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Developer fined for illegal work

Near New Hope Creek

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Over the last dozen years, various commercial development proposals have been rejected for the northeast corner of U.S. 15-501 and Mt. Moriah Road in Durham. During the review process for each, local environmentalists voiced concerns about the sensitive nature of the 13-acre parcel, saying its steep slopes and proximity to New Hope Creek required cautious planning and careful execution.

In its first phase of construction, the project that finally won approval has violated county water-quality protection regulations and been fined more than $38,000, according to county records.

The developers of Indigo Corners, a 49,000-square-foot shopping center with two buildings and four standalone restaurants, were warned twice in November that they were violating their approved erosion control plan and that "mass clearing of areas without erosion and sedimentation control has occurred." In visits on Nov. 16 and Nov. 28, county inspectors found that tree-cutting and earth-moving had begun before a perennial stream across the site had been relocated and piped, says Joe Pearce, the county's erosion control officer. The stream drains into a tributary of New Hope Creek, and state officials had given permission for it to be moved. Inspectors also discovered additional land-clearing, including the removal of a house, that had not been approved in the first phase of construction, Pearce says.

After the second violation notice, the county assessed fines at about $2,400 per day until the project came into compliance on Dec. 2.

"It started off very, very badly, and by taking enforcement action, we got their attention, which is a good thing," says Pearce, whose office handles nearly 200 projects at a time and says it's rare for county soil and erosion control violations to escalate to five-digit penalties.

Once proposed for a Target, a Wal-Mart and several other projects, the Indigo Corners site is the last undeveloped corner of the mammoth intersection midway between Durham and Chapel Hill. Indigo Corners LLC bought the land from the McFarland family in December 2004 for about $3.5 million, according to county land records.

A popular spot for retail and commercial development, the interchange already hosts a smorgasbord of stores, restaurants and big-box retail on three sides, including New Hope Commons on the northwest corner and Patterson Place to the southeast.

A diverse coalition of citizens' groups and government entities have long worked to protect the land and build a network of trails along the creek, which eventually drains into Jordan Lake, which is used for drinking water and suffers from high sediment levels.

The New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee has been monitoring the proposals for that site and weighing in on the environmental impacts. Rather than oppose any building project, some committee members actually would have preferred a higher-density collection of shops, offices and residences, says co-chair Bob Healy, an environmental science and public policy professor at Duke University. Such a mixed-use development could have been built on a smaller footprint closer to the highway and further from Dry Creek, and taken advantage of mass transit planned for that area, Healy says.

"The problem with that site is it slopes away steeply from the boulevard," Healy says. "And shopping centers like to have flat parking lots."

The developer, meanwhile, is busy signing leases in anticipation of a fall opening--and appealing the $38,464 fine to state officials.

Reached at his Charlotte office, Indigo Corners partner Bill Ford--who was happy to talk to The News & Observer last week about the project's tenants--declined comment on the environmental violations.

"It doesn't do me any good to talk about that in the papers," he says.

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