by Matt Saldaña
The Durham Planning Commission will hold a public hearing tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall to determine whether Durham should amend its Comprehensive Plan Unified Development Ordinance to accommodate a privately funded survey that significantly re-draws the boundaries of Jordan Lake. This is the first step in a public hearing process the Durham County Commissioners approved by a 3-2 vote last April, despite protests from developers who stand to benefit from a new location for the lake, a drinking-water source, albeit a polluted one, for the region.
Meanwhile, the Haw River Assembly has requested a deferral on the item (PDF, 2.4 MB), citing preliminary results from a survey, funded by 50 citizens, that indicates the lake ends "approximately 1/2 mile further upstream than the original determination location based on surface elevation measurements." The developer-funded survey, by contrast, moved the lake's boundary in the opposite direction, accommodating development upstream from the Upper New Hope Creek branch of Jordan Lake.
The proposed changes to the Comprehensive Plan Unified Development Ordinance (see June 9 agenda)-- recommended by the Durham City-County Planning Department--would effectively move 273 acres outside Jordan Lake's critical watershed boundary, a protected area that limits development within one mile of drinking-water sources. Simultaneously, it would add these 273 acres to the "urban growth area" and suburban tier, allowing denser development. Of these 273 acres, local real-estate developer Neal Hunter--who commissioned the private survey that moved Jordan Lake--owns, or has a stake in, roughly 240 of them (totalling $20.5 million in tax-assessed value):
-165.59 acres comprise the proposed site for the so-called 751 Assemblage project, which in 2008 Hunter sold to Southern Durham Development. (He is a minority partner in the company.)
-74.23 additional acres are held by Seven Five One Investments, LLC, which Hunter formed in 2007.
In 2005, Hunter commissioned the private survey that removed these 273 acres from Jordan Lake's critical watershed boundary, and submitted the resulting maps to former Planning Director Frank Duke, who approved the changes without public review. Since then, Hunter and Southern Durham Development have fought to maintain Duke's decision, which violated state code, without a public hearing process.
A letter, dated June 1, 2009 (PDF, 272 KB), from Southern Durham Development attorney Bill Brian argues that Durham Planning Commission Chair George Brine should "recuse" himself from Tuesday's hearing due to his "personal opposition" to the project. Brine was one of several applicants who asked the N.C. Environmental Management Commission to reconsider its approval of Hunter's private survey:
In light of his personal opinion on these matters, any involvement by Chairman Brine in the public hearings and deliberations regarding Durham County's application will further taint this already deeply flawed process and will be substantially prejudicial to Southern Durham's property rights.
Brian adds that Southern Durham is "not involved" in the public hearing process, because it "considers the entire process to be illegitimate."
Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin, to whom the letter was addressed, was not immediately available for comment.
Note: Updated with strikethroughs. Both UDO and Comprehensive Plan changes are on tomorrow's agenda, though only the Comp Plan will be discussed, because the UDO item does not include a change to Jordan Lake's 5-mile protected watershed, which will affect more than 300 properties in South Durham, according to Durham Planning Director Steve Medlin.