About six weeks ago, Trace Ramsey noticed new neighbors moving their belongings into 215 North Briggs Avenue, the long-vacant house next door to him in east Durham. Not long after, he says, he observed people out in the yard, trimming the lawn and the bushes. But nobody was sleeping there at night.
“So, a few weeks ago, I walked over and peeked in the window,” Ramsey says, “and there was this big ‘DURHAM REPUBLICANS’ banner in the living room.”
Ramsey did a little research online and discovered that his new neighbor was, in fact, the Durham County Republican Party. On July 16, the Durham GOP hosted an open house and breakfast celebrating its new headquarters. Video highlights of the soirée were subsequently posted to the Durham GOP’s Facebook page.
The 200 block of North Briggs Avenue is residentially zoned; technically, it is RU-5(2). That means the Durham GOP—or any entity that intends to use a house on the block for non-residential purposes—would have to, at minimum, apply for a change of use permit with the Durham City-County Planning Department.
Immanuel Jarvis, chairman of the Durham GOP, tells the INDY, “We verified everything with the City of Durham zoning laws before we moved in. The house can be used as a library and resource center without additional permitting fees and registration, and that’s how we’ll be using the space—as a headquarters for community outreach in this great neighborhood in Durham.”
He adds: “It would have been very foolish of us to take ownership of a location and not be sure we could use it as such.”
But Steve Medlin, director of the Durham City-County Planning Department, says his office has no applications on file regarding 215 N. Briggs.
“A community service use permit is potentially allowed in an RU-5(2), but nobody has applied for it at that address,” Medlin tells the INDY. “If they did apply, they would have to meet the standards for a community service facility. Typically, that means activities that are nonprofit in nature, like education, training, and counseling. They would have to complete a change of occupancy form, from residential to nonresidential, showing the site is up to compliance with the building codes. And they would have to submit a plan that shows they have adequate parking on-site.”
Since the Durham GOP has completed none of these requirements, Medlin says the situation is “most likely a zoning enforcement violation.” A zoning enforcement employee was dispatched to the property last Friday, Medlin says, but the case report is not yet available. (The zoning enforcement staff is at a mandatory training conference in Asheville this week.) Medlin adds that such investigations take a while.
“We don’t have the authority to go in and tell them to cease and desist,” he says. “They would have the opportunity to appeal, or submit their plans, or come into compliance. If none of that happened, we would eventually get to the stage where we have an enforcement action to bring the site into compliance.”
The house at 215 N. Briggs is owned by an LLC of which Jim Anthony, the CEO of Colliers International Raleigh, is the managing member. Anthony confirms to the INDY that he recently offered the house, which has sat vacant for several years, to the Durham GOP on a month-to-month lease.
“I didn’t think they’d do much with it beyond having a couple of people working in there,” Anthony says. “I figured they would take responsibility for whatever permitting or zoning issues they needed to take care of. If they haven’t, then, yes, they’ve got a problem on their hands.”
On Friday afternoon, I drove over to 215 N. Briggs, eager to peruse the literature and access the resources the Durham GOP has made available to the east Durham community at its new headquarters. The door was locked, and nobody was home. A decal on the door read: “WARNING: This house is protected by JESUS CHRIST.”
Later, I asked Jarvis what the hours of the resource center were.
“We’re very new, so office hours are fairly limited right now,” he said. “The goal is for there to be a person there throughout the day.”
Jarvis characterized the resources available as “a plethora of conservative literature, books, publications, lots of information on candidates around the state, resources on African-American Republicans throughout Durham history and North Carolina history, some magazines, and other things like that.” Asked to estimate how many books and periodicals were on hand at the location, Jarvis said it currently consisted of two bookshelves.