Update Monday afternoon: Barry Van Deman, president and CEO of the Museum of Life and Science, wrote to City Council members today about the museum's position on digital billboards. You can read the letter, but in essence he reiterates the museum "has not taken and does not intend" an official position on the billboard ordinance. museumlettermonday.pdf
Tonight's Durham City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. If the main City Council Chambers fills, there is other seating in an overflow area where people can watch the proceedings on TV screens. The meeting will also be broadcast on Channel 8.
As of Friday, City Council had received more than 750 e-mails opposing changes to the billboard ordinance and four supporting the amendment, which would allow digital billboards.
The relationship between some local nonprofit groups and Fairway Outdoor Advertising is in question three days before a pivotal http://www.ci.durham.nc.us/council/ vote Monday night on digital billboards.
Fairway, which is pushing for a change to city and county ordinances that would allow it to place digital billboards in Durham, routinely gives away billboard space to nonprofits.
However, some of those same nonprofits that received free billboard space from Fairway have sent letters to city council members promoting their partnerships with the Georgia-based advertising company—and pushing the benefits of digital billboards for their groups.
(Clarification posted Saturday morning: The letter obtained by the Indy is addressed to Mayor Bill Bell, who also sits on city council; however, at least one city council member received the letter in an envelope sent from Fairway. museumletter.pdf )
And in one case, a strategist working with the billboard industry appeared to troll for nonprofits by asking a City Councilwoman about her favorite groups.
Although Fairway has been courting community groups about digital billboards for at least two years, the most recent examples of Fairway’s wooing of nonprofits date from June, when several nonprofits sent letters to City Council members supporting the ordinance change.
The Museum of Life and Science sent a letter on June 8 noting that “Fairway was a valued partner” in helping the museum publicize its new Dinosaur Trail exhibit. “The Museum and other nonprofits will benefit from the proposed digital billboard opportunity,” the letter said.
Nonprofits receive free space but pay for the printing of the billboard message. With digital billboards, “this cost is eliminated and resources are available for our mission,” the letter reads.
Julie Ketner Rigby, the museum’s vice president for external relations, said the letter was intended to “point out information” about the value of its partnership with Fairway.
Rigby said the museum board has not taken a position on the billboard ordinance.
The strategy of cozying up to nonprofit groups is emphasized in materials of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a trade group representing the billboard industry. Scenic America, a nonprofit that opposes billboards, quotes the association as saying, "Know the public service and/or charity interest of the mayor, planning director, council members, ... their wives and husbands ... Direct your public service efforts toward these causes ... Make these persons aware each time you donate space to a cause and/or group for which they have an interest."
Steve Toler, a local consultant and strategist who has been working with the billboard industry, appears to have used this tactic with one elected official.
At least a year ago, Toler asked to have lunch with City Councilwoman Diane Catotti. At the end of the conversation, which, until that point had not mentioned billboards, Catotti told the Indy, Toler casually asked her about her favorite nonprofit groups. Catotti said she named a couple, including the Durham Crisis Response Center. She said she thought nothing of it until at some point after that luncheon when she saw billboards for those same groups. Catotti told the Indy that Toler did not follow up with her about the billboards and she has not been contacted by Toler or Fairway since the original lunch.
Toler did not responded to a phone call and an e-mail requesting comment.
Fairway General Manager Paul Hickman said late Friday afternoon that he knows nothing of Toler’s lunch with Catotti. He said the company has long donated space to nonprofits, which is “very common” in the outdoor advertising industry.
As for the recent letters sent by nonprofits supporting Fairway, Hickman said the proposed text amendment clearly states that Fairway will donate one 8-second spot each minute to public service announcements, including nonprofits.
“As the nonprofits learn about the text amendment, they know it benefits their business,” Hickman said.
Hickman said the nonprofits took the lead on sending the pro-billboard letter: “Every nonprofit that wrote a letter” contacted Fairway and said ‘Can we help you? And we said, ‘You can make a phone call or write a letter, if you want. It’s up to you.’”
Interestingly, the museum letter went beyond its personal interest in publicizing its exhibits. The letter echoed Fairway’s talking points on Amber and Silver alerts, noting “… the opportunities for Amber and Silver alerts are all important considerations for this proposal.”
