For several days, a flock of 15 turkey vultures has been roosting in the trees behind the sewage pumping station at the southwestern boundary of Solterra, the neighborhood where I live. There is a dead deer beside Erwin Road, and I'm hoping that something else may be dead in those woods: the proposed "Preserve at Erwin Trace" development.
The 44 acres was once part of Duke Forest, but it was "decommissioned" by Duke in 1989 and has been for sale for years. But on all the planning maps of Durham and Orange counties, and Durham's proposed Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), it has always been designated as "open space." People assumed that meant something, but it didn't.
A lot of people in the neighborhoods near Erwin Road, Randolph Road, Kerley Road and Cornwallis Road feel blindsided by all the developments that have been proposed and started in the last several months. Over a year ago, some area residents asked for a moratorium on subdivision approvals until the UDO went into effect. They were told a moratorium wasn't needed, that by the time it could be enacted, the UDO would be in place. It still isn't. In the meantime, developers have raced to submit proposals. By the time the UDO happens, it will be a joke, at least around Erwin Road.
When some of my neighbors decided to take action and formed the Erwin Area Neighborhood Group (www.erwinneighbors.org), I thought the most that would happen would be that we'd gain some minor concessions from the developers. So far, that's been the case. We met with a representative of the John Crosland Co., which wants to develop the 44 acres, and he was patient and polite, but in the end Crosland didn't budge on anything. No, they wouldn't covenant against chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep them from getting into New Hope Creek. No, they wouldn't leave a buffer bigger that the legal requirement. Et cetera. No concessions that would cost them money or make the lots harder to sell.
I don't believe Crosland is a bad guy here, nor is Duke University. There was no stealth campaign to sell the land for development before the tree-huggers could save it. Duke's cards have always been on the table. Nobody who wanted to keep the land in its natural state ever did anything about it, except color it green on the planning maps.
Until now, that is. On Jan. 25, EANG held a public meeting at Forest View Elementary School to kick off a campaign to raise money and buy out Crosland's contract with Duke. As we were setting up chairs for the meeting, I told my neighbor, Phil Leinbach, we'd be lucky if 25 people showed up. Then Lisa Cavanaugh came in and said we already had $20,000 in pledges. And then over 300 people filled the cafeteria to hear about the proposed New Hope Creek Regional Park. There were representatives from at least 19 neighborhoods, the New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee and the Triangle Land Conservancy. We got over $16,000 in new pledges. And Wade Penny announced that he and his wife, Carolyn, would match $1 for every $2 in pledges, up to $25,000.
The goal is at least $100,000 in pledges, to demonstrate to our elected representatives that there is strong public support for the park. Durham County will decide in April whether to make the $1.5 million buyout, and even the strong turnout of Jan. 25 and the pledge money may not be persuasive enough. Duke is being cooperative, agreeing to take less money than Crosland offered and not requiring it all at one time. Crosland would still make a profit under the buyout. What is needed now is the political will to put together the required money from multiple sources over a period of a few years. It will take some work, some inter-governmental cooperation and some political capital.
Ellen Reckhow was the only Durham County commissioner to attend the kickoff meeting. Diane Catotti was the only member of the Durham City Council. The county would not have put the land in reserve status if not for the efforts of these two. Reckhow said the commission has directed its staff to report on the desirability of purchasing the land for public use. I couldn't help thinking that the absent commissioners and councilors might not consider the attendance at the meeting, and the pledges, when they weigh its "desirability." And will they factor in the importance of the 44 acres in completing the New Hope Creek corridor?
In the years I have been a part of Solterra, an intentional community, I have come to believe that to make a community work for everyone, your foremost obligation is to speak your mind. I've said this repeatedly at community meetings. My limited involvement in the EANG work has taught me that the same lesson applies to a larger community. Nothing will happen if nobody speaks up. My thanks to Wendy Jacobs, Jeff Fisher and the other folks of EANG who have worked so hard to make our voices heard.