County attorney stalls ruling on DOT's land rejection; 751 vote expected Aug. 9

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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.

Several opponents also criticized the public process, which unfolded unpredictably in just the hours before the hearing.

The meeting was marked by bickering, not just among the audience members, who stood when chairs in the large county meeting room were full, but also amongst commissioners. They argued about whether to allow the county attorney to reveal his determination about the validity of the protest petition before the public hearing, or after. They argued about whether to proceed with a vote without considering the petition, after Commissioner Joe Bowser asked the board, just before midnight, to consider just moving forward with the vote under the assumption the petition was invalid.

"We cannot look the other way and say we’re going to pretend none of this happened and just go ahead," Commissioner Ellen Reckhow responded to Bowser. "I agree with the county attorney. We need to understand whether this is valid."

The commissioners agreed to continue the public hearing until August 9, meaning the public could still be invited to comment at that meeting, which also has a contentious issue on digital billboards on the same agenda.

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