It has been two weeks since Durham's county commissioners voted to approve plans for 751 South, a vehemently debated new community planned for rural south Durham. And documents show the cost to the county to examine and review the controversial case so far exceeds more than $100,000, including legal fees.
The project's size and its density—as many as 1,300 apartments, houses and other residences and 600,000 square feet of stores and offices on fewer than 167 acres—has riled opposition since the project was proposed in January 2008. Over the past two and a half years, debate over the project has deepened divisions among political groups and communities in Durham, created rivals of neighbors, fostered suspicion about the loyalties of commissioners and eroded public trust in the democratic process.
If that's too abstract a way to measure the impact of the debate over 751 South, consider the more tangible toll on taxpayers. The planning process, which still requires action from the City Council, has already cost Durham's planning department an estimated $46,000 in work hours since 2008, said Assistant Planning Director Patrick Young—using as a baseline $38 an hour for an estimated 1,200 work hours.
The average cost for the planning department to review a rezoning request is $2,848, Young said. But the circumstances and complications of this case have made it anything but average. (See "A brief and tortured history of 751 South" timeline.)
In all reviews by the planning department, the person making the request pays fees to help cover the costs of the necessary work. In this case, Southern Durham Development has paid more than $17,000 in fees related to its request to rezone the land for its project.
These fees were never designed to cover all of what it costs the planning department to review rezoning cases, said Planning Director Steve Medlin. They usually cover about 70 percent of the expense for planning staff and other consultants, such as the city's public works and transportation departments, Medlin said. But with 751 South, the gap is much larger.
The county has also spent more than $70,000 so far on outside legal help in a lawsuit related to this case, in which Southern Durham Development sued the county for actions it took earlier in the process. The county lost that lawsuit last December.
Durham County continues to defend itself against a small group of 751 South opponents who sued the county in December because of a planning department error that factored into the development eventually being approved. County officials are also bracing for a second lawsuit from 751 South opponents who dispute the legality of the commissioner's vote on Aug. 9 to approve the development.
With several steps left in the planning process before Southern Durham Development could gain final approval for the project, its costs—both the undefined and the tangible—could keep adding up.