Asked why the Museum of Life and Science would be concerned about Amber and Silver alerts, Hickman replied that nonprofits could have obtained information about the text amendment from many sources, including the company’s website. “I don’t know why they wrote what they wrote,” he said.
However, Rigby said Fairway provided the museum with information about digital billboards in a sample letter. She said she “picked and chose” from the many points Fairway listed in that template, adding she has seen other nonprofits’ letters. “They are all a little bit different,” she said.
Amber and Silver alerts were a key part of a July 2009 presentation before the Durham Crime Cabinet. There, Patrick Byker, an attorney with K&L Gates, which represents Fairway, emphasized how digital billboards are more effective than other media at drawing attention to Amber and Silver alerts.
A rift formed among PAC representatives after Fairway attorneys pitched the proposal to a City Wide PAC meeting, a gathering of the leaders of the five PAC districts. During the pitch, Fairway asked for the City Wide PAC’s support.
By a 3-2 vote, the City Wide PAC allowed Fairway to claim that the group supported the text amendment—even though those five leaders had not cleared it with their individual district groups.
Bill Anderson (PAC 2) and Patty Coninger (PAC 3) voted against the text amendment, according to PAC e-mails.
Marion Lambert (PAC 5), Harold Chestnut (PAC 4) and Wanda Boone, (PAC 1) voted in favor of Fairway’s proposal.
Boone, executive director of Durham Together for Resilient Youth (T.R.Y.), received harsh criticism from billboard opponents because she supported the ordinance change, yet had received free billboards from Fairway in 2007, about a year before the company’s main push for a change to the ordinance.
Boone declined to comment for this story, but she told her PAC colleagues in an e-mail that "the request for me to speak came via Harold Chestnut ... to voice the result of City-wide PAC's vote (period) in favor of the electronic billboard 'for the safety of our Durham Community.' ... I carried the message. "
John Schelp, an outspoken opponent of digital billboards, said he is not surprised by Fairway’s apparent wooing of nonprofit groups. “We said a year and a half ago that Fairway would do this. Sure enough, it’s all happening.”
Yesterday the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers' district commander Col. Jefferson M. Ryscavage issued the Corp's Record of Decision (ROD). The ROD gives the Western Wake Partners the necessary permit to begin building their $327 million wastewater plant at Site 14. That site is located on a 237-acre parcel of farmland taken by eminent domain by the Partners for the purpose of building the 62-acre wastewater treatment plant. The location lies adjacent to churches, playgrounds, and homes.
New Hill is a small town on the fringes of western Wake County. Because it is unincorporated, New Hill’s total size is hard to quantify in acres or miles, and there are no defined boundaries. On a map it sits between Moncure (Chatham County) and Apex.
More than five years ago, New Hill residents were upset by an alliance of Cary, Apex, Morrisville and Holly Springs, later known as Western Wake Partners. Soon the partners decided New Hill was an ideal location for them to build a wastewater treatment plant to meet the needs of their towns’ fast-growing populations.
The project is more than three years behind schedule. It could be completed by 2013, with construction beginning as early as this year.
While the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers felt their were no practicable alternatives to Site 14, there are significant social justice impacts that defy the Corp's statement that the project "is not contrary to the public interest."
Site 14 sits directly across the street from the New Hill Baptist Church and playground, and a half-mile away from the First Baptist Church of New Hill; the plant will be built within 1,000 feet of 23 homes.
More important, 83 percent of the 230-plus residents immediately affected by the sewage treatment plant are African-American; rural neighbors on fixed incomes or retired and elderly.
Chris Brook, attorney with the Southern Coalition of Social Justice representing the New Hill Community Association expresses disappointment after an initial review of the ROD with the NHCA.
"The ROD suffers from the same problems that have plagued this entire process: it does not adequately consider environmental justice or water quality concerns and also gives short shrift to alternative sites with fewer human impacts," he said.
By a one-vote margin, Durham County Commissioners squelched a resolution Thursday night to hold a public referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax increase this November.
Commissioners Michael Page, Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron voted against the measure; Brenda Howerton and Joe Bowser voted yes.
Revenue from the sales tax, estimated at $7.8 million for fiscal year 2011-2012, would have been funneled solely to public schools. Because of decreased state funding, the Durham Public School district needed—and received from county commissioners—an influx of cash for the coming school year to thwart extensive teacher layoffs. Bowser proposed the latest sales tax increase and referendum to fill future funding gaps.
