Alex Mitchell hears it. He knows opponents of his bustling 751 South, a mega mixed-use development targeted for southern Durham County, want him to abandon his controversial project long delayed by lawsuits, environmental headaches, angry neighbors and a lack of utilities. But Mitchell isn't budging.
"We won't give up on it," Mitchell said Monday. "That's not really an option for us. We'll move forward."
What exactly "forward" means is a question mark, but Mitchell—president of project planners Southern Durham Development (SDD)—is searching for the next path for 751 South. Next week, Durham County leaders could approve a contract to extend sewer infrastructure for 751 South, one-half of the utility puzzle for the stalled project.
Mitchell's brainstorming comes days after the demise of Senate Bill 382, legislation that would have compelled Durham city leaders to provide sewer and water to the controversial development near Jordan Lake. If fully built, the project would spread 600,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 1,300 homes on a 167-acre tract off N.C. 751.
An amendment spurred by N.C. Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, at the behest of SDD attorney Cal Cunningham swept through the state House of Representatives last month before dying in the Senate.
The amendment would have ordered municipalities to offer utilities to projects outside the city limits in designated "urban growth areas" in the same fashion as they are offered to development inside municipal boundaries. 751 South falls outside of Durham city limits but has been included in the urban growth area, a necessary classification for a project to be considered for public utilities.
City leaders blasted the legislation as a slimy, back-door effort from SDD to strong-arm the city into providing sewer and water. Durham City Council had torpedoed the builder's request for sewer and water in a unanimous February vote.
Meanwhile, Mitchell countered that the bill was a response to previous failed legislative attempts that he says were intended to strike down 751 South.
Senate Bill 382 is dead, at least until lawmakers reconvene in late January. Durham City Councilman Eugene Brown says the city could take "pro-active measures" in the meantime to block future wrangling should lawmakers have a change of heart in 2013.
For Mitchell and SDD, it's back to the starting line. "Before this sort of unplanned side trip to Raleigh, we were looking for water and sewer," Mitchell said. "We got our sewer from the county, and we're looking at all the different options that we have for water, including but not limited to wells."
Mitchell hopes that Durham City Council will reconsider its February vote, but as Brown pointed out Tuesday, that's unlikely unless 751 South gets a makeover.
"There would definitely have to be some major changes," Brown said.
As Mitchell puts it, a facelift may be in store anyway. For water, SDD will contemplate the use of community wells, considered an unattractive last option for such a dense project, although the scope of the mixed-use development could be reduced.
To speed the well installation, SDD needs permits from the state and Durham County. 751 South must meet design standards for a conservation subdivision, Durham Planning Director Steve Medlin pointed out, including the requirement that at least half of the development is reserved for open space.
As it stands, 751 South is mapped with roughly 30 percent open space, Mitchell said.
Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, the lone board member to vote against offering sewer to 751 South last year, said she will be in opposition again should the sewer contract come to a vote when commissioners meet Monday, arguing 751 South falls outside of the county's service basin. "I think that's a bad precedent," Reckhow said, adding that 751 South sewer should be a vote left to the city of Durham.
Meanwhile, Brown dismissed the talk of wells when many locales are coping with drought conditions.
"Who will buy a house where the water supply is based on a well?" Brown said. "That's archaic. I think it will hurt their marketing."
Mitchell said he still believes developers can pull it off. "We are sort of in the short road and all we have left is water," he said.
SDD may have erred strategically, Mitchell says, when it offered perks such as cash for public schools, fire stations and affordable housing early in the approval process, rather than holding out for later horsetrading.
"We thought it would be enough," Mitchell said. "There's not really anything that we can proffer. We put our best foot forward at the start. That might have been an error on our part."
Opponents worry over the traffic impacts on two-lane N.C. 751, runoff in already-polluted Jordan Lake and the mechanics of commercial development equating half of Southpoint's mega-mall, according to longtime critic Steve Bocckino, a resident of south Durham's Fern Valley subdivision.
Bocckino said SDD chiefs have "thumbed their nose" at Durham's comprehensive plan for low-density residential development in the 751 South area.
"To me, it's just pure greed on the developers' part," Bocckino said. "They'll say it's vision, but I think it's just greed."
Bocckino added that south Durham residents would be less perturbed if SDD planned a project on the scale of Colvard Farms, an upscale subdivision near the Chatham County line with a conservationist bent. SDD minority stakeholder F. Neal Hunter was one of the forces behind Colvard Farms.
"They wouldn't be upset at all," Bocckino said. "Nobody thinks this is not going to be developed, but there are very few people in this area that think this is a good idea."
Then, there is the unsavory side of the 751 South tale, which chafes longtime critics and city leaders like Brown: the Super PAC created by SDD majority shareholder Tyler Morris to back pro-751 South candidates this spring. The $142,000 in overdue property taxes for 751 South acreage. And the last-ditch efforts to craft Senate Bill 382, a measure that prompted Brown to lash out at 751 South as the "dumbest development process and approach I've seen in many, many years."
Yes, Mitchell hears it, but he's not buying it.
"I agree with him 100 percent," Mitchell said. "It is the dumbest process I have ever seen. When you have a project that meets all ordinances; meets all federal, state, county laws; does affordable housing; puts in for schools and public improvements and all that that and you can't get it to go forward, he's right. It's the dumbest development process I've ever heard of."
City Councilman Steve Schewel is president of Carolina Publications, which owns the Independent Weekly.