This post has been modified from its original form. See deletions and italicized phrases below.
Despite initial plans to wait until a civil lawsuit was over, Durham's City Council has now decided it will consider at a meeting Feb. 20 whether to grant utilities to Southern Durham Development. The company wants to build 751 South, a large mixed-use project in southwest Durham controversial in part because of its proximity to Jordan Lake.
The council met during a closed session Thursday with City Attorney Patrick Baker to consider a request from SDD to grant water lines and the use of storm drainage and sewer systems for the project. Baker said the session was not public because he was providing legal advice to the council covered by attorney-client privilege.
SDD made the original request in April 2010, but city council members decided in August 2011 that they wanted to wait until a civil lawsuit related to the development had been resolved. A judge recently dismissed the lawsuit the plaintiffs, Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association, brought against Durham County. The plaintiffs announced they would appeal.
In the meeting, council members indicated that they wanted to delay their decision until after the appeals process had concluded. The council isn't bound by its August decision and is free to change course, Baker said Thursday.
The council also isn't required to hold a public hearing on the utility extension agreement, Baker said. The council could opt to allow public comment at the meeting, and could vote on that date, or defer the matter.
But the application has already been deferred by 21 months, Cal Cunningham, an attorney for SDD, pointed out in a recent letter to Baker (PDF). The company paid the appropriate fees to the city when it filed the application in April 2010, Cunningham wrote, and the application materials indicated a decision would be made within five months.
SDD had originally asked the council to consider annexing the 167 acres on which 751 South would be built. Becoming part of the city limits would entitle the property to services such as water, wastewater treatment, police and fire services. But a city analysis determined that the city could potentially spend as much as $1 million by providing services to the property before the tax revenue from the project would help the city break even.
When it became evident the numbers wouldn't add up in the city's favor, SDD
changed its request. Instead of asking for annexation, it just asked the city to consider providing provide water, stormwater and sewer services without annexation. That's the request discussion that was tabled in August, and is now coming before council again Feb. 20.
An attorney for plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit over the controversial 751 South development filed a notice in court Friday that they'll appeal a judge's ruling in favor of Durham County and the developers.
Property owners near the land to be developed, including the Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association, sued the county in 2010 over the county's decision to rezone the proposed site of the development. The 167 acres along N.C. 751 in the southwestern part of Durham County is in the watershed of Jordan Lake, a source of drinking water for several communities in the region. Neighbors and other opponents say they don't want to see such a dense development near the lake, arguing it will cause further environmental harm and traffic jams on N.C. 751.
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Henry Hight dismissed the lawsuit at the request of the defendant, Durham County, and Southern Durham Development, which had intervened in the case as an interested party.
It's unclear whether the appeal could cause additional hearings before the case heads to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
In related news, Southern Durham Development has not responded to a request from the Indy for information on $142,000 in overdue property taxes the company owes to Durham County. According to the county's online billing system, the taxes had not been paid as of Friday afternoon.
Durham County property taxes were due Jan. 5, but more than a few property owners haven't gotten around to paying them, including Southern Durham Development.
SDD owns at least 170 acres of land in South Durham where the company is looking to build its controversial 751 South development. According to tax records on the Durham County government website, the company owes $142,000 for five parcels.
The company just won a major victory in civil court last week, when a visiting judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by opponents to the project who filed a protest petition against the rezoning of the land to build a large new community, which could encompass 1,300 residences, plus retail and offices.
But it's unclear why the tax bill is unpaid. A call to the county's tax office last week confirmed that information online is up-to-date, and according to a customer service representative, interest is included in the online tax calculations, although it's not shown separately.
We contacted a couple representatives of SDD after hours Wednesday night, but weren't able to reach anyone just yet. Updates to be posted once we hear back.
Editor's note: This story has been modified since its original post.
A judge in Durham dismissed a lawsuit Friday (PDF) that opponents of the controversial 751 South development near Jordan Lake filed in 2010. The ruling means the judge agreed with the defendants, that the actions Durham County Commissioners took to rezone the case in 2010 were legal. No word yet on whether the plaintiffs will appeal.