The sales tax would have been broadly applied to consumer items including restaurant food and prepared meals. Groceries and prescription drugs would have been exempt.
The commission had to approve the proposal tonight—and the county attorney would have needed to deliver the exact resolution to the county board of elections tomorrow—for the referendum to have appeared on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Bowser proposed the sales tax and the referendum in hopes of warding off a budgetary crisis and further property tax increases in the 2011-2012 school year. “We need to be prepared,” he said.
While on its face supporting school funding seems like a political no-brainer, the issue is more complex. In the last fiscal year DPS made a critical decision: Rather than trim parts of the system budget, it opted to transfer $13 million from the classroom teacher category to other areas that had been slashed by the General Assembly. Then earlier this year, the district asked the commissioners for more money to avoid massive teacher layoffs.
Reckhow put the financial onus not only on DPS, but on the legislature.
“The last thing we need is for the state to push more education funding to the local level,” Reckhow said. “It will lead to greater inequities in which higher-income counties can afford a higher supplement and lower income counties will not. It’s important to work with the General Assembly to find solutions.”
Reckhow suggested that several commissioners and school board members meet about future funding needs.
Heron recommended further taxing liquor and cigarettes to raise revenue for schools, rather than implementing a sales tax increase.
“Joe, your heart is in the right place, but I won’t be supporting it,” Heron told her colleague. “What you’re proposing is what the legislature wants—for counties to take over school funding. And every time they get in financial trouble, they push things on to the counties. I’m kind of tired of it.”
In addition, it is uncertain if the school board or new DPS Superintendent Eric Becoats, who started his job less than a month ago, support the sales tax.
“I’d like to give [Becoats] an opportunity to do his job,” Heron said. “We need to give him a chance to tell us what are some of the needs in the system.
“We’re sitting here on Cloud 9 thinking we’re going to make everything wonderful in Durham County by raising taxes. We’re sitting here guessing.”
The pivotal vote, even though it was unofficial, came from Lavonia Allison, chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, who vehemently spoke against the sales tax, calling it “regressive.”
“I’m really appalled at what happened to that $13 million,” said Allison, one of two people who had signed up to speak. “There was $13 million for teachers and they moved the money and used it for something else.”
Two years ago, Allison and the committee aligned with the conservative Americans for Prosperity to oppose a meals tax, which was soundly defeated by a 72-28 margin.
“I have to be opposed to [the recent sales tax] in order to be consistent,” she said.
Allison’s stance appeared to sway Page, who later turned to Bowser and advised him that “One of Durham’s major political groups is saying they won’t support it.”
Shortly afterward, the resolution failed.
The Indy e-mailed several Durham school board members for comment Thursday night. Check back Friday for updates to this post.
Just days after a national announcement honoring Scarborough & Hargett Funeral Home Inc., the 100-year-old, renowned business could be under fire with state authorities and a local widow, whose husband’s body was allegedly allowed to decay at the funeral home.
Another unrelated complaint against the funeral home is also pending a hearing
on the matter, according to Steve Dirksen, an attorney for the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service. Records also show the funeral home, located at a temporary building at 923 Old Fayetteville St., has been on probation for the past three years because of violations found in 2007 with recordkeeping, documents that had not been filed on time, violations in accounting practices and with the business preparation room. As a result of the violations, Scarborough & Hargett paid a $7,000 civil penalty and agreed to submit to re-training and testing.
Meanwhile, family members say that the remains of Jonathan Kendall Hughes, who died July 15, were improperly handled at the funeral home. Delays had caused his body to decay, and the family removed the body from Scarborough & Hargett and was forced to have it cremated, said Lenwood Edwards, an in-law of Hughes who lives in Fayetteville and recently attended Hughes' memorial in Durham.
Hughes was a 48-year-old maintenance worker. He died from kidney failure, according to a Durham County death certificate. A container of his remains sat on a table beside a large portrait of the man, whose nickname was “Junior,” Edwards said.
