Following more than two hours of discussion, the Durham City Council voted 6-1 Monday night against a proposal to rezone land at the intersection of Guess and Latta roads to make way for the part-commercial, part-residential North River Village development.
Council member Eddie Davis cast the lone vote for the development.
"I think years from now we will regret this decision for north Durham," he said.
The other council members said the rezoning would not be consistent with the surrounding residential area. "A rezoning is not a referendum on a particular project. It's a land-use decision," said council member Jillian Johnson.
Had the rezoning gone through, it could have brought with it Durham's first Publix, which had been a major part of the developers’ marketing of the project. The proposal has stirred an intense level of debate in north Durham, flooding the city council email inbox with messages in support and opposition and spurring some heated debate
on Facebook and NextDoor.
The council's decision, which aligned with a February vote by the Durham Planning Commission, was met with applause from the opponents in the crowd. By the time the council reached the matter at about ten thirty p.m., seats in the council chambers were still almost entirely filled by people, some holding up signs reading "just say no rezone," and others wearing green stickers with "North River Village" and a checkmark.
During the public hearing, opponents and supporters debated the impact
of the proposed development on the environment, traffic, schools, and the overall character of North Durham. Nineteen people signed up to speak in support, twenty-five against.
Halvorsen Development Corporation was seeking to rezone the 29.8-acre site at the southeastern corner of Guess and Latta roads from residential suburban to mixed use. The intent was to develop half of the property for up to ninety thousand square feet of commercial space and the other half for about sixty detached homes.
Proponents touted road improvements and the potential economic benefits the development would bring to an area they say has not shared in Durham’s recent growth. Thomas Vincent, Halvorsen president, said thirty-five thousand people in the surrounding "trade area" (mostly residents who live north of the site) are underserved by retail and dining options, a suggestion that was met with some scoffs from the crowd.
Opponents countered with maps of other sites in the area already zoned for commercial use, a petition they said had 1,075 signatures opposing the development, and a resolution from the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham supporting the planning commission's vote against the development.
“Please don’t change our peace and quiet for the profit of a developer,” said Karrie Comatas.
Opponents argued that the rezoning would not fit with the city’s comprehensive plan, created to guide the growth of the city. The comprehensive plan designates the area for low-density residential use. City staff, however, determined that the proposal would be consistent
with the comprehensive plan but "may not result in a functional mix of integrated uses, as per the intent of the Mixed Use district."
Whether North River Village is truly “mixed use” was a large factor in Monday's discussion. The developer planned to connect the residential and commercial sides with a pedestrian pathway, but that wasn't enough to convince council members.
Council member Charlie Reece called the request for mixed-use zoning a "creative but legit" strategy, above-board but "not in the best interest" of the city.
"It's zoned residential. The future land-use map says residential. In order to get the planning staff to say it complies with the [unified development ordinance], they had to use the mixed-use zoning," he said.
Reece said the issue has generated the most emails, letters, calls, and Facebook messages of any item considered since he joined the council in December 2015.
"It strikes me that there is a significant level of disagreement ... about what folks who live in this part of the city want it to look like," he said following the hearing.
The planning commission, following a three-hour hearing in February, voted 11-2 against
the development, saying it was not consistent with the comprehensive plan, “not reasonable and not in the public interest.” Commission members also said they would rather