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Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's next? Court, Durham county attorney says

Posted by on Thu, Nov 19, 2009 at 12:34 PM

Durham County Commissioners met in closed session this morning to discuss next steps in the controversy around a debated petition that could have affected commercial and residential development around Jordan Lake.

County Attorney Lowell Siler told commissioners, essentially, that their hands are tied. If anyone wants to question a vote commissioners took last month to move the Jordan Lake watershed, it's going to have to be an outside party in a lawsuit, he said. Commissioners cannot go back and revisit the vote they now believe they took, even though they have since learned they took the vote under now questionable circumstances.

"The central issue is, a vote has been taken and the only way to amend that is to go to superior court," Siler told commissioners Thursday morning. "And we'll defend that action."

When Siler says the issue is to be resolved in court, he fails to fully explain, said Elaine Chiosso, director of the Haw River Assembly, which filed the petition. It means a small nonprofit group has to sue the county government and city-county planning department, which have broader resources and deeper pockets.

"We're hoping to meet that challenge, but it's a big challenge," Chiosso said.

The controversy surrounds a petition filed last month by an environmental group whose members wanted to make it harder for county commissioners to redraw protective barriers around Jordan Lake. Had the petition been valid, commissioners would have been required to cast a 4-to-1 vote in favor of redrawing the lines, instead of the regular majority (3 votes to 2) they ended up casting.

But Durham's planning department, led by Steve Medlin, initially ruled the petition was invalid, so only a 3-to-2 vote was required of commissioners when they heard the rezoning case Oct. 12. Whether the petition is truly valid is still debated. A memo released Wednesday shows Medlin believes the petition is valid, but Siler said he still questions the validity of the signature of John Gunter. Gunter, president of the Chancellor's Ridge Homeowner's Association, signed the petition in representation of some common areas at the development.

The rezoning of the protective watershed is a snafu all in itself (read more). The county and developer Southern Durham Development have been in a tug-of-war dating back to 2006 about where the watershed lines should be. When commissioners voted Oct. 12 to redraw the boundary, they cleared a major hurdle for Southern Durham Development, which wants to build a sizeable residential and commercial development right next to Jordan Lake.

County Commissioner Becky Heron called the situation regarding the petition a "fiasco" on Thursday.

"There were some mistakes made that we're suffering for right now," she said. "And the public is suffering for."

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