CHAPEL HILL —There’s nowhere to park downtown. It’s too expensive. Chapel Hill has tried to confront these well-worn perceptions for decades. Of late, the town has moved to free parking on Sundays and free valet service, but cries continue for more options.new downtown development plan said free parking costs more than it’s worth. Dan Douglas of KlingStubbins responded with the old, “if I had a nickel for every time I heard that” when Friends Chairwoman Pat Evans made her plea for more free lots.
Referencing “The High Cost of Free Parking” by UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup, Douglas explained that visitors are paying for an experience downtown that’s different from malls. Franklin Street is public, and Southpoint Mall is corporate, which means Chapel Hill can market a unique experience, he says.
“If you are trying to compete with malls on the basis of free parking, you will lose every time,” he said.
Douglas believes people will pay, as much as $2 an hour even, if metered spots are available and the downtown offers character and charm. He says it's too costly for a town to give away prime real estate for no return. His pay-to-park opus was met with applause by most of the planners and business owners in the room.
This weird tidbit has been sitting in the Triangulator's inbox for a while: Companies that want to export execution equipment including electric chairs, gallows, guillotines, air tight vaults and lethal chemical injection tables must now get a U.S. export license, the trade magazine Government Security News reported earlier this month.
The export licenses are issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The new rule became effective July 15.
The death penalty is legal in 70 countries, including the U.S., India, Japan and many Middle Eastern and African nations.
The equipment could be used not only for products and systems that have a "clear nexus to crime control," the GSN explains, but also "an obvious potential use in repressing human rights."
Thumbcuffs, thumbscrews, spiked batons and finger cuffs are classified as implements of torture, according to the Commerce Department's Control List, and can't be exported.
However, the department has determined stun cuffs, shock sleeves and shock belts have legitimate crime-fighting uses.
Triangulator will sleep better knowing all this.
UNC unveiled a program today to help students gain green jobs.
Developing Energy Leaders through Action (The DELTA acronym is fitting for obvious reasons) will offer more than 60 internships for undergraduate and graduate students with energy companies, local and state government and within the campus itself.
"There is a growing demand among students to participate in energy-related internships and learning activities," Greg Gangi, the institute's associate director for education and one of the principal investigators for the grant, said in a press release. "They are seeking out unique opportunities to help North Carolina communities and they know there will be career opportunities during the impending clean energy transition."
DELTA is one of several statewide initiatives spearheaded by $5.6 million of Recovery Act funding given to the Energy Office in hopes of generated 400 energy jobs and internships for college students. You can read more about those efforts, including plans at Duke and N.C. State universities here.
That burning question? Yep, still no answer.
After hearing three and a half hours of public views on the contentious 751 South development, Durham's county commissioners stalled a vote on whether to rezone the project's land until their Aug. 9 meeting. The postponement came just before midnight, and added another two weeks to a process that already has stretched more than two years as the public and commissioners have considered the huge mixed-use development proposed for 167 acres in south Durham near Jordan Lake.
County Attorney Lowell Siler requested the delay. He said he obtained at 5 p.m. legal papers that would determine how commissioners should proceed with the voting process, and had not had enough time to evaluate them. Those papers indicated that the N.C. Department of Transportation had revoked its earlier decision to accept a right-of-way from Southern Durham Development. The NCDOT stood by the validity of those documents, filed in Durham County court Monday afternoon. But Siler said he needed at least two more days to know for sure.
"There’s a great possibility that this document can do what the DOT says it’s supposed to do," Siler said. "I'm saying we haven’t had enough time to make a conclusive determination."
Whether that NCDOT document is legal and binding is a key factor in determining the validity of a formal petition citizens filed on the 751 South rezoning. (See earlier blog post on that matter)
If the document is sufficient, it would mean the citizens' petition is valid. And a valid protest petition would mean that four of five county commissioners would have to approve the rezoning request by Southern Durham Development for the project to move forward.
If the document is not sufficient, the petition would be invalid, and only a simple majority of the commissioners (three of five) must vote in support of the rezoning.
More than 70 people signed up to speak on the rezoning, with opponents outnumbering supporters by 10 speakers. Supporters of the development said it would create much-needed jobs and increased tax revenues for the city and county. Opponents cited concerns about traffic and the potential effects to the environment and water quality in Jordan Lake.
At tonight’s public hearing county commissioners will decide whether one of the last stretches of rural land in southern Durham should be open to dense development. The vote, expected to happen after extensive public comment, is one of the most anticipated decisions in the last 25 years of Durham politics.
