by Matt Saldaña
Durham City-County Planning Commission Chair George Brine recused himself from discussion over a developer-funded survey of Jordan Lake tonight, saying the board's deliberation on the matter "should not be clouded by my alleged impartiality, or lack thereof." Meanwhile, the citizen advisory board delayed consideration of changes to the Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Ordinance, based on the survey, until August 11.
Southern Durham Development is seeking to push through watershed map changes, based on a survey commissioned by Southern Durham Development shareholder Neal Hunter, without public review. The changes would move 240 acres of land that Hunter owns, or has a stake in, out of a protected watershed that severely limits development, and into an "urban growth area" that would allow for future re-zoning requests to permit dense development. Lawyers for Southern Durham Development recently accused Brine of holding a “personal opinion” on the matter, and said his participation in the hearing would “further taint this already deeply flawed process.”
Though they voted unanimously to recuse Brine, five of Brine's colleagues on the Planning Commission firmly stood up for their chairman, and several accused Southern Durham Development of creating what Planning Commissioner Don Moffitt called "a chilling effect on the participation of any of us in the civic life of Durham."
"I don't think there is a legal reason for him to be recused," Planning Commissioner Linda Smith said of Brine. "I think that, in fact, what we want on this commission are people who are informed of the issues. One of the things I feel about this particular amendment is that we haven't been very well-informed."
Planning Commissioner Wendy Jacobs added that she was "alarmed" by Southern Durham Development's accusations against Brine.
"We have a unique role of being able to express our opinions about issues. As far as I'm concerned, there should be no conflict of interest," she said.
Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously to accept Brine's recusal, with several commissioners noting they were voting so reluctantly, and only because Brine himself had made the request. Earlier this year, Brine was one of several applicants who asked the N.C. Environmental Management Commission to reconsider the N.C. Division of Water Quality's approval of Hunter’s private survey. DWQ accepted the survey in February 2009, despite an apparent conflict of interest--Hunter owned the land that was moved out of the watershed area at the time he funded the survey--and an earlier determination by DWQ that Durham County had "acted improperly" in accepting Hunter's survey, without public review, in 2006.
The public hearing was delayed two cycles because Durham County has not yet sent out formal notices to the more than 300 South Durham residents who will be affected by changes to a five-mile watershed boundary, also resulting from Hunter's survey. In addition, the Haw River Assembly is scheduled to release the results of a citizen-funded ground survey of Jordan Lake this week.