751 South's power play on water service

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Denied sewer and water by Durham city leaders, builders of the controversial 751 South development may be going through Raleigh to get what they want out of Durham.

Lawmakers in the N.C. House of Representatives were expected to consider legislation Tuesday that would effectively force the city to extend utilities to the 167-acre mixed-use project in southern Durham County near Jordan Lake.

The language, inserted into Senate Bill 382 as an amendment by Rep. Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, picked up the approval of a House rules committee Monday, despite the protests of Durham City Manager Thomas Bonfield.

The bill forbids a city from denying water and sewer service to a project in its designated “urban growth area” outside municipal limits.

City leaders agreed in January 2011 to include 751 South—which lies outside Durham limits—in its urban growth area, a necessary classification to allow the project to be considered for water and sewer. However, the City Council unanimously voted this February to reject the developer’s requests for water and sewer service.

Bonfield told the Indy Tuesday that the legislation seemed to be crafted solely to force Durham to offer utilities to 751 South.

“It’s as far-reaching into the operations of a local government as I’ve seen,” Bonfield said. “It’s something that should be a concern to every city in North Carolina.”

Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown blasted the revisions as “sleight of hand” that uses a purported statewide bill to make local changes in Durham.

“What the hell is the General Assembly doing telling us what we can or cannot do with our water and sewer?” Brown said.

751 South’s builders, Southern Durham Development (SDD), have been seeking to construct the mixed-use hub since 2008, but have been slowed by lawsuits, public worries over increased traffic on rural N.C. 751 and concerns that it will further pollute Jordan Lake, a regional source of drinking water.

SDD hoped to build up to 1,300 homes and 600,000 square feet of commercial space on the 751 South tract.

Builder requests for Durham annexation in late 2010 failed when a city analysis determined the annexation’s costs would far outweigh its benefits, Bonfield said.

On Tuesday, Brown cited the environmental and traffic concerns plaguing 751 South as reason for pause, also blasting it as the “dumbest development process and approach I’ve seen in many, many years.”

N.C. Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, said he intended to push an amendment to the bill that would remove the language from the bill, although Luebke’s amendment had reportedly failed as of Tuesday afternoon.

Moore told The News & Observer Monday that the bill came after he was approached by SDD attorney Cal Cunningham, who spoke in favor of the proposal at Monday’s committee meeting.

Neither Moore nor Cunningham, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010, returned phone calls for comment by press time Tuesday. SDD President Alex Mitchell said the GOP-sponsored legislation is a response to House committee modifications to a separate bill, Senate Bill 231, in June.

Those revisions, which were axed from the legislation two weeks later, would have blocked county officials from offering sewer service to 751 South because of its proximity to the city. Mitchell said county leaders agreed last year to offer sewer service to 751 South, but the development is still in need of water.

Mitchell called Senate Bill 231’s short-lived modifications, which emerged from a House government committee that includes Luebke, an “assassination attempt of our project” that prompted House Republicans to retaliate with the Senate Bill 382 amendment.

“Someone tried to attack our project and it backfired,” Mitchell said.

Brown, however, dismissed SDD’s response as an “excuse” to lob Senate Bill 382. “They didn’t have a chance in hell of passing [Senate Bill 231] and everyone knew that,” Brown said.

City Councilman Steve Schewel is president of Carolina Independent Publications, which owns the Independent Weekly.

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