This story was originally posted on our Triangulator blog, and there's a conversation going on there...
To gain support for his controversial project, 751 South, a developer recently sent a letter to residents in a South Durham neighborhood alleging that living near mixed-use and commercial development, such as the one he's pushing, could help boost their property values.
But there's a problem: A central statement in the letter, written by Alex Mitchell, president of Southern Durham Development, is incorrect. So are conclusions in an accompanying letter and analysis by a Durham real estate appraiser, which misstate the appraiser's own findings.
The documents tell homeowners in Chancellor's Ridge, a community of 450 homes near The Streets at Southpoint mall, that their home prices haven't appreciated like those in similar communities, such as Fairfield and Hunters Wood, despite being located near new commercial development. However, 751 South would boost home values, the appraiser's statement says. The letter also suggests that neighborhood residents should encourage their homeowners' association to stop trying to block 751 South. The homeowners' group signed a protest petition that could prevent the developer from getting county approval for the project—1,300 residences, plus a shopping center and offices proposed for a rural corner of Durham County. County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the project Aug. 9.
Here's the truth: The values of single-family homes in Chancellor's Ridge actually have increased at the same pace as those in similar developments; it's the prices of the 88 townhouses in the development that haven't risen as much, said appraiser Susan Copeland, who prepared the study.
But that's not clear from the letter or conclusions in Copeland's name distributed in South Durham. Statements in her report are inconsistent with the data she gathered in her actual analysis. Copeland said she carefully prepared a 13-page analysis that was proofread by more than 40 people—but was then "hacked" to seven pages and reassembled by attorneys for Southern Durham Development and, later, by Mitchell.
Copeland, an appraiser with 32 years of experience, could now be called by the state to answer for the findings bearing her name. When the letters were mailed the week of July 19, John Gunter, a resident of Chancellor's Ridge and an opponent of 751 South, filed a complaint with the N.C. Appraisal Board. He included notes from a conversation he had with Copeland about the letter, and her acknowledgement that incorrect information and an erroneous graphic were included in the report sent to nearly 500 people.
"My reputation is on the line," Copeland told the Indy this week. "I didn't like what happened. I had put so much work into the entire thing. It had been proofed by so many people. And at the last minute, everything got changed and run over to Kinko's and sent out 500 times."
Mitchell said he was unaware of any misrepresentation in the report, and any omitted or incorrect information was unintentional. Mitchell acknowledged that he was in Copeland's office the Saturday before the letter went out, cutting out sections of her 13-page analysis and cover letter because he felt it was too long, and he feared no one would read it.
He said he hired Copeland to show how commercial and mixed-use development help grow property values, in response to "fear mongering" by opponents of the project, who say if built, 751 South would actually shrink home values.
"People can take it for what it's worth," Mitchell said. "It was a concern that was drawn up. I hired an appraiser [to analyze it]. If people want to question those good intentions, then so be it."
Copeland confirmed she was hired in June by Southern Durham Development and Patrick Byker, an attorney for the company, to analyze how commercial developments affected nearby home values. She had worked with Byker in the past, she said.
She was told her analysis and letter would be sent only to the owners of 88 townhouses at Chancellor's Ridge, where property values had not increased despite nearby commercial projects. At some point, Copeland said, the developer's team decided to send the documents to all residents, though Mitchell said the study was never intended just for townhome owners.
Copeland also said she didn't catch the mistakes because of a last-minute rush to get the document out the door. Mitchell even had come to her office on the Saturday before it was distributed, working on last-minute changes as his wife and children waited outside in the family car.
Copeland told both Gunter and the Indy that "others took over" the preparation of the document, and in the end, she signed her name to their revisions. She'll likely have to explain the process to the N.C. Appraisal Board. Copeland will have 30 days to respond to the complaint, after which the board will decide whether to dismiss the case, warn Copeland or schedule a hearing, according to the board's website.
Even though Copeland's analysis is not technically an appraisal, the board may still evaluate it for ethics and competency, said Roberta Ouellette, general counsel for the board.
"There was no intent to defraud," Copeland said. "That part I can guarantee. There was absolutely no intent to be misleading at all."
But hard-bitten opponents of 751 South, who have fought the development at every step for almost three years, say they believe the letter intentionally misleads residents of Chancellor's Ridge, suggesting their property values are lagging.
"The mailing is clearly an attempt to influence my opinion," Gunter wrote in his July 26 complaint to the state. Gunter is also president of the Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association but says the board is not involved in this matter. "It seems unethical to me that her credentials are so clearly held up in the mailing, and followed by incorrect data which is misleading about my home value, but which would support their attempt to influence my opinion, if the data were correct."
The letter also adds a new layer to Southern Durham Development's attempts to foil citizen protest petitions, documents that property owners near a proposed development may sign to require more elected officials to support the project for it to pass.
Chancellor's Ridge homeowners and their association have now twice signed such petitions, which require four of five county commissioners to approve 751 South for it to move forward. A small group of Chancellor's Ridge residents are now suing Durham County officials because they erroneously ruled one of those petitions invalid last fall, when it actually did meet all the requirements.
Southern Durham Development admittedly attempted to foil a second petition that included Chancellor's Ridge homeowners last week, by donating land rights to part of its property to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. When the N.C. DOT realized its acceptance of that land would nullify the citizens' petition on a technicality, the department attempted to revoke its acceptance.
The last-minute maneuver also pushed back, yet again, county commissioners' attempt to vote on 751 South, an event that has been scheduled and rescheduled since last spring.
On July 26, when commissioners were on the verge of voting, Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler asked them for more time to consider whether the N.C. DOT's revocation, which was written by lawyers at the attorney general's office and filed in court, is legally binding.
Siler's decision is expected Aug. 9, when commissioners meet at 7 p.m. to vote on whether to allow 751 South to go forward—a move that could put the issue to rest, at least for the time being.