When Charlie Reece asked his Facebook friends for thoughts on a rezoning request coming before the Durham City Council this week, he expected a few replies—maybe "three or four people already in my social network weighing in," he says.
After all, the debate over North River Village, a proposed commercial and residential development at the intersection of Guess and Latta roads, had been simmering long before the issue was scheduled for consideration on June 5, so he assumed some people would want to weigh in.
But Reece, who was elected to the council in 2015, didn't anticipate anything like what happened.
Five days and some shares on the neighborhood-level social network Nextdoor later, Reece's post had garnered 131 comments. His city council email inbox was flooded with sixty-six emails from residents both for and against the rezoning, adding to the scores of messages the council and the Durham Planning Commission have received since Halvorsen Development Corporation first made its plans for the north Durham site known in 2015.
"This is the first time where we've had tons and tons of people speak out on both sides," Reece says. "That's what stands out to me, how unusual it is. No matter what decision the council makes, we're going to make a lot of people unhappy."
He's right that the council will inevitably make a lot of people mad. He's also right that this entire affair has been somewhat surreal, at least in its intensity.
A hearing before the planning commission in February lasted three hours, with thirty-three people signing up to speak. One speaker read a poem about a pair of crows questioning the development's location. Another painted an alarming image of an ambulance unable to reach an injured elderly resident because of traffic and a nurse making mistakes after a noisy, sleepless night.
Ultimately, the commission voted 11–2 against the rezoning request, with several members saying that, because they're appointed rather than elected, they didn't feel comfortable making a decision that would affect a community where people care so much about the outcome. They'd rather defer to the city council.
The ardor hasn't tapered off since. After Reece's post on May 19, a few residents emailed him saying they'd been hesitant to express themselves for fear of retribution from neighbors. One turned down an interview with the INDY for the same reason.
Another indication of how weird this has gotten: talking points circulated by the development's proponents advise arriving at Monday's seven p.m. council meeting at six fifteen. "Try not to wear red, as that generally is the color that opponents wear," the information reads, like this is some suburban iteration of the Bloods and Crips.
Opponents, meanwhile, recommend arriving at five forty-five.
Most people have heard of North River Village because of one of its potential tenants: Publix. But there's a lot more to the development than one of the country's favorite supermarkets.
Halvorsen, based in Boca Raton, Florida, is seeking to develop the eastern portion of the mostly wooded lot for outdoor seating and up to ninety thousand square feet of commercial space, including the approximately forty-five-thousand-square-foot Publix, three freestanding commercial buildings, and "inline" stores flanking the Publix, which would be the first of the supermarket chain in Durham. Although the lease agreement, which Publix announced in December, is contingent on zoning approval, the store has played a big role in the marketing of North River Village from the start.
Patrick Byker, a partner at Morningstar Law Group, an arm of a local team working with Halvorsen, says it's too early to say how many stores the commercial side would include or what they will be. Rise Biscuits and Donuts, he says, is "pretty well locked in."
(Nil Ghosh, an associate at Morningstar, serves on the planning commission. He did not participate in February's hearing.)
The other half of the acreage would be developed for approximately sixty detached homes built by Durham-based Cimarron Homes. The two sides of the development would be connected by walking trails and sidewalks, Byker says.
This setup has stirred debate over whether North River Village is actually a mixed-use development or just a strip mall with some houses behind it. City staffers say they don't have enough information to decide. Either way, approving the project could contradict a city policy.
Strip malls are discouraged in this suburban area. But city code also says that transit-friendly commercial nodes should be at least a half-mile apart—more than twice the distance from North River Village to the nearest existing node.
According to city staff, rezoning the site as mixed-use would generate an additional 10,712 vehicles trips per day on the roads around it. Whether road improvements, including new turning lanes, are enough to handle that added volume has been a dividing point between supporters and opponents.
So too is the question of schools, given that Easley Elementary, which is adjacent to the site, is currently at 108 percent capacity; however, the city estimates that the rezoning will add only three students to area schools.
And then there are environmental concerns: at its closest, the site is about a half-mile from the Eno River, which leads to worries about runoff and the loss of greenspace.
For opponents, this development is a potential slippery slope. They fear the rezoning will lead to overdevelopment in north Durham. Why not use another site already cleared of trees and zoned for commercial use?
"The sprawl will just go further and further out until you get into Bahama and Rougemont," says Jackie Brown, who chaired the planning commission during an unsuccessful 2003 effort to rezone the same site for commercial use.
On the other hand, North River Village would be the first shopping center built in the area since 1994. The area has lagged behind other parts of Durham in new home construction.
For these reasons, several realtors—and residents itching for something new—have voiced their support for the development. Many of them see North River Village as a tolerable tenant for a site bound to be developed at some point—and the only way to ensure road improvements in a part of the county they feel has been forgotten.
"Because we show the area and we hear the feedback, we know what people are saying and why they don't want to move up here," says Cindie Burns, a realtor and nearly lifelong north Durham resident. "They love it, but there's no shopping. They love it, but it's all dated. They love it, but there's not any new construction."
North River Village, proponents say, is an opportunity to fix that.
"Speak to the youth who attend Northern High School," resident Arnie Boardwine wrote to Reece. "You will hear that they cannot wait to graduate and leave Durham. Why? Because there is nothing here; the area is not growing."