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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Orange County commissioners to consider tax increase tonight

Posted by on Tue, Jun 17, 2014 at 2:31 PM

Guard your pocketbooks. One of the Triangle's most expensive places to live may soon be a little more expensive.

Orange County commissioners are expected to vote tonight on a $200.4 million budget that includes a 2-cent property tax increase. Officials say the cash is needed to pay for the needs of the county's two school systems, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools. The plan would spend roughly $97 million on the two systems.

Chapel Hill leaders have already approved a one-cent tax increase. Tonight's meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.

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    Proposed budget would raise property taxes by 2 cents.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pittsboro makes history

Posted by on Tue, Jun 10, 2014 at 12:00 PM

The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners made history Monday night.

They voted 4-1 to approve Chatham Park, which, at more than 7,000 acres is believed to be the largest development plan in North Carolina history. Bett Wilson Foley was the lone dissenter. Pittsboro Mayor Bill Terry also opposed it, but he does not have a vote.

The project, which will create dense residential development clustered around five “village centers” in the largely undeveloped tracts of eastern Chatham County, is expected to increase the small Chatham County town’s population from 4,000 to 60,000 people by 2050.

Commissioners approved a master plan Monday that survived changes in town leadership, multiple rewrites and a blistering consultant’s evaluation. Its last hurdle Monday was a determined band of protesters, who gathered early at the Historic Chatham County Courthouse to denounce the massive development. Many wore shirts with the sarcastic motto “Pave Chatham” and carried signs reading “Table the vote.”

They distributed a cartoon depicting Chatham Park developer Tim Smith at the wheel of a speeding car while complicit town officials, with the exception of Foley, seem to sit willingly in the rear. Angry Pittsboro residents are crammed rudely in the trunk. “Who’s in the driver’s seat?” reads the caption.

Smith is with the Cary-based Preston Development, which, with the financial backing of software executives Jim Goodnight and John Sall of S.A.S. Institute, envision the vast mixed-use Chatham Park as a sequel to Research Triangle Park. When fully built, it would include 22,000 homes, plus office and retail space.

Developers made several concessions with Monday’s final master plan, agreeing to increase the minimum amount of open space to 1,320 acres. Earlier versions of the plan called for as little as 667 acres, despite a 2008 conservation report from the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) that recommended town officials set aside at least 2,400 acres.

Builders also agreed to buffers of 500 feet and 300 feet near two portions of the development abutting the Haw River. An earlier draft maintained an average buffer of 200 feet, although TLC called for buffers of at least 1,000 feet.

The master plan also included a stipulation that the developer will “help defray” the town’s additional costs associated with the growth, which would require massive infrastructure investments in Pittsboro, including more schools, police officers and fire departments.

Town commissioners tabled the plan in November following a heated public hearing. In February, an outside consultant panned the development for lacking sufficient detail and failing to provide sufficient open space. Meanwhile, the builders have been assembling the land for the project for most of the last decade.

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    Town commissioners give their approval to massive Chatham Park development.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Gov. McCrory signs fracking bill

Posted by on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 12:06 PM

As expected, Gov. Pat McCrory signed off on the Energy Modernization Act this morning, legislation that could open the state to issue fracking permits as soon as spring 2015.

“We remain intensely focused on creating good jobs, particularly in our rural areas," McCrory said in a statement. "We have watched and waited as other states moved forward with energy exploration, and it is finally our turn. This legislation will spur economic development at all levels of our economy, not just the energy sector."

Estimates of the drilling's impact on North Carolina's economy vary depending on who you ask, but the drilling has been linked to widespread reports of environmental contamination in states that already allow fracking.

McCrory signed the bill as the state Mining and Energy Commission continues its work to develop regulations for the industry.

Environmental advocates bemoaned the governor's approval Wednesday.

"The biggest disappointment here is that politicians are rushing our state into dirty drilling for little gain and great risk to our water, when they could be boosting limitless, non-polluting energy sources like wind and solar," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment N.C., on Wednesday. "Why cater to them at the expense of our environment, instead of promoting our state's homegrown, clean energy sources?"

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    State could issue drilling permits as soon as next spring.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Duke porn star plans online reality show

Posted by on Mon, Jun 2, 2014 at 3:28 PM

Because Duke University wants this story to keep going.

Rolling Stone is reporting that famed Duke porn star Belle Knox will be hosting her own online reality show, "The Sex Factor," beginning this fall.

The premise? Eight male and eight female actors compete for $1 million and the chance to shoot a scene with the Duke student, who made headlines this year when she revealed to various media outlets that she appears in porn films in order to pay her school bills.

Rolling Stone reports the show will be filmed in San Francisco.

