Behind their stately wooden dais Monday night, Durham county commissioners had rarely looked so disorderly.
The meeting started friendly enough—with smiles and congratulations to an employee of the month and an award-winning local poetry team. But the pleasantries wilted as the five-member board moved to the evening's true purpose: voting on whether to allow a developer to transform a 167-acre chunk of rural south Durham into its own bustling town, a project called 751 South.
And by the end of the meeting five hours later, the power struggles that have characterized the three-year controversy were underscored by the utter lack of public trust in county officials.
751 South, which would require a rezoning, is massive. If fully built—and that's a big if, since the developers have plenty of wiggle room—the project could include 1,300 apartments, condos and houses, and 600,000 square feet of retail space on vulnerable land near Jordan Lake.
Just minutes into the meeting, Chairman Michael Page's face sank into an exasperated glower as bickering escalated over the agenda. The commissioners' sniping, which continued as the meeting ran past midnight, was mirrored by some members of the public. Several spoke out of turn. Some giggled. Others shouted rude comments.
After three and a half hours of testimony, commissioners failed to vote due to complications caused by an 11th-hour legal maneuver by the developer. The county attorney needed more time to consider how a "gift" of an easement to the N.C. Department of Transportation would affect a citizens' protest petition and, thus, the vote.
So in two weeks, on Aug. 9, the public will again file into commissioners' chambers. And if past behavior predicts future actions, that meeting will be just as ugly.
Although the 751 project has not been resolved, it has permanently marked several commissioners' legacies: Lewis Cheek, who, after leaving the board and receiving campaign funds from Southern Durham Development, joined K&L Gates, the law firm representing the developer; Page, Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton, three members of the board who have been sympathetic, even accommodating, to the developer, and dissenters Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron, who have historically opposed development this close to the heavily polluted Jordan Lake and the havoc it could wreak on the area's congested roads.
Commissioners have always enjoyed spirited but respectful dialogues about contentious issues. But that healthy tone has degraded to one of palpable hostility that at Monday's meeting led to an embarrassing exchange that practically derailed the agenda.
The board was arguing over whether County Attorney Lowell Siler should address the validity of a formal protest petition that had been filed by citizens opposed to the 751 South project, or whether to take public comments first. The petition, if Siler had ruled it valid, would require four of five commissioners to support the project for it to pass. If it was invalid, only three commissioners had to approve the land rezoning.
Reckhow argued that the citizens in the room, many of whom had signed the petition, deserved to know the petition's status before the hearing, not after the 72 people who had signed up to speak had done so.
"We should put all the facts on the table," Reckhow said. Fellow Commissioner Heron backed her, eliciting rowdy applause from part of the audience before Bowser quashed their momentum, suggesting it was Reckhow who was holding up the process.
"It's not fair to us to have to sit here and listen to a legal situation that Commissioner Reckhow is crying over," Bowser said. "We need to listen to the public."
Reckhow raised her hand to reply, but Page ignored her and Heron. In his haste, Page jumbled the agenda, skipping over the 30 minutes Southern Durham Development had been promised for its presentation. Page halted the public hearing after three people had spoken and gave the floor to Southern Durham Development. But he failed to specify a time limit, spurring another quarrel among the commissioners.
Finally, the citizens had their turn. Among them were several members of a stalwart corps of opponents who have tried to stop the development at nearly every step. These citizens—residents, political action committees and environmental policymakers—are concerned about dense development in the watershed of Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to Cary, Apex, Morrisville and parts of Chatham County and Research Triangle Park. They said they worry about the quality of life in south Durham, where builders have feverishly erected shopping centers and new neighborhoods in just the past 10 years, and about traffic, school overcrowding and the fact that an influx of new neighbors here would carve up rural south Durham.
The same industrious group mobilized this week after learning that Southern Durham Development quietly, and at the last minute, donated rights for a strip of land to the N.C. Department of Transportation. That donation came with strings attached: It would invalidate the citizens' most recent protest petition and would inappropriately insert a state department in the center of a local zoning controversy. Over just a few hours Monday, the opponents orchestrated an e-mail campaign aimed at the N.C. DOT, Gov. Beverly Perdue and local legislators. N.C. DOT responded by reversing its acceptance of those land rights.
Residents speaking against 751 South outnumbered those in favor of the project. But it appeared Southern Durham Development had recruited more supporters for Monday's meeting than it did for previous hearings.
Southern Durham Development promises a walkable community that will reduce residents' dependence on cars. The group contends the project would generate $8 million in new taxes for the city and county and will include $6.5 million in road improvements and land donations for one or two new schools, a fire station and a satellite office for the sheriff's department.
The project also has the support of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, whose members back the project because of the almost 3,000 permanent jobs developers have claimed it will create. The committee's most outspoken members, including Lavonia Allison, sat in the front row of the meeting room beside members of the 751 South development team.
"Any kind of guarantee that there's going to be jobs, especially in the community that I live in, is worth supporting," said Jackie Wagstaff, who lives on Holloway Street in East Durham.
But there is no guarantee that these jobs or amenities will materialize, as county planners and many opponents of the project pointed out Monday. Although Southern Durham Development has produced colorful and detailed maps showing the layout of the entire planned community, those maps aren't binding. The developer has made just a handful of commitments, none of them dealing with jobs.
The company's plans state it may build as many as 750 residences without constructing any retail or office space, or 500,000 square feet of retail and office space without erecting any housing, which is one of the planning department's concerns. If the developers choose not to build commercial space, there will be no jobs.
Other factors, including the amount of tree coverage and open space, are also subject to change, since the developer has not contractually agreed to them.
"There is not even a commitment to sidewalks on both sides of the street," said Wendy Jacobs, a member of the Durham Planning Commission, an advisory board that voted 11-1 against rezoning the land to allow this project.
Residents have grown to distrust the commissioners. Throughout the project, opponents have tracked thousands of dollars Southern Durham Development has contributed to commissioners' campaigns and perpetuating allegations of other under-the-table transactions.
Those rumors surfaced when county resident Don Yonavjak boldly asked Page about donations to Antioch Baptist Church, where he is the pastor.
"Commissioner Page, I would like to know if any of the developers involved in this project have made any contributions to your church or the church's transition house," Yonavjak asked.
"Do you have record of that?" Page replied.
"No, I'm just asking," Yonavjak said.
"Then the answer is no," Page said. "And if you can provide records, you can speak on it." He continued as Yonavjak walked back to his seat in the audience: "I don't normally use a public mic for a platform, but if you insult me in that way, and you don't have proof, I will address you."
The tension in the room continued to escalate as Siler, the county attorney, finally got to speak, just minutes before midnight. Siler revealed that he still had not decided whether the N.C. DOT had legally rejected its land gift and how that affected the protest petition.
But Bowser said he doubted the validity of the document the N.C. DOT and attorney general's office had notarized and filed in court. The board of commissioners should just vote on the rezoning anyway, he suggested.
"We cannot look the other way and say we're going to pretend none of this happened and just go ahead," Reckhow responded, incredulous.
Indeed, the commissioners are mired in the details and conflicts raised by this frustrating and circuitous case. Some will likely find the acrimony hard to leave behind, even after the Aug. 9 vote has come and gone.