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Friday, July 10, 2009

Lewis Cheek joins law firm suing Durham County

Posted by on Fri, Jul 10, 2009 at 6:41 PM

One of Lewis Cheek's final actions as a Durham County commissioner was to reject an independent survey of Jordan Lake, saying the county should instead "take ownership of the issue" by relying on a private survey commissioned by developer Neal Hunter.

"I don't think we should get into budget ordinances and amendments in order to spend $100,000 that we really don't have right now," Cheek said at the Nov. 24, 2008 meeting, in moving to defer action on the independent survey. "Frankly, and I'll be very candid, I feel very uncomfortable getting involved with that, given that this is my last night as a member of the Board of County Commissioners."

Less than one year later, Cheek has joined law firm K&L Gates as an "of counsel" attorney, K&L Gates attorney Patrick Byker confirmed in an interview. The firm represents Southern Durham Development, whose proposed mixed-use project, known as the 751 Assemblage, would directly benefit from Hunter's survey. Southern Durham Development is suing the County to change its watershed maps, based on Hunter's survey, without a public hearing.

In 2008, Hunter sold 164 acres intended for the 751 Assemblage to Southern Durham Development for $18 million and a stake in the company. (Hunter is a minority shareholder, and has argued on the company's behalf at public meetings.) In February 2009, the N.C. Division of Water Quality accepted Hunter's survey, which would move the property outside a one-mile area that prohibits such development. However, in April commissioners voted 3-2 to follow state law and conduct a public hearing process before changing its watershed maps accordingly. Last month, Southern Durham Development sued Durham County for allegedly acting maliciously to "attack" and "undermine" this map change by conducting a public hearing. Several of Cheek's former colleagues, including County Attorney Chuck Kitchen and then-Commission Chair Ellen Reckhow, are named in the suit.

Cheek's bio on K&L Gates indicates he will represent clients on "land use and zoning matters." However, Byker declined to comment on whether Cheek would work on the lawsuit against his former employer.

In his 2004 run for the County Commission, Cheek received his largest contribution, $2,000, from Hunter.

Cheek did not respond to calls or e-mails requesting comment.

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