City Council forces 751 South from the fast track to a pit stop

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After some sharp words to the developer from Durham City Councilwoman Diane Catotti, the council voted 7-0 Tuesday to delay a decision on whether to extend water and sewer services to the controversial, proposed 751 South development until a city report on the financial impact is complete.

The council had been expected to put the water and sewer service agreement on the agenda for its Jan. 3 meeting and possibly vote on it. There is now no concrete timeline for when the item will come back before the board.

Catotti and fellow council members Mike Woodard and Cora Cole-McFadden went further in their request for a delay, saying they didn't feel the city should even begin considering plans for 751 South until courts resolve a pending lawsuit against Durham County regarding the same development. Some of their comments echoed the arguments of dozens of e-mails sent by opponents of the project to public officials in mid-December.

If approved, 751 South would include 1,300 homes, plus offices and retail space on land in the environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake watershed in South Durham. In August, the County Commissioners approved a rezoning of the land, which would allow the development to move forward. Now it’s the City Council’s turn to grapple with the issue.

"We all know it’s a very sensitive case and it just feels like bad form," Catotti said. "It just looks like if we proceed, that we’re disregarding the public process, and I really feel like citizens deserve their day in court ... Let them have their day in court and then we proceed after that."

Not all council members supported this view. But others, including Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman Farad Ali, said they wanted to first consider the pending city report, which calculates the costs the city would bear for fire, police and other services if the land is drawn into city limits.

A draft of that report is expected to be complete in the first week of January, City Manager Tom Bonfield told the council. Once the report is complete, the staff will bring the information to the council, which would decide the next steps, including whether to grant water and sewer service, annex the land and decide how it should be zoned, Bonfield said.

Representatives for Southern Durham Development, the company behind the project, voiced frustration over continued delays and the $2,000-a-day carrying costs for the $18 million the company borrowed almost three years ago to buy the 167 acres of land near Jordan Lake.

"Any delay is very difficult for our clients," said K&L Gates attorney Patrick Byker, one of several representing the developer. "It’s a staggering loan that’s personally guaranteed by the shareholders of Southern Durham Development."

Councilman Howard Clement was the only council member to openly sympathize with the developer, saying delays caused by project’s opponents were "substantially harming" the developer and that the city and its citizens need the development to be built.

Woodard and Catotti countered Clement's claim, pointing out that the project has been slowed not only by opponents of the project who have requested delays, but by the developer as well Catotti was the most outspoken on the matter, boldly holding Byker, Cheek and the developers accountable for their own contributions to the protracted development process.

"I appreciate the cost effects, but frankly, the reason this is in court is because of the right-of-way dedication that nullified, or overturned, a valid protest petition." Catotti told Byker and Cheek.

Her comments referenced Byker's work last summer to donate a strip of land to the N.C. Department of Transportation that, unbeknownst to the N.C. DOT, voided on a technicality the opponents' protest petition on the development of the land near their homes.

"So, you know if other processes had been followed previously without litigation—on your part, quite frankly—then citizens would have been heard, and it might have been done in what people might have felt was a cleaner fashion. ... People feel very badly about this. It’s left a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth. And I’m not happy with some of the actions that have been taken up to this point. We just can’t say it’s being delayed without looking at everything that’s come before."

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