The 751 project would be enormous: 167 acres, 1,300 houses, townhomes, apartments and condos, plus as much as 600,000 square feet of office and retail space would be built in the environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake watershed. Much has been invested and much is at stake: Executives with Southern Durham Development, the company behind the project, have contributed thousands of dollars in campaign funds to several commissioners. Developers’ connections to county insiders, including former county planning director Frank Duke, has fostered public suspicion about the motivations of elected leaders and cost the county thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Yet, 751 opponents—who often have clashed with the few people in favor of the project, have demonstrated what can be achieved when citizens rally around a common cause.
Outspoken opponents of 751 South hoped last week that commissioners would deny the rezoning, ending the nearly three-year battle with Southern Durham Development. But due to last-minute legal maneuvers, developers could secure enough yes votes from the commissioners, continuing a circuitous and dramatic process.
If Durham county commissioners approve the rezoning and 751 South is built, it will be yet another win for influential developers who have toppled even the most staunch and organized public opposition. It will be another loss for residents who have unsuccessfully attempted to stave off other contentious developments that have transformed parts of Durham County: Treyburn and the Streets at Southpoint mall.
Regardless of the vote, though, 751 South will also permanently mark several commissioners’ legacies: Lewis Cheek, who, after leaving the board and receiving campaign funds from Southern Durham Development, joined K&L Gates, the law firm representing the developer; Michael Page, Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton, three members of the board who have been sympathetic, and even accommodating, to the developer’s legal maneuvers, and dissenters Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron, who have opposed the idea of the development in its proximity to Jordan Lake, which is already woefully polluted.
Although residents near the proposed 751 South have filed a formal petition requiring four commissioners to approve the project, the petition’s validity remained uncertain hours before the meeting. Lawyers and planning experts for the county are expected to present findings to commissioners at the meeting on the petition’s validity. If not, only three commissioners must approve the rezoning to allow the developer to move forward with 751 South. And if developers get those three votes, they will next have to persuade Durham City Council to annex the property into the city limits, the benefits of which would include water and sewer services to the development. If commissioners deny the rezoning, Southern Durham Development could still pursue annexation, and then appeal to the city to rezone the land.
The public hearing is expected to last several hours. Based on their past stances, Bowser, Page and Howerton are expected to approve the development, while Heron and Reckhow are expected to vote against it.
“There’s just been so much controversy on this one,” said Heron, the senior member of the board, a self-proclaimed environmentalist who said she will vote against the project. “Everyone’s known from the beginning where I was coming from.”
For years, developers have been laying the groundwork for 751 South. F. Neal Hunter, a minority shareholder in Southern Durham Development and co-founder of the Cree semiconductor company, acquired hundreds of acres of land in the southwest corner of the county, near the Chatham County line. He developed approximately 300 acres into the Colvard Farms subdivision, where half-million dollar homes sit amid wooded trails just east of Jordan Lake. Hunter owns another 86 acres of largely undeveloped land east of Colvard Farms and just south of the 751 South site, which he told The Triangle Business Journal in 2008 he does not plan to develop.
It was when Hunter sold another 167 acres of land just north of Colvard Farms that residents of nearby communities started hearing about plans for 751 South. In 2008, Southern Durham Development applied to Durham County to rezone that land. And from that point, a stalwart corps of Durham residents has tried to stop the development at nearly every step.
These citizens—residents, political action committees and environmental policymakers—are concerned about dense development in the watershed of Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to Cary, Apex, Morrisville and parts of Chatham County and Research Triangle Park. They worry about quality of life in south Durham, where builders have furiously erected shopping centers and new neighborhoods in just the past 10 years. Opponents say they’re concerned about traffic, school overcrowding and the fact that an influx of new neighbors here would also carve up the last bastion of rural south Durham.
“Right now, it’s turning into Walnut Street in Cary,” said Steve Bocckino, who has lived in the Fern Valley subdivision in south Durham for almost 20 years. “It’s an overly developed playground for other people, but for the people who live here, it’s not so good. … I don’t want to live in a mall city.”
