The Southern Environmental Law Center and Haw River Assembly, two groups that filed a protest petition last month in an attempt to prevent changes to the protected area around Jordan Lake, responded this morning to the county's final ruling that the petition was invalid. They criticized the county's findings, its evaluation process and its statement that further appeal of the decision would have to be presented in a lawsuit.
"That doesn’t give citizens a role in democracy that they should have," said Elaine Chiosso of the Haw River Assembly. "Suing a local govt is a very expensive proposition. It puts a very big barrier in front of citizens who are trying to hold their government accountable."
The county issued a press release late Thursday saying County Attorney Lowell Siler found the petition invalid, and that included a problem with the signatures. Chiosso said they're still waiting for the county to explain what that means. (So are we. We promise to update when we hear back.)
UPDATE - 4:30 p.m. - Kay Bond, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center who is representing the Haw River Assembly, clarified what Chiosso told us earlier. Corrections below:
Chiosso said a problem with signatures is probably tied to a Chancellor's Ridge resident who signed the petition for herself as well as for her parents. But that property shouldn't even be considered, Chiosso said, because the petitioners were required to gather signatures of property owners of at least 20 percent of the land on one side (north, south, east or west) of a buffer area around the land to be rezoned, and the petitioners believe they exceeded the 20-percent threshold on the east side. The petition focused on the west side, and exceeded the 20 percent requirement, Chiosso said. The property with questionable signatures was on the east side, and doesn't even count. so if it doesn't count, there should still be enough valid signatures, Bond said.
Chiosso said neither organization behind the petition has decided yet whether they'll file a lawsuit.
Why does this all matter? Because had the petition been valid, it would have made it harder for county commissioners to pass the rezoning of the protected buffer around Jordan Lake. Residents in protest of the rezoning (including the petitioners) don't want development so close to the lake, which is a water source for thousands of residents. A developer and his supporters say that the development planned for the area will greatly benefit the county and its residents.
Here is the text of the HRA and SELC release from this morning:
Jordan Lake Petition Response Raises Questions
County Ignores Its Mistakes, Invalidates without Specifics and Dares Citizens to Sue
CHAPEL HILL, NC—After Durham County miscounted properties belonging to petition signatories, its announcement yesterday that a citizens’ petition is invalid without specific explanation and citizens must sue for reconsideration only raises questions, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center and Haw River Assembly.
“It’s unfortunate that the county insists on court action by citizens for proper consideration of their petition instead of insisting on good and transparent governance,” said Kay Bond, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The county’s dogged invalidation of a citizens’ petition without specific explanation and following its previous miscount is perplexing,” added Elaine Chiosso, Haw Riverkeeper, Haw River Assembly. “If the only way to achieve government accountability and transparency to citizens is through the courts, Durham’s in sad shape.”