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    Contestants compete for cash and the chance to shoot a scene with the Duke student.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Environmental advocates pan fast-track fracking bill

Posted by on Fri, May 30, 2014 at 5:01 PM

Not surprisingly, the N.C. General Assembly moved Thursday to approve fast-track fracking legislation, allowing the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources to issue permits for the controversial drilling practice as soon as next spring. 

And, not surprisingly, environmental advocacy groups are panning the legislation and calling for Gov. Pat McCrory to veto the bill. It would be surprising for McCrory, a drilling supporter, to do that. 

"Fracking has contaminated water across the country," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina, in a statement.  "And now, sadly, lawmakers have voted to put North Carolina's rivers and the drinking water for millions at risk."

Meanwhile, the N.C. Sierra Club said the legislation breaks lawmakers' promise not to lift the state's fracking moratorium until regualtory rules are in place.

"The people of North Carolina deserve that a process as risky as fracking be considered by a vote of the legislature after the rules are in place," said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the Sierra Club. "The House, under the leadership of Speaker (Thom) Tillis, just broke their promise to North Carolinians.

Proponents say the drilling will bring jobs and energy to the state. Opponents say the jobs aren't worth the risk, pointing out numerous reports of environmental contamination linked to fracking in other states.

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    Drilling could begin as soon as next spring.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Orange County neighbors seek to block solar farm

Posted by on Thu, May 29, 2014 at 4:39 PM

In left-leaning Orange County, one might expect a warm welcome for a proposed solar farm. It appears, however, that one might be wrong.

Orange County commissioners heard this week from multiple property owners near a proposed solar farm north of Chapel Hill who say they strongly oppose its construction, chiefly on the grounds that the  green energy station would lower neighboring property values and spoil the view. 

The farm, if built, would sit on two parcels totaling 50 acres off Mount Sinai Road near Cascade Drive. Roughly half of the land would be occupied by the solar farm. 

The builders, Arizona-based Sunlight Partners LLC, are seeking a special-use permit to build the solar arrays, which will feed in to the public power grid. Chief to the debate will be one key requirement in order to grant a special-use permit, namely proving that the farm will not lower property values. 

To that end, commissioners heard during Tuesday's public hearing from Rich Kirkland, a licensed appraiser who told officials that his review of similar facilities other North Carolina municipalities such as Zebulon showed no proven impact on property value. 

Kirkland added that the location of the proposed Orange County solar farm near single-family residential homes is in keeping with the norm for other solar farms. The unmanned facilities require open space and nearby homeowners to use the energy , he said. 

Nearby property owners were not convinced. Robert Cantwell, a Cascade Drive resident, said he supports solar energy, but believes the proposed solar farm would be "grossly out of character" with the neighborhood. Cantwell also suggested that the Arizona builders are too far removed from the area to care about the quality of life for neighbors. 

Neighbors brought their own appraisers too Tuesday. Pam Davis, a longtime certified residential appraiser from Orange County, said she has performed thousands of appraisals in Chapel Hill. 

Davis estimated a 10 percent drop in property value for a neighboring property owner if the solar farm is built. "It's more valuable in Chapel Hill than anywhere else to maintain a beautiful view," Davis said. 

Expect this back and forth to continue. Orange County commissioners, as expected, took no action on the permit application Tuesday. It will now be referred to the county Planning Board, which is expected to make a recommendation in time for commissioners' Sept. 16 meeting.

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    County commissioners are considering a special-use permit to place solar arrays near residential development north of Chapel Hill.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New solar farm for Orange County?

Posted by on Tue, May 27, 2014 at 3:16 PM

Orange County commissioners will hold a public hearing tonight on a proposed solar farm on a 50-acre tract just north of Chapel Hill. The hearing will begin the process for builders to obtain a special use permit for the property, which is located off Mount Sinai Road near Cascade Drive. The applicants, Arizona-based Sunlight Partners LLC, intend to use roughly half of the land to build solar arrays, which will feed into the public power grid.

County Planning Director Craig Benedict said Orange County currently has one similarly-sized solar farm already in construction in the White Cross area.

Officials are expecting some opposition to the development, chiefly over fears that it will lower neighboring property values. The property is located within the county's rural buffer and is surrounded on three sides by residential development.

Tonight's hearing is a quasi-judicial hearing, meaning supporters and opponents will be limited to fact-based evidence, rather than subjective opinions.

Commissioners will not be making a decision on the application tonight. Following the hearing, it will be referred to the county Planning Board, which is expected to make a recommendation in time for commissioners' Sept. 16 meeting.

Obtain a copy of the permit application here. Tonight's meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the county's Department of Social Services office, located at 113 Mayo St. in Hillsborough.

