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Friday, October 9, 2009

County denies Haw River Assembly petition; Commissioners to vote Monday

Posted by on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 6:43 PM

A nonprofit group’s attempt to hinder a controversial rezoning case near Jordan Lake fell flat Friday, as Durham officials denied the validity of a petition filed by the organization. The petitioner, the Haw River Assembly, did not include signatures of enough landowners around the area to be rezoned, said Durham City-County Planning Director Steve Medlin.

With its petition, the group was hoping to influence the outcome of a vote by Durham County Commissioners, who on Monday will decide whether to redraw boundaries protecting Jordan Lake and its watershed. Shifting the boundaries would allow Southern Durham Development to build a 164-acre mixed-use development, 751 Assemblage, in an area many say should remain undeveloped. (View Monday's agenda here.)

On Monday night, Commissioners need just a simple majority – three affirmative votes – to redraw the boundaries. Had the petition been valid, the rezoning would have required a supermajority, or four affirmative votes, to pass.

The petition is a small piece of a circuitous, four-year-old issue surrounding the rezoning of land around Jordan Lake, a drinking water reservoir that spans Durham and Chatham counties. Most of the disagreement among public officials, developers and other stakeholders is where exactly the critical watershed should be, and which methodology is best to evaluate factors that determine those boundaries. (Read more about the history of this issue here.)

Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly, said her organization worked with the Southern Environmental Law Center to prepare the petition, and conservatively interpreted Durham’s requirements for a rezoning petition to ensure they had collected enough support.

Durham’s planning department has agreed to send the groups electronic maps and numbers to show how they found the petition to be invalid, Chiosso said.

“Once we’ve got all that information, we can see where the discrepancy is, and how they made their decision,” she said. She would not disclose whether the group would fight the decision.

To challenge the findings, the Haw River Assembly must appeal through the judicial system, either through the Durham Board of Adjustment or superior court, County Attorney Lowell Siler said.

Chiosso and others, including County Commissioner Becky Heron, said the petition is unlike others the county has considered in the past, and the process for determining the number of required signatures and from whom left much room for error due to the unusual grouping of several parcels that total almost 835 acres.

Unlike many rezoning cases, which often involve one or two parcels of land, the rezoning Monday for critical and protected areas around Jordan Lake spans several properties, some several miles from one other.

The ordinance governing petitions (Here, in section 3.5.13 of Durham's Unified Development Ordinance) for land in the county requires signatures of property owners for 20 percent of the property under consideration, or the owners of 20 percent of the area within 100 feet of either side or back of the property.

The Haw River Assembly petition drew close to the requirements, collecting the signatures of owners of more than 17 percent of the 100-foot buffer on the west and east sides of the land in question. The petition needed 20 percent on just one side (north, south, east or west) to seal the deal.

Medlin said that in his 24 years planning in Durham, he had never seen a rezoning petition for a large group of noncontiguous properties such as the one the department considered this week. The Unified Development Ordinance governing protest petitions does not specify any differences on how signatures must be gathered for contiguous or noncontiguous land.

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