Though she sat among three other commissioners Monday night, Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow was on an island by herself—a desolate place where no one would heed her cries of "No," "Wait," "Let's talk more about this."
Since 2006, when Southern Durham Development proposed the controversial 751 South project for a swath of land near Jordan Lake, Reckhow has been one of just two commissioners who have consistently considered the potential environmental consequences of the project, a large, dense development in a rural area near the lake's critical watershed. But with the recent resignation of Becky Heron, an environmental defender and commissioner, Reckhow was left to be a voice of caution when deciding whether the county should provide sewer service to the project. If the commissioners agreed, it would be a major win for Southern Durham Development, which has faced stalwart public opposition.
Among her worries, Reckhow cited concerns from city leaders that by serving 751 South, the county would be going outside the area it has historically provided with sewer service, and into an area city utilities have typically served. Although the city and county lack a binding agreement, they have relied on a planning map that shows which entity would serve which territories. To step outside those bounds would be poaching utility customers—and money—the city had counted on. Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees documented his qualms in a memo last week, which commissioners received Friday—hardly enough time to respond, Reckhow said.
"I think it's a bad precedent to go against even an informal agreement that we've had with the city related to this. I think we should take a deep breath and ... have a discussion," Reckhow told her colleagues. "We had a gentleman's agreement that we stay within these red lines, and they stay on the other side, and we have abided by that agreement. I just don't think this is a wise move."
"These things could have been handled before tonight," Commissioner Brenda Howerton said. "I still don't get what you want to happen. Are you saying you just want to hold it up?"
"No, I'm saying I want discussion of the questions," Reckhow said.
Initially, Southern Durham Development hoped to have water and sewer service for the 167-acre neighborhood from the city. But over the summer, Durham City Council delayed a decision on whether to grant the utilities until a civil lawsuit tied to the development is resolved. Desperate to move forward, the developers earlier this month asked Durham County if they could tap into county sewer lines instead.
Southern Durham Development would pay for the infrastructure to connect to the county's Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant. 751 South is expected to produce about 530,000 gallons of sewage per day once the project is fully built. The development will contain its own sewer system to collect and pump that wastewater out to county sewer lines. That system will be privately maintained, Reckhow said, and it will be essential for it to be closely monitored because of the potential environmental damage of a spill so close to Jordan Lake.
"If you do some research on some of these private firms, some of them don't have the best track record of safety," she said. "You can google [the names] of these large systems and see the violations they've had."
Without any available water system hookups, developers say they'll use community wells to provide water for more than 1,300 homes and at least a half a million square feet of retail and office space. As county experts mentioned in a report to commissioners, a large development in Wake County using community wells actually dried up those of neighbors, leaving homeowners without water. Furthermore, wells drilled in this region often don't yield as much water as in other places, Reckhow repeated from the staff report, and may be insufficient for this project.
Commissioner Joe Bowser was unfazed.
"I'm going to leave the wells to the developer," he said. "That's his issue."
Bowser and the other commissioners were more eager to move 751 South along on the developer's promises of jobs and the potential for new tax revenue.
"I want us to have an amicable relationship with the city," Bowser said. "But we have a situation here where we can create jobs, and we are not doing that. I don't think we're great participants in the revitalization of this country, much less Durham."
In the end, Reckhow was overruled 3 votes to 1. The agreement to provide sewer service would allow Southern Durham Development to finally move forward with planning, said Lewis Cheek, an attorney for the developer. The project has been delayed repeatedly—and unfairly so, Cheek said—by protests, lawsuits and a denial of services from the city.
If the community is built as planned, it guarantees major headaches on N.C. 751, the two-lane highway leading to the development. A city analysis found that the existing road would have to be twice as wide to accommodate traffic and would cost more than $7 million in tax money to improve.
But project opponents still have hope. People who own property across from 751 South filed a lawsuit last fall seeking to reverse the county's 2010 decision to allow the busy development on land that had been zoned for rural uses.
On Monday, opponents earned a minor victory in Durham civil court. The plaintiffs, the Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association and other property owners, had worried that once the county and developer agreed on sewer services, the developers could argue that they had vested rights. This would mean they had invested enough resources and proceeded far enough in the development process that they earned the right to develop as planned. Consequently, the developer couldn't be forced to halt or change the project.
The plaintiffs, represented by Raleigh attorney Dhamian Blue, sought a restraining order to prevent the county from entering into any agreement with Southern Durham Development while the lawsuit is still pending. Superior Court Judge G. Wayne Abernathy didn't grant the restraining order, but he did say that if the developers got the sewer agreement and even paid for permits, they wouldn't earn vested rights. Any money the developers put into the project before the lawsuit is resolved is at their own risk, he said.
Abernathy is scheduled to preside over the pending civil trial, currently scheduled for Nov. 28.