UPDATE, 11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10: Read Lowell Siler's memo to the planning director with the reasoning that led to the protest petition being ruled invalid. (PDF)
Original post: With a 3-2 vote, Durham County Commissioners finally put to rest (at the county level, at least) the ugly battle over 751 South Monday night, voting to allow Southern Durham Development to move forward with plans to build a huge community in south Durham.
But boy did the two-and-a-half-year-battle go out with a bang.
Monday's meeting was a continuation of a public hearing that started July 26. When that meeting ran past midnight, commissioners continued it to Monday. The meeting brought new information on a couple of important aspects of the development. First, the developer announced it would commit to some more strict environmental regulations and amenities that it wasn't originally willing to promise. Second, Durham's planning director also announced that a protest petition that project opponents filed was no longer valid.
The protest petition was a major game-changer—it would have required four of the five commissioners to approve the rezoning instead of just three. But the once-valid petition became ineffective in mid-July when the N.C. Department of Transportation accepted the right-of-way on a small piece of land as a gift from Southern Durham Development. The gift came with strings attached: By accepting the land, the N.C. DOT inadvertently foiled the protest petition on a technical detail involving the width of the right-of-way. So the N.C. DOT tried to reject its acceptance of the land. But, Siler said, the state had no statutory authority to do so and didn't follow proper procedure to abandon the land rights. Thus, the state still had the right of way and the protest petition was invalid. (Check Triangulator Tuesday for updates and Siler's written opinion).
As if the last-minute twists did not conjure enough drama by themselves, there was another blow. Tension among commissioners and the project's supporters and opponents finally erupted, and commissioners got a lot of yet-unsaid things off their chests.
Over several months, rumors have bubbled about the commissioners' new majority, comprising newcomer Brenda Howerton and veterans Michael Page and Joe Bowser, that has historically voted favorably for 751 South. Opponents of the 751 South project have made accusations that the three officials had cozied up to the developer. They even have asserted that Southern Durham Development or its representatives had bought the commissioners' support with gifts, or gifts to charities with which they are affiliated, but only anecdotes—not hard evidence—have surfaced.
Though those accusations had mostly only been insinuated in past meetings, some decided Monday to stop tip-toeing and dive right in.
"I’m really concerned that I’ve heard so many stories out there about commissioners receiving gifts from the developers," Becky Heron said before the board started to vote.
As she spoke, Howerton chimed in: "I wonder who started that conversation. Hmm." Howerton said it again, sarcastically jabbing at the two-member minority of the board, Heron and Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who have in the past voted against the development.
Page said that his fellow commissioners—glaring back and forth at Heron and Reckhow—had started the rumors and needed to come clean. Page said he had been the subject of "witch hunt" by the Indy, in which an Indy reporter showed up at his church, where he is the pastor. And Howerton said a reporter from another publication had called her at home over the weekend to ask about her personal life. Bowser chimed in that the media had been irresponsible and imbalanced and needed to re-check campaign reports to see who's financing candidates' campaigns.
Finally, the conversation moved back to the actual matter at hand—whether to rezone the 167-acre swath of land just north of the Chatham County line where the developer wants to build 1,300 residences and up to 600,000 square feet of shops and office space.
The commissioners moved past their hostility and voted, with Reckhow and Heron dissenting. Southern Durham Development now must go to the city of Durham and persuade the city council to annex the site, which currently does not use city water and sewer services. The city must also decide whether to adopt the zoning classification that the county granted the developer Monday night. No firm date has been scheduled for a city council hearing, but the city has set Dec. 31 as a target date for the annexation to become effective.
"We're excited for the people of Durham," Southern Durham Development President Alex Mitchell said after the commissioners voted. "This is a step in the right direction. But there's still a long way to go. We still have a lot of work to do before we go before the city council."