With a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Durham County Board of Commissioners finally weighed in on whether to allow Southern Durham Development to build a huge new community in southwest Durham County.
As expected from their past stances on the development, commissioners Michael Page, Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton voted in favor of the project, while Becky Heron and Ellen Reckhow voted against it.
If completely built, 751 South would comprise 1,300 apartments, condos, townhouses and homes, plus 600,000 square feet of offices and shops spread over more than 100 acres off N.C. 751, just north of Chatham County.
Southern Durham Development's plans have met remarkable opposition throughout the planning process. Opponents say the development is too dense for the rural corner of the county, and the 30,000 car trips per day it is expected to generate will cause nightmarish traffic that can't be alleviated by the $6 million the developer plans to dedicate to road improvements. Runoff from the construction and new roads could cause further harm to the already polluted waters of Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to several municipalities.
To counter some opponents' concerns, the developer revised its plans in the days leading up to Monday's vote. Southern Durham Development promises a walkable community with some housing deemed affordable for low- to moderate-income families. To pacify those who fret about water quality, the developer also agreed at the last minute to tighter environmental restrictions, beyond what the law requires.
But the 11th-hour compromises haven't earned the developer much goodwill with staunch opponents. Despite their objections to the proposal itself, they say the nastiest part of the past three years, as 751 South has awaited county approval, has been the process itself. It's been rife with discord, distrust and disagreements now pending in court. Monday's meeting alone was brimming with notable plot twists. And the case is far from over.
The issue: Southern Durham Development has received approval for its rezoning request from the county, after a contentious process that has taken almost three years.
What's next: The developer next faces the Durham City Council. Southern Durham Development has asked the city to annex the 167 acres upon which the development is planned so city water and sewer services may be extended to the site. The council is expected to schedule a hearing on the annexation some time this fall, with a Dec. 31 target date for annexation. The council also must decide whether to bring in the land under its current zoning or to require a new rezoning process from the city, which could take several more months.
The issue: County Attorney Lowell Siler said he believes that the N.C. Department of Transportation has the right-of-way along the developer's land on N.C. 751.
The N.C. DOT recently attempted to reject its ownership of that strip of land, but Siler said the state didn't follow the proper procedures to do so.
The consequences of Siler's opinion are significant. Because he ruled that the N.C. DOT has the right-of-way on that land, a protest petition filed by opponents of 751 South became invalid on a technicality. Had it been valid, the petition would have required four of the five county commissioners to vote in favor of 751 South for it to be approved—an almost impossible outcome, since two commissioners against the development can't seem to be swayed. Without a valid petition, the developer only needed a simple majority, which it got with the 3-2 vote.
What's next: Attorneys for Kim Preslar, a resident near the 751 South site who organized the protest petition, and other opponents plan to file a lawsuit in the coming weeks, she said. It will be the second time in a year that 751 South opponents will sue the county. Organizers of another protest petition, filed last fall, sued the county after it incorrectly ruled that the petition was invalid. That case is still pending.
The issue: Over several months, rumors have surfaced about the commissioners Howerton, Page and Bowser, who have consistently voted for 751 South. Opponents of the project have accused the three commissioners of cozying up to the developer, but there is no evidence to prove these allegations, or those claiming Southern Durham Development or its representatives have earned the commissioners' support with gifts.
Although those accusations had mostly been insinuated in past meetings, one commissioner decided Monday to tackle the issue.
"I'm really concerned that I've heard so many stories out there about commissioners receiving gifts from the developers," Heron said before the board's vote.
Howerton chimed in, "I wonder who started that conversation. Hmm ..." verbally jabbing Heron and Reckhow.
Page, glaring at Heron and Reckhow, said that his fellow commissioners had started the rumors. Howerton and Bowser piled on. By the end of their rants, Page said he wanted Monday night's purge to be the end of the rumors: "When I leave here tonight, I don't want to hear any more from anybody."
What's next: The next election will determine whether this issue has permanently damaged the commissioners' spirits and reputations.
"I'm hopeful that tomorrow this community can begin the healing process," Bowser said Monday night, after the vote. "Because there's a lot of healing to do."