This post was updated Jan. 4 with changes in italics.
Southern Durham Development overcame a major roadblock Monday night as Durham's city council approved a policy change that could allow the company to obtain water, sewer and other services from the city for a controversial development planned for rural South Durham.
Council members voted 5-2, with opposing votes from members Mike Woodard and Diane Catotti, who unsuccessfully implored their colleagues to wait on the matter until a lawsuit against Durham County related to the proposed development is settled.
The public hearing was solely on the extension of the Urban Growth Area—a consideration that doesn't even begin to delve into the details of the project. But that didn't stop a roster of proponents and a few opponents from presenting an overview of the vast and complex issues that have surfaced during the four-year battle that preceded Monday's hearing. (View timeline, "A brief and tortured history of 751 South")
On its side, Southern Durham Development counted the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, the local Realtors association, the Friends of Durham political action group, planning commissioner Melvin Whitley, as well as its engineers, consultants and team of attorneys from K&L Gates. They cited the jobs the fully built development could create, and also tried to mitigate concerns about storm water running off paved surfaces and polluting the Jordan Lake watershed. Former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham was also sitting between two representatives from Southern Durham Development, but didn't speak. Cunningham is an attorney representing SDD as an interested party in the lawsuit filed by opponents of the project against Durham County for its rezoning of the 751 South land.
Opponents to the project included the Durham People's Alliance PAC, planning commissioner Wendy Jacobs, and Melissa Rooney and Tina Motley-Pearson, two citizen activists who have expressed concerns about how Jordan Lake's poor water quality could be tainted further by intense development so close to the lake, which is a drinking water reservoir for several communities.
The council's vote extended the boundaries of the Urban Growth Area to include about 165 acres slated for development into 751 South, a large mixed-use community with homes, apartments, a shopping center and offices. The Urban Growth Area defines on city and county maps land that should be considered for urban- and suburban-scale development, and land that should remain rural. By being included, the land slated for the controversial development is eligible to be considered for water and sewer services. If the council had not extended the Urban Growth Area Monday night, the project would have been unable to receive city services, and would have been completely derailed.
Inclusion in the Urban Growth Area was a necessary step for the development to proceed and possibly obtain those city services, but does not guarantee it, members of the city's planning staff said. In order for the project to be built as planned, the city council still must to vote on whether to provide water and sewer services, whether to annex the land and whether to rezone it for the mixed-use development.
On Dec. 21, just before the council scattered for the holidays, its members agreed not to vote on the utilities, annexation or zoning until at least after the city's budget analysts completed a report detailing the costs of annexing the land in terms in impacts to services like police, fire, water, sewer and more. City Manager Tom Bonfield said Monday night he expected to bring the report to the council in the next 30 days.
Opponents of the project, including residents who live near the proposed development and those concerned with water quality in Jordan Lake, are racing against the development on a tight timeline. Several opponents filed a lawsuit after Durham county officials voted to rezone the land—but on what could have been inadequate approval. The civil lawsuit has been filed against the county; the county attorney has until mid-January to file a response, only after which the case could be assigned to a judge or jury for resolution. But if 751 South barrels through the city's approval process before the case goes to court, it will be moot.