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    Orange County commissioners to hold public hearing tonight over proposed solar farm just north of Chapel Hill.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

DPS chief: A "preponderance" of evidence against fired prison workers

Posted by on Thu, May 1, 2014 at 12:25 PM

In an exclusive interview with INDY Week Thursday morning, N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry explained how an ongoing investigation into the unexplained death of inmate Michael Anthony Kerr last month led to the dismissal of five prison workers and the resignation of two others.

"There's a preponderance of testimony and evidence that their conduct and attention was not appropriate," Perry said, adding that his office will push "expeditiously" for a criminal investigation if necessary.

The agency, which has been under fire in recent years for its treatment of mentally ill prisoners, fired nurses Brenda Sigman, Wanda St. Clair and Kimberly Towery, as well as nurse supervisor Jacqueline Clark and Captain Shawn Blackburn. DPS spokeswoman Pam Walker said three of those employees have since appealed their dismissal.

Meanwhile, nurse Lisa Kemp and staff psychologist Christine Butler have also resigned during the course of the investigation, which includes an internal DPS probe, as well as independent investigations by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and nonprofit Disability Rights N.C.

Kerr, 53, was dead on arrival at Raleigh's Central Prison March 12 when he was transferred from Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, where he had spent the past month in solitary confinement. Kerr had a history of mental illness. Officials are awaiting a medical examiner's report to determine the cause of death.

On Wednesday, INDY Week printed the grisly details of a letter penned by a former Alexander Correctional inmate who says he shared a cell block with Kerr in solitary confinement during the last days of Kerr's life. His letter claimed that Kerr was left handcuffed, covered in his own feces, without eating for six days before prison workers attempted to transfer him on March 12 to Central Prison, the state's primary mental health and medical facility for male inmates.

The inmate's account comes roughly three years after an internal investigation at Central Prison disclosed similar reports of prisoners left unattended and unmedicated in fetid, isolated cells splattered with human waste.

Perry said Thursday that he has not spoken with Kerr's family, but he pledged that his agency would "shine a light" on what led to his death. "Were I a family member, I would be reaching out and demanding an answer as well," Perry said. "Nobody is more outraged or saddened than I am."

Prison officials nationwide have faced mounting criticism in recent years for their use of solitary confinement on prisoners, particularly on prisoners with a history of mental illness such as Kerr. In the past, prison officials have said the confinement, which leaves an inmate alone in a cell for 23 hours a day, can be therapeutic in some cases. Mental health experts have contested that, arguing it can exacerbate mental illness or even spur mental illness in prisoners with no history.

Perry said Thursday that he is viewing Kerr's death as an isolated incident, arguing that he does not believe all uses of solitary confinement to be "unjustified."

"I do not believe it is happening all over, but I want an answer to that," Perry said. "I hope with all my professional heart that this is an isolated incident."

Perry suggested training is the answer to preventing future incidents. Walker pointed out that prison workers in some facilities, even before Kerr's death, had begun receiving crisis training to help them better work with prisoners with mental illness. Walker said that crisis training had not been performed at Alexander Correctional before Kerr's death.

Continue to follow this developing story at INDY Week.

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    Top DPS official addresses prisoner's unexplained death in exclusive interview with the INDY.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Liberty Warehouse developers roll out plans

Posted by on Fri, Jan 24, 2014 at 12:09 PM

Roughly 150 or so Durham residents craned forward to look Thursday night as Liberty Warehouse's prospective developers unveiled their site plan at the Durham County Public Library. The verdict? Not much surprise and a somewhat mixed reaction.

The interior of Liberty Warehouse: During its heyday, there was a bank inside - LISA SORG
  • Lisa Sorg
  • The interior of Liberty Warehouse: During its heyday, there was a bank inside

During a community meeting convened by Preservation Durham, builders from Chapel Hill-based East West Partners explained their intentions to convert the historic tobacco warehouse near Durham's Central Park into a 320,000 square-foot, mixed-use complex. Highlights include 246 apartments, 24,000 square feet of retail space and a 391-space parking deck at the project's center. At its tallest, the building will stand five stories.

Roger Perry, president of East West Partners, said developers will look to design a complex that retains some of the warehouse's historic charm, co-opting old signs and building materials to keep a resonant, if not identical, look. Builders will also look to retain the warehouse's historic brick wall facing Central Park, which they say will be cut slightly to help it "mesh" with the new development.

"That's what's important," Perry said. "Preserving the memory of the building. It's not necessarily preserving the building."

The developers say they submitted their site plan to Durham city leaders this month, with demolition slated to begin in May. Opening date for the development is sometime in early 2016.

East West Partners is behind a number of upscale Triangle developments, including Woodcroft in Durham and East 54 in Chapel Hill.