Bocckino led the unsuccessful charge against the Streets of Southpoint mall. He and more than 300 residents have signed an online petition against the 751 development. Environmental, political and community groups including the Haw River Assembly, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham, have also joined the long list of challengers. Even the board of commissioners in Chatham County, where most of Jordan Lake is located, has urged Durham’s leaders to deny the development.
These groups have gone to great lengths to halt the developer’s progress through any avenue available. When a survey commissioned by Hunter showed that hundreds of acres of his land lie outside the lake’s immediate watershed, the Haw River Assembly raised thousands of dollars in donations to commission its own survey showing different—and more protective—boundaries.
Residents near the proposed development have implored county commissioners to vote against development approvals. They’ve filed formal petitions twice in the past year to require the developer to gain the approval of four of five of the commissioners to move forward with their plans. (Ordinarily, the developer would just need the support of three commissioners, a simple majority.) And when the county erroneously disregarded one of those petitions, those same residents collected thousands of dollars to sue the county. That lawsuit is still pending.
The resulting delays have stretched what normally is a yearlong process to rezone land to more than two years. The delays have proven frustrating and costly to the development company, its members have told elected officials. Southern Durham Development President Alex Mitchell declined to be interviewed for this story, but the project’s supporters, who appear to be vastly outnumbered by those outspoken against it, have also tried to influence public process through testimonials and letters published to Durham’s daily newspaper, the Herald-Sun.
Through public hearings, letters and its website, the developers have tried to appease the public’s concerns about traffic and water pollution. They promise a walkable community that will reduce residents’ dependence on cars. Developers also contend the project would generate $8 million in new taxes for the city and county and create more than 2,900 jobs. The project would also bring $6.5 million in road improvements and land donations for one or two new schools, a fire station and a satellite office for the sheriff’s department, representatives for the developer said.
Opponents of the project and several public officials have dissected these promises. It will take more than $6.5 million to counter the 24,000 additional cars expected to travel N.C. 751 daily if the complex is built. And of those 2,900 jobs, none can be guaranteed to Durham residents. Perhaps the most significant concern, even cited by the county’s planners, is that the project will not reduce residents’ and workers’ reliance on cars. The area targeted for this development is not on a public transportation route—a major barrier for people without cars.
But the promise of jobs in a recession was enough to garner the support of activists with the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham (of which several 751 South planners are members), as well as one outspoken leader from East Durham.
“The idea of creating 2,900 jobs is something that we just can’t walk away from, especially when you look at my community,” said Melvin Whitley, a minister who serves on the Durham Planning Commission. He was the sole member of the commission that recommended county commissioners rezone the land.
African-Americans in lower-income neighborhoods are feeling the effects of the recession more intensely, he said, from unemployment to cuts in social services. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the state’s unemployment rate at 10 percent, while Durham County’s rate is 7.5 percent.
“Part of a city’s ability to spend money for solving social ills comes from … their ability to bring in revenue,” he said. He said he voted with his conscience, for jobs and increased revenue from sales and property taxes. Whitley said he has received support in East Durham while encountering criticism when visiting neighborhoods west of downtown.
“It tickles me, the response I get depending on which side of town I’m on,” he said.
Over the past two years, a number of twists in the developer’s pursuit of rezoning have led to many costly lessons for the county and its planning department. The county has spent upward of $70,000 in outside legal fees to defend itself after being sued twice in this case—once by Southern Durham Development, and once by residents near the project who filed the petition.
The lawsuits and other procedural issues in the planning process have prompted several elected officials and Durham County Planning Director Steve Medlin to reevaluate several policies. Among them, Medlin is evaluating the power of the planning director and to the method of evaluating the exact location of a body of water—one of the most debated issues of the 751 South development process. The county also recently asked the state legislature to change the law regarding formal protest petitions to help residents and planning staff to determine their validity. Residents who filed two petitions in this case had been hampered by the previous rules, which were broadly written and left too much to interpretation.
Some opponents to 751 South and petitioners, including Bocckino, have criticized the planning department for its mistakes, and even have levied accusations the department has unfairly favored the developer. Medlin denies any purposeful wrongdoing in his department.
“There’s been no ethical breaches,” Medlin said last week. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t made mistakes. I think people confuse mistakes with unethical behavior.”
Durham citizens, even those who live miles from the 751 South site, are guaranteed to head downtown tonight by the carload. If the commission meeting mirrors past such discussions, most of the speakers will be opposed to the plan and its potential detriments. But as this excruciating process has shown, those who are most vocal are not always the most powerful. Even the most stubborn opponents have predicted that commissioners will favor Southern Durham Development. Others hope that at commissioners’ meetings, where much of this controversy has played out—often unpredictably—over the past two years, anything can happen.
UPDATE, 3:30 p.m. - Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) confirmed that the N.C. DOT plans to announce this afternoon it is rejecting the easement it accepted earlier this month from Southern Durham Development, as not to interfere in the local zoning process. Luebke said he credits the swift action of 751 opponents, who sent hundreds of e-mails to Gov. Bev Perdue and Secretary of Transportation Eugene Conti.
"It proves clearly that an involved citizenry can—and did—make a difference," Luebke said.
Luebke also said he believes Conti and Durham's DOT staff were not aware of all the ramifications of accepting the easement.
"I thought that if they’d had the full information as to how the acceptance of this easement would change the entire decision making process... that they would not have accepted it," Luebke said. "They asked why there was urgency and were given what seemed like a reasonable answer, and so they moved forward. It’s understandable that government agencies can be caught up in the details of decisions and not realize how one small decision can affect a very large project."
Moments later, Greer Beaty, spokeswoman for the NCDOT confirmed to the Indy that her office had filed a notarized legal document in Durham court revoking the department's acceptance of the easement. NCDOT officials became aware of the conflict over the weekend as a result of public outcry of the acceptance, Beaty said. When the land rights were granted, Southern Durham Development did not disclose to NCDOT's right-of-way staff that its acceptance would have this effect on the protest petition.
"Had we known ... we would not have accepted that donation," Beaty said. To her knowledge, she added, the NCDOT has never had to rescind such a decision, and had to consult dozens of experts to file today's legal revocation of the land rights gift.
"We worked really hard today to come up with a process to pull ourselves out of this issue," Beaty said. "This is a community issue. We in no way want to interfere." Read the full NCDOT statement (PDF)
UPDATE, 6:45 p.m.: Reached at the start of the commissioners' meeting, Southern Durham Development attorney Patrick Byker said he wasn't authorized to comment on the NCDOT's decision.
Last-minute change in 751 South case likely means developer needs only simple majority tonight
As soon as they filed their formal petition against the proposed 751 South development, several opponents of the project mused on what challenges could strike their petition invalid. The planning department could find that they didn't get enough signatures, or somehow missed a rule. Land owners who had signed the petition could reconsider and remove their signatures.
Those opponents seemed hopeful last week that the petition, which was ruled valid on July 13, would hold. The valid petition would require four of five of Durham's county commissioners to vote in support of 751 South at a public hearing tonight in order for the project to move forward. That would prove difficult because it seemed likely the developers would get approval from possibly only three commissioners, while the remaining two—Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron—were expected to vote against the rezoning.
But then, Friday morning, that nagging possibility in the back of many opponents' minds that the petition would become invalid became a reality.
Patrick Byker, an attorney representing Southern Durham Development, notified Durham's county attorney that 10 days earlier, the developer dedicated a strip of land along N.C. 751 to the N.C. Department of Transportation in anticipation of needing to widen the highway if the development was built.
According to an e-mail to County Manager Mike Ruffin this morning from NCDOT engineer Joey Hopkins, it's unusual for a developer to donate a right-of-way to the DOT before its project has been approved, but the "NCDOT had no reason to deny the voluntary donation of the [right-of-way]. In fact if the rezoning is not approved, it could even be beneficial to NCDOT for a future TIP project to widen 751," Hopkins wrote to Ruffin. Ruffin, anticipating questions about the last-minute dedication and accusations of impropriety, had asked the DOT for a response this morning, he said.
Hopkins added: "Patrick Byker was in a hurry to donate the [right-of-way] and when asked why the rush, he stated that the developer wants to show a good faith by donating the [right-of-way] prior to the next public meeting."
The dedication of the 3.3 acres widens most of the right-of-way along the front of the proposed development site to more than 100 feet, said planning Director Steve Medlin. And, if the right-of-way is more than 100 feet, the residents across the street who signed the petition are essentially out of range to be considered valid signatories for the petition, thereby nullifying its validity.