Three months after approving the first exemption to a stormwater rule that protects Falls Lake, Raleigh officials now say that a watercourse standing in the way of a proposed charter school in North Raleigh never existed.
Jason Barron, an attorney for Ocean Development Group, wrote in an April 16 memo that the developer relied on "faulty watercourse and topographic data," including Wake County GIS maps, in requesting permission to build a new school for Quest Academy over a channel that "runs through the property and severely restricts any practical use." Academy Principal Charles Watson had argued that conforming to the city's stormwater rule—enacted in the 1980s to preserve natural buffers that filter dirt and pollutants before draining into Falls Lake—would cost an additional $200,000 and "could be the end of the school."
Yet, based on a field survey by city staff and the developer in February—the first time the city inspected the site—the channel on the Quest Academy site does not qualify as a watercourse because it contains no perennial stream or a large enough drainage area.
As a result, the City Council voted unanimously to declare null and void the variance they had approved, 6-1, in January. With the new vote, Ocean Development is no longer bound to a set of environmental restrictions the city added as conditional clauses to the variance approval, including water-quality monitoring and a 25-year stormwater retention pond.
"We went through it all because their engineer made a mistake," City Councilor Nancy McFarlane said. "Luckily, we erred on the side of caution this time. We overprotected it, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In the future, in the watershed, we're going to have to double-check before we take anybody's word on anything."
Barron—whose law firm, K & L Gates, also represents the developer seeking to build a mega-project within the Jordan Lake watershed—told City Council members before they voided the variance that nine agreements ironed out with a neighborhood homeowners' association would be honored.
He also said a 25-year stormwater plan would be implemented before construction.
However, when pressed by Mayor Charles Meeker about an agreement to monitor water quality before and after construction—along with the 25-year retention pond, a condition the Comprehensive Planning Committee added before approving the variance—Barron balked.
"We don't know, at this point, that monitoring is going to be a part of that," he said.
Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Alissa Bierma, who originally recommended that the council approve the variance based on the environmental stipulations, said water-quality monitoring is still necessary.
"If they really know so little about what they're doing, that they went through all this work without knowing anything [about the watercourse], then I really want water quality monitoring," she said. "Either they don't know what they're doing, or there's something going on that shouldn't be going on."
In his April 16 memo, Barron wrote that Ocean Development didn't know the watercourse didn't exist "until after the very time-consuming and expensive variance process was complete," adding, "We apologize to everyone involved for any inconvenience caused by the incorrect information that we relied upon in making our variance request."
Councilor Thomas Crowder, who originally voted against the variance, deferred to the staff's recommendation to void the earlier vote, but said in an interview, "Why was that not scrutinized closer during the application?"
Stormwater Program Manager Danny Bowden said he "would've assumed" the developer had surveyed the site before filing the variance request.
"I would say they missed a major point out there," he said in an interview.
Bowden said his department will ensure that Ocean Development's site plan includes the nine points agreed to with the homeowners' association, as well as the 25-year stormwater plan added by the Comprehensive Planning Committee.
However, McFarlane said those additional protections are no longer binding.
"Really, if they do it, it's simply that we asked them to and they agreed to it," she said.
Due to the size of the school, and its approved use under the property's rural-residential zoning, the site plan will be submitted through an administrative process not subject to a public hearing.
As for the water-quality monitoring, Bowden said, "There will be some level of monitoring that will be worked out with the applicant when that plan's reviewed."
However, the level of monitoring is entirely up to city staff's discretion and will not be subject to public review.
"We will see what they submit, and if we feel like it's sufficient, it'll be fine. If not, we'll have to go back to the drawing board," he said.
Previous story: "Raleigh leaders break long-held boundary on Falls Lake protections"