It's a sign of movement in a long-stalled warehouse, which is beloved by longtime Durham residents for its historic place as the last standing tobacco auction warehouse in the city. Meanwhile, the crumbling building has been a thorny issue for members of the Durham City Council, which stripped the warehouse of its historic landmark status last May to clear the way for demolition.

In recent years, the structure had been used as a space for local artists and nonprofits, but its been largely vacant since the roof collapsed in 2011. Liberty's longtime owners, Durham-based Greenfire Development, were dogged by negligence claims when it came to the warehouse.

Many of the locals in attendance Thursday indicated they were somewhat pleased with what they saw. Others grumbled audibly.

Meanwhile, Preservation Durham Executive Director Wendy Hillis told residents that, with efforts to save the historic warehouse all but lost, it's best now to focus on working with the builders to create a pleasing project. "That ship has sailed," Hillis said.

Expect a full rundown on the Liberty project and its implications in next week's Indy.

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    As expected, builder promises mix of small apartments and retail. The crowd reaction? Mixed.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mining commission finalizes chemical disclosure rules for fracking

Posted by on Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 4:19 PM

Mining and Energy Commission Chairman Jim Womack
  • Mining and Energy Commission Chairman Jim Womack
"Our objective is to get as full a disclosure as we can, in consideration of trade secret laws. That means we'll probably lean more to the most expansive set of standards that we can find in any other state."

That was Jim Womack, chairman of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, speaking to the Indy in December 2012. Depending on who you ask, Womack—a county commissioner in the fracking heartland of Lee County—either delivered on his statement or failed in that goal when his commission unanimously approved a set of chemical disclosure rules Tuesday.

The rules approved Tuesday are complicated, allowing drilling companies to maintain trade secrets in the chemical cocktails they use for fracking operations. However, commissioners say, companies will be required to prove the necessity for a trade secret in “closed-door” meetings with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Proponents say the rule is necessary to maintain trade secrets for drillers. Opponents say it allows fracking companies to continue to pump nebulous chemicals underground, despite widespread reports of environmental pollution and water contamination.

Ray Covington, vice chairman for the commission, said Wednesday that DENR will not keep records on those trade secrets and it’s unclear who will make the final decision at DENR on whether a chemical is justified in its secrecy.

Covington, a Lee County landowner who backs drilling, said he will leave that to DENR Secretary John Skvarla to decide the process, a move that may give some pause. Skvarla, an appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory, has already drawn fire from environmentalists over a statement last January indicating that he believed the science of global warming to be up for debate.

His agency also caused an uproar last September when it turned down federal grant money for baseline water testing in the fracking regions, a key measure for determining the environmental impact of drilling.

“There’s just so much involved in this that the public just does not understand,” Covington said. “The rule set that we passed is absolutely one of the best chemical disclosure sets in the country.”

According to Covington, North Carolinians should not be concerned about those secret chemicals. "It's not the bad stuff that the companies are worried about," he said. "They're trying to be the cleanest and greenest. There are a number of companies that are producing trade secrets that are clean and green and even edible and they don't want to share that with their competitors."

Not everyone is so heartened.

“The disclosure rule has some good provisions, but overall fails the public safety test,” says Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the N.C. Sierra Club, an environmental group.

Gavin pointed out the commission’s disclosure ruling includes a complicated process for emergency first-responders to determine chemical contents following a spill or leak at a fracking site.

Federal laws require drillers to keep details on the chemicals available for emergency responders on-site, but off-site, responders would be forced to contact the energy company for more information. Covington said the company will be required to provide that information within a two-hour time span, a “reasonable amount of time,” according to Covington.

But Hope Taylor, director of environmental nonprofit and fracking opponent Clean Water for N.C., said the provision is “appallingly burdensome and could result in needless and dangerous delays, costing the health and lives of responders, workers and other victims.”

The Sierra Club also criticized the commission for approving rules that will prevent DENR from holding records on fracking trade secrets.

“Why is the state agency charged with protecting the environment avoiding knowledge about fracking chemicals?” Gavin said. “If this information is too hot for DENR to handle, how can they assure public safety?”

The rules passed Tuesday come after one set of disclosure rules was pulled from commission consideration last May, reportedly because energy giant Halliburton took issue. On Wednesday, Covington defended that move, insisting the old set was pulled because Womack wanted more “stringent” rules.

The Mining and Energy Commission is expected to finalize its fracking recommendations in November, with drilling possible for 2015 in North Carolina. It’s important to note, however, that state lawmakers can approve their own regulations, regardless of the commission’s recommendations.

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    Panel recommends drillers' trade secrets be saved, provided they obtain N.C. DENR approval.

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