Residents near the land to be developed brought the civil lawsuit against Durham County after Durham County Commissioners voted to rezone the land to allow a large, dense development along N.C. 751, which is near the environmentally sensitive lake in southern Durham County.
Numerous property owners had signed a protest petition against the project. By local law, if enough adjacent property owners petition, at least four of five commissioners have to approve the rezoning. And while the petition met all the requirements, a last-minute technicality involving a land-transfer to the N.C. Department of Transportation botched their efforts. The commissioners approved the rezoning by a 3-2 vote, a simple majority. (See a timeline of events)
The Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association was one property owner that signed a petition. The HOA sued the county saying its petition shouldn't have been invalidated on the technicality, and thus that commissioners didn't lawfully approve the rezoning. Many residents in the Chancellor's Ridge neighborhood, which is across from the 167 acres to be developed, have said they don't want to live through the estimated 10-year construction of 751 South, which could include 1,300 homes and apartments, plus shopping and office space.
But in his order Friday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Henry Hight sided with Durham County and the project's proponents Southern Durham Development, which intervened in the case and helped defend the county in the lawsuit. Hight granted the parties' request for a dismissal, essentially agreeing that the protest petition was no longer valid when commissioners rezoned the land for 751 South. Hight is a judge from Henderson who has just begun a regularly scheduled rotation presiding in Durham.
"I’m very disappointed," said Steve Bocckino, one of the most vocal opponents to the project. Bocckino was not a plaintiff in the case, but supported their cause. "I do think that Southern Durham Development was guilty at least of trickery in giving land to N.C. DOT and I’m sorry that the judge didn’t recognize that." Plaintiffs in the case couldn't be immediately reached for comment. It is unknown whether the plaintiffs will appeal the judge's findings. However, representatives of the plaintiffs had indicated in recent months that they would appeal if the case was not decided in their favor.
Southern Durham Development President Alex Mitchell issued a statement through his attorney: “We are pleased with Judge Hight’s decision. His order shows Southern Durham Development has consistently acted above board and within the law. We hope this puts to rest any concerns that may have been generated during the course of this lawsuit. We look forward to being part of Durham’s future success.”
To update our previous report, Durham County Internal Auditor Richard Edwards confirmed today that the unnamed commissioner he mentions in his report as asking department heads to consider hiring specific people is Commissioner Joe Bowser.
According to Edwards, Bowser approached the director of The Durham Center, which provides mental health services for county residents, as well as the head of the Durham County Health Department. Both incidents happened some time within the past two years, he said.
It was the head of The Durham Center who felt uncomfortable receiving the recommendation from Bowser, Edwards said. Ellen Holliman, director for the center, didn't return a call seeking comment.
Gayle Harris, director of the health department, confirmed what was in Edwards' report—that she didn't feel awkward or pressured when Bowser approached her about a potential hire.
Bowser hasn't returned messages from the Indy seeking comment, but took the microphone at Monday's regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners to say that he did call Holliman in 2009 to recommend a well qualified, unemployed Durham County resident for a new position that the county had opened.
"At no time did I do any coercing or thought that I was putting any pressure on the director, as she has stated, to hire this woman," Bowser said. He added,"Our citizens should have the right to contact us for help. I will continue to try to help them, even in situations like this."
Edwards said he doesn't believe Bowser's actions violate the Board of Commissioners' ethics policy (PDF). At the commissioners' meeting Monday, County Attorney Lowell Siler gave the same opinion.
But late last week, Commissioner Michael Page, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said he thought the move was inappropriate.
"If somebody asks me what can I do to help them get this job ... I will serve as a reference," Page said. "But I do not call a department head to say 'so-and-so is submitting an application'."
It's unclear what, if anything, the commissioners will do or say to address the apparent impropriety.
"I would say, as a rule, that that’s not a good thing, but I wasn’t around for the events surrounding this controversy," Commissioner Pam Karriker, who took her seat on the board in October, said about Bowser's requests. "But I know that there are two sides to every story."
Page says the commissioners sought the answers, and it's the public that should decide what comes next.
"It's not my place to figure out what do you do about it, and who did it," Page said last week, before Edwards confirmed that Bowser was the unnamed commissioner. "You've got citizens in Durham to demand an answer about it."
ORIGINAL POST, 1/3
Investigative reports by Durham County’s internal auditor (report 1, PDF) and an out-of-town attorney (report 2, PDF)—two long-awaited reviews finally released Tuesday—answer some of the myriad questions surrounding the departure last summer of former Social Services Director Gerri Robinson and the subsequent appointment of Interim Director Gail Perry.
The reports fill in some details of Robinson’s messy departure in July, and expand on accusations that her cool manner with employees caused several to leave their jobs. The findings also look into an accusation by Michael Page, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, that fellow Commissioner Joe Bowser might have pressured county department heads to hire friends or associates.
Although commissioners pushed for this investigation last fall as an attempt to clear the air on Robinson’s firing and restore public faith in county government, the findings paint an unflattering picture of the management of the social services department, of Robinson and of relationships among commissioners. All five of their seats will be up for election this year.
Among the findings released in Tuesday's reports:
— A county commissioner (unnamed in the reports) has asked at least two heads of county departments to employ a specific person, and at least one of the department heads who was approached felt uncomfortable or pressured about it.
— 87 employees left during Robinson’s tenure as the director, 54 of them resigning. (This might not be excessive compared to other directors.)
— Based on available information, Robinson overpaid an employee who worked for her directly, and who other DSS employees described as Robinson’s personal assistant.
— Since August, the county has been paying for benefits and/or for holiday leave for Perry, but as a temporary county employee, she is not eligible for such benefits, and the county now has to recoup that money.
Perhaps the weightiest finding by one of the investigators, New Bern attorney Jimmie Hicks Jr., was that a state conflict-of-interest law might have been violated when Perry was appointed in July to become the interim director of the Department of Social Services. Perry didn't return calls for comment Tuesday.
A cadre of Occupy Wall Street marching from Washington, D.C., to Martin Luther King’s gravesite in Atlanta will reach Durham on Wednesday.
After a lengthy meeting this morning, the Durham Social Services board voted to unseal minutes from a July 27 closed session during which they agreed to appoint Gail Perry as the interim director of Durham County Social Services.
The minutes—a brief few paragraphs—reflect that members of the board nominated three different people to replace Gerri Robinson, the former director of social services for Durham County. Robinson had been fired earlier in the meeting.
According to the minutes, former board member Carolyn Carver-Tann nominated former board member Gloria Green. Current board Chairman Stan Holt nominated Toni Pedroza, who at the time was a former employee of the social services department. And County Commissioner Joe Bowser, who is also on the DSS board, nominated Perry.
In a 2-to-1 vote, the board appointed Perry, the minutes show. Perry recused herself from voting on the matter.
The details of the vote had been questioned by the public, elected leaders and the media. Perry's appointment was controversial because she had just been appointed as a representative on the board, and the July 27 meeting was her first meeting.
In a closed session during that meeting, board members voted to fire Robinson. Minutes from that closed session remain sealed. Although it's known that Perry was part of a 3-1 vote to fire Robinson, it's unclear what discussion and any questions board members may have settled before they voted.
The Indy, as well as other media, had requested that the minutes from the closed session be unsealed under state law, which allows government entities to release personnel information if it is "essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of county services or to maintaining the level and quality of county services."
To date, the DSS board has considered releasing two sets of closed session minutes from July 27, and one set of closed session minutes from Sept. 1. So far, only the closed session minutes of Perry's appointment have been released.
The Board of County Commissioners have hired a New Bern attorney, Jimmie Hicks Jr., to investigate several questions surrounding Robinson's firing and Perry's hiring, including whether Perry should have abstained from voting to terminate Robinson.
It was unclear Wednesday when Hicks' report would be complete.
The Rev. Philip Cousin, a former Durham county commissioner and member of the Durham school board, was elected Thursday as the new chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
Cousin, the pastor of St. Joseph's AME Church, replaces Lavonia Allison, who has served as chairwoman of the influential committee for the past 14 years. Allison announced late last month she wouldn't be seeking another term.
Long-time Committee member Larry Hester also sought the position. Neither Cousin nor Hester could be reached for comment.
According to a statement from the Committee, Randal Rogers will serve as the first vice chairman and former County Commissioner Deborah Giles will serve as the second vice chairwoman. Wanda Waiters will be installed as the third vice chairwoman.
Other positions are as follows:
Executive Secretary: Paulette Morrison-Danner
Recording Secretary: Pauline Fitzpatrick
Economic Committee Chairwoman: Kimberly Moore
Education Committee Chairwoman Debra Bryson
Health Committee Chairperson: Terry Morris
Additionally, Andre Vann, an archivist at N.C. Central University, was elected as the chairman of the political action committee, and state Board of Transportation member Chuck Watts will serve as the vice chairman of the political committee.
Keith Bishop, who files state finance reports for the political committee, will serve as chairman of the Legal Redress Committee.
Cousin may make recommendations for other positions that have yet to be filled. The officers will be installed in January.
With the approval of almost 57 percent of voters, Durham County Commissioners officially adopted a resolution Monday night to begin collecting a new quarter-cent sales tax on April 1, 2012. The tax will apply to the sales of goods, but not food, medicine, housing, gas or utilities.
Voters approved the tax, which will benefit public education in Durham County, through the Nov. 8 ballot.
That ballot also included a new half-cent tax for mass transit, which voters also approved by 60 percent. But the transit sales tax won't be levied until Durham leaders see whether leaders and residents in Wake and Orange counties will also consider a similar tax to move forward on regional commuter and light-rail projects.
The first full year of collections for the education tax in 2013 is expected to generate as much as $9.2 million. Most of the revenue will preserve teaching jobs and pay for school facility improvements in Durham Public Schools. Durham Technical Community College will also receive funds that will be used for scholarships, and Durham's Partnership for Children, which provides educational and other programs for young children.
Opponents and supporters of the controversial 751 South development geared up for a big day in court today, only to have the case continued to Jan. 9.
The long-pending civil lawsuit, brought by property owners in Chancellor's Ridge against Durham County was supposed to go to trial today. Opponents to the project were hoping the judge would find in their favor and reverse a county vote last summer that will allow Southern Durham Development, also a party to the lawsuit, to build a large, mixed-use development outside the city limits—one that's sure to cause traffic headaches and could also threaten environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake.
But an attorney for SDD is still waiting for the N.C. Department of Transportation to produce relevant documents, he told Superior Court Judge G. Wayne Abernathy today. Abernathy granted the continuance to Cal Cunningham so he could continue to gather evidence from N.C. DOT in the case.
The case appears to hinge upon which employees of the N.C. DOT signed documents accepting the rights to a strip of land along N.C. 751, which the state one day could widen. The acceptance of the land rights by N.C. DOT threw a technical twist into the rezoning process last summer, and essentially aided zoning approval for the developer. If a judge finds the signature was valid and legal, SDD could keep its zoning for a large mixed-use project that could include 1,300 residences and 600,000 square feet of offices and shops. If the judge finds the signature was not from a person legally designated by the state to accept the land, the developer might lose the zoning and have to go back through the process, which has been winding and torturous.
In court Monday, attorney Dhamian Blue and his father, Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, represented the plaintiffs. Dhamian Blue said Cunningham's request boiled down to a delay tactic to drive up legal costs for their clients, unhappy property owners across from where 751 South is supposed to be built.
In the past year, lawyers for the developers have made no secret of the fact that time is money—about $2,000 a day in carrying costs for the 167-acre property SDD purchased in 2008 for $18 million. On Monday, Cunningham cited the figure at $3,000 a day in interest, and denied any purposeful sluggishness.
"The costs are clearly being borne by my client," Cunningham told the judge. "They've got me moving fast, and I'm moving fast."
With the continuance, Cunningham expects to take sworn statements from several N.C. DOT employees in December, he said.
Meanwhile, SDD has announced that it plans to file a new application with Durham's planning department to amend three commitments it made when county commissioners approved the project in 2010.
Of the three changes, the most drastic appears to be a request from SDD to increase the amount of impervious surface in the development.