by Matt Saldaña
In an letter delivered to the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Friends of Durham Political Action Committee Chairman David A. Smith argues that a private developer's survey of Jordan Lake should not face a public hearing, and the county should avoid a comprehensive, independent survey of the lake.
While in general I agree with public hearings, this one seems to target a single property owner. Public hearings should be about gathering input so that the commissioners can make a policy decision, not about restricting an individual’s right to use his property as allowed by the current regulations.
That "single property owner" is real-estate developer Neal Hunter, who paid for a private survey of Jordan Lake in 2005. The revisions in Hunter's survey, which was recently approved by state regulators, would remove development restrictions on land that he later sold to Southern Durham Development. The company, which is planning the 164-acre project known as 751 Assemblage, claims Hunter as a minority shareholder.
Smith insists that Friends of Durham, though advocating on behalf of Hunter, has no connection to him.
"Mr. Hunter has never been associated with or contributed to the Friends of Durham," he writes.
While records support that claim, there is a connection between the 751 Assemblage and Friends of Durham. Campaign finance reports show that Patrick Byker--whose firm represents Southern Durham Development--has donated $700 to the Friends of Durham, including $100 in 2008. Bill Brian, another K&L Gates attorney representing Southern Durham Development, gave an additional $100 to the PAC in 2003.
Byker and Brian serve on the steering committee of the Friends of Durham, and they are both former chairmen of the PAC. When Byker ran for the City Council at-large seat in 1999, Friends of Durham donated $1,900 to his campaign, which it also loaned $1,600.
In an interview, Byker denied any connection between the Friends of Durham endorsement of Hunter's survey, and his own association with the PAC.
"The Friends of Durham has, for all our history, always been in support of reasonable development regulations that allow top-quality growth to occur in Durham County," he said. "It's consistent with the Friends of Durham philosophy."
In an interview, Smith dismissed the link, saying "They're real-estate lawyers, and they handle a lot of cases in Durham."
Smith also discounts the position of Chatham County officials, who have called for an independent survey of Jordan Lake. In his letter to the Durham County Board of Commissioners, he writes:
In addition, I don’t think Chatham County’s opinion should be considered too seriously. Our watershed ordinance has a one-mile critical area, while Chatham’s has only a half-mile, so we already provide better protection than they do even though most of Jordan Lake is in Chatham County.
Lastly, Jordan Lake may be impaired, but this is not Durham’s fault. Our wastewater treatment plants do a very good job at cleaning our wastewater. I am no expert on water quality, but the farms and looser standards in Chatham County are more to blame for Jordan Lake’s current status than anything from Durham.
The area surveyed by Hunter--the northeast corner of the lake--is one of the most impaired sections of the reservoir, which has been on EPA's Impaired Waters list since 2002 due to "excess nutrients" such as nitrogen, which can be caused by runoff from development. Chatham County is downstream from this section, though relies on Jordan Lake for drinking water.
ASLO: On Tuesday, the Inter-Neighborhood Council unanimously approved a resolution urging the Durham Commission to reject Hunter's survey, and calling for an "impartial government-directed study" of Jordan Lake if necessary. Bull City Rising first reported the story.