by Matt Saldaña
Durham City-County Planning Commission Chair George Brine has told the Indy he plans to sit out tonight's public hearing on Jordan Lake's critical watershed boundary, "unless the attorneys tell me otherwise." The commission is scheduled to recommend whether to incorporate changes resulting from a developer-funded survey of Jordan Lake into the city and county's Comprehensive Plan.
In a letter dated June 1, 2009, lawyers representing Southern Durham Development, which would financially benefit from the map change, 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." When asked if the letter had influenced his decision, Brine said, "That's part of it. But it’s better for the commission without any clouds hanging over them."
In an interview, Durham Planning Director Steve Medlin said Brine had no legal obligation to step down from the public hearing, since he serves in an advisory capacity and is encouraged to form, and share, opinions. 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 the developer-funded survey.
"He’s not in violation of rules of procedure, or ethics policy, as we read it," Medlin said of Brine, adding that "he could sit if he wanted to."
Southern Durham Development, the development company advocating for Brine's recusal, owns 165 out of 273 acres that would be moved out of Jordan Lake's critical watershed--which severely limits development--and into Durham's "urban growth area," where it can later be re-zoned for high-density projects. Minority shareholder Neal Hunter, who commissioned the survey that re-drew Jordan Lake's boundaries, owns an additional 74 acres that would be moved out of the watershed area. All told, the land is valued at $20.5 million, but would increase significantly once it is rezoned.
In January 2008, Southern Durham Development filed a re-zoning request to convert 164 acres into a high-density, mixed-use project known as 751 Assemblage. Hunter is listed as the property owner. However, that re-zoning cannot go forward until the land is removed from the critical watershed, and placed into the county's "urban growth area"--the matter before the commission tonight.
Citing rules of procedure, Medlin said that the Planning Commission cannot defer the item, as had been requested by the Haw River Assembly, but could instead elect to open the public hearing, and continue it until a later meeting. Medlin added that two new members of the Planning Commission will join the board next month; if they are not present for all discussion on the item, they will have no vote on the matter. With Brine's recusal, that could reduce the number of voting members from 14 to 11.
Check back for updates on tonight's hearing.