In the chess game of 751 South, Durham will not be a pawn.
Durham City Council voted 4-3 late Monday night against the annexation of 751 South, the controversial project planned for the Jordan Lake watershed. The council also refused to extend water and sewer service to the 253-acre development, which, under recent negotiations, bundled the already-built Colvard Farms adjacent to the 751 property into the deal.
Voting no were Councilors Eugene Brown, Diane Catotti, Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel.
Mayor Bill Bell, Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden and Councilman Howard Clement voted yes.
The vote was the latest move in a four-year game of chess between the city, concerned citizens and Southern Durham Development over 751, which calls for 1,300 homes and 600,000 square feet of commercial space in an environmentally sensitive area near the Durham-Chatham county line.
SDD has used not only legitimate negotiations but also ethically questionable, albeit legal, sleights of hand, political pressure and large campaign contributions—it formed Durham's first Super PAC—to compel city and county leaders to approve the project.
"I cannot ignore the maneuvers that have gotten us to this point," Catotti said. "It's the poster child for poor land-use planning: backdoor schemes and intimidation, the disregard of sound science and the subversion of citizens' rights to protest petition."
Neither the developer, Alex Mitchell, nor SDD attorney Cal Cunningham attended Monday's council meeting, which is highly unusual considering the importance of the vote. Cunningham did not respond to phone calls from INDY Week by press time.
In 2012, Durham County Commissioners voted to extend sewer service to the development, which had long-ranging ramifications. "We were dealt the cards we have," Bell said.
Bell had negotiated additional concessions from SDD, including a widening of part of N.C. 751. However, the project still included 81 acres of pavement that could result in pollution running into the Jordan Lake watershed.
"Let's don't sell Durham's soul for a road widening," Schewel said.
Many political observers wondered how the vote would split—and whether Councilman Howard Clement, a 751 supporter, would show up. Clement, who has been ill, has attended less than a quarter of City Council meetings and work sessions this year. In 2012, according to council minutes, he attended about a third.
If Clement made the meeting, it was speculated, then the project would pass, 4-3. The wild card turned out to be Eugene Brown, who, until Monday afternoon, had intended to vote yes.
Brown told the INDY Tuesday that after talking to his colleagues, including Bell, and several state legislators from Durham, he changed his mind. "I can't run around talking about the absurdity of the General Assembly and then go along with this deal."
In impassioned remarks before the vote, Brown said, "Why sell our public soul for a development that's too big, too close to Jordan Lake and too upsetting to neighborhoods?"
The vote will likely incur the wrath of Republican lawmakers, who are expected to introduce a bill forcing Durham to annex and provide utilities to the development.
Last year, Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County—200 miles from Durham and a friend of SDD attorney Cal Cunningham—sponsored a bill that would have done just that. It passed the House, but failed in the Senate by one vote. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, and Sen. Richard Stevens, a Wake Republican, worked together to defeat the bill. But this session, Stevens is gone. The Senate is loaded with Republicans who would likely pass a similar bill, which, according to sources at the General Assembly, is already written.
Bell's negotiations with SDD were an attempt to thwart such a power move by lawmakers. "I gave some thought to what our alternatives are," Bell said. "My rationale is not just for the present, but for future city councils."
Although the language has yet to be public, such a measure could force Durham and all North Carolina municipalities to annex a development if certain criteria are met.
If a bill passes, Durham could file for a temporary restraining order. Wake County Superior Judge Donald Stephens recently issued a TRO against the state over a bill stripping Asheville of control over its water system.
"To rise up and vote against this development tonight is the equivalent of giving the finger to General Assembly; they may give us their fist," Brown said. "I hope they're not that petty."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Check, but not checkmate."
A version of this story was originally published on our Triangulator blog.