Resource Conservation District, place additional restrictions on properties because of special considerations.
The Resource Conservation District is intended to preserve water quality, minimize danger and property damage from flooding, protect streams from erosion and sedimentation, and preserve urban wildlife corridors and plant habitats. The RCD is also used to manage development in FEMA regulatory floodplains.
How do I determine whether there is an RCD on my property? The presence of an RCD on your property is dependent on the type(s) of streams present on or near your property, and the location of the FEMA floodplain. Streams with perennial (year-round) flow or intermittent (partial-year) flow have an RCD surrounding them; ephemeral streams (those flowing only during and right after rain) do not have an associated RCD.
The Town’s Stormwater Management Division can tell you if streams on or near your property have been classified. If no previous stream determination has been made, you will need to request one, and use that result in determining RCD boundaries. Stream types will be re-evaluated after five years if the local hydrology changes significantly.
How is the boundary of a Resource Conservation District determined? There are three steps you need to take in determining an RCD boundary on your property.
Step One: Submit a Stream Determination Request form to the Stormwater Management Division. The stream determination report must be prepared by Town staff, using Chapel Hill’s specific stream classification criteria and an onsite visit. Therefore, we must have the property information and property owner’s signature giving the stream ecologist permission to come onto private property. The report you receive will explain the study and tell you if your property contains perennial and/or intermittent streams, perennial waterbodies, or ephemeral channels.
Step Two: Present the Stream Determination report to your surveyor. Our report will allow your surveyor to determine the boundary of the Resource Conservation District based on requirements in the Land Use Management Ordinance. The location of the Resource Conservation District is based on several criteria including: stream type as determined in Step One, FEMA floodplain maps, the year the lot was lawfully established, the extent of the drainage area, and topography. Your surveyor will need to use the newest FEMA floodplain maps to determine floodplain elevations. These maps are available at the Stormwater Management office.
Step Three: Your surveyor compiles the stream determination completed by the Town and floodplain elevation information, and prepares a surveyor site plan which identifies the boundaries of the Resource Conservation District. The surveyor will contact the Planning Department if questions arise about the applicable Resource Conservation District width or elevation. Your surveyor will provide you with a sealed document which identifies the location of the Resource Conservation District on the property.
What is a stream determination?
A Town engineer or stream ecologist uses State and Town criteria to examine your property for natural drainage channels and determines whether perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral streams exist. Only perennial and intermittent channels contribute to determining an RCD boundary.
How do you determine the flow or type of stream? In the most basic terms, we look for various signs of the presence of water. Organisms and channel characteristics typically reflect how often (and how much) water flows through a channel. Descriptions of our formal methods and criteria for classifying streams can be found in the Land Use Management Ordinance.
What kinds of streams and waterbodies contribute to an RCD? Perennial streams contribute to an RCD in all parts of Town; intermittent streams do so only for parcels platted after January 27, 2003. Ephemeral streams and man-made ditches do not contribute to an RCD at all. Some channels may appear man-made, being straightened, deepened, or lined, but these may be modified natural streams. These streams can also contribute to an RCD if they are perennial or intermittent, as do perennial lakes and ponds.
How do I request a stream determination? Property owners must fill out and sign a Request for Stream Determination form. You can print this out and FAX it, with the required maps to Stormwater Management at 919-969-7276. You will need the address, Parcel ID Number (PIN), and Tax Map, Block, and Lot number (TMBL). This information can be found on copies of your Tax Map or plat (one of which you will need to send in with your request), or you can get this information from Orange County Land Records in Hillsborough (919-245-2500).
Can my surveyor do the stream determination? All stream determinations must be made by Town staff using specific criteria. After you receive the report, a licensed Land Surveyor can delineate the RCD on your property using guidance in the Land Use Management Ordinance. They will certify on the property plat or site plan whether or not an RCD exists, and if so, where it is located.
Town Stormwater Management staff determines only the classification of streams; Town Planners determine the presence or location of RCDs. Surveyors certify the presence and location of RCDs in relation to the property for which the stream determination is made. Town Planning staff can assist surveyors with interpretation of the LUMO for identifying the location of an RCD.
Do you have a database of streams?
The Stormwater Management Division is in the process of creating a town-wide database of perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams using a consistent set of criteria.
How long will I have to wait for a stream determination?
Town staff are often able to visit a site within a few days after a request for determination, but it may take up to two weeks to receive a stream determination response, depending on weather conditions, staff availability, and the scope of the request. Please note that stream determinations cannot be conducted within 48 hours of a rain event. This provides better distinction between ephemeral streams (which flow only during and immediately following rain events) and intermittent/perennial streams, and is part of the standard methodology used for stream classification.
How much does this stream determination cost?
There are no charges or fees for stream determinations at this time.
Can you do a stream determination on my neighbor's property? Or can you do one for a piece of property I'm interested in buying? We can research whether there have been previous stream determinations for any part of Town. You can request a stream determination only for property you own.
Floodplains and Flood Elevations
What is the Base Flood Elevation (BFE)?
The Base Flood Elevation (BFE) is the projected height of the 100-year flood, which FEMA determines for the National Flood Insurance Program. This elevation is used to determine a local Resource Conservation District. The area below this elevation is often called the regulatory floodplain since there are many restrictions on building in this area required for the Town's participation in the National Flood Insurance Program.
The 100-year flood is not guaranteed to happen only once a century; rather, it is the elevation at which there is a 1% chance of flooding in a given year. In other words, property within the 100-year floodplain has a 26% chance of flooding within a 30-year period (a common period of time for a mortgage).
Can the Town determine the BFE for my area? Any Base Flood Elevation (BFE) information provided by the Town for individual lots are estimates only, based on the maps that we have, and would need to be confirmed by a qualified professional such as an engineer or surveyor at the property owner’s expense.
Where can I get a copy of the FEMA floodplain maps? You may purchase a copy of floodplain maps from the NC Floodplain Mapping Program. You can see Chapel Hill FIRMs (Flood Insurance Rate Maps) online (under the Flood Insurance page). Hard copies are held at the Stormwater Management Division office and at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
Does the Town have digital maps or a database of floodplain locations? At the moment, the Town does not have a verified digital copy of the floodzones which can be overlaid with parcels. We can provide an estimated flood area for your property. You can visit the NC Floodplain Mapping Program website to read about this project, and see already-finished North Carolina counties and the kinds of information available.
Building Activities in the RCD
What can I build in the RCD? Use of land in an identified Resource Conservation District is significantly restricted. A table of permitted uses can be found in Section 3.6.3 of Chapel Hill's Land Use Management Ordinance. In general, no structure or fence may be built within the RCD. Land disturbance is to be minimized within the RCD. If a dwelling or structure already exists on a lot within the RCD, there may be conditions that allow expansion. Further description of these can be found in the answer to the following question.
My property lies wholly or partly within an RCD or regulatory floodplain. What can I build? What are the requirements for building there? The history of the property is important in the application of RCD regulations. A general rule is that single family residential development that occurred before the RCD was originally enacted in 1985, or before RCD regulations were significantly modified on January 27, 2003, is entitled to have the RCD boundaries determined by ordinances that were in place at the time the development occurred (also known as "grandfathering"). However, the permitted uses and standards enacted on January 27, 2003 apply to RCDs on all properties, regardless of when they were platted.
Undeveloped properties are subject to the most recent RCD regulations, including the new rules for determining RCD boundaries. Please refer to the table of permitted uses, Table 3.6.3-2 of the Land Use Management Ordinance. New lots that are created must include area outside of the RCD (that is, area large enough to build structures with standard dimensions and with standard lot layouts). If you want to develop a currently-undeveloped older lot that has no area on which to build, you may need to seek a variance from RCD regulations in order to proceed. Variance requests are heard by the Chapel Hill Board of Adjustment.
Additions or expansions to existing development within the RCD may be permitted under some circumstances. If you believe your property is in this category, please contact the Planning Department at 919-968-2728 for a review of your circumstances.
For all cases, development or any land disturbance in the RCD may not occur without first getting a Zoning Compliance Permit for an RCD Encroachment from the Planning Department. Application for encroachment into an RCD requires certain information about the property and plans, stamped envelopes pre-addressed to all property owners within 500 feet of the property (for notification purposes), and demonstration that required standards for building or land disturbance in the RCD are met or that some legal basis exists for exceptions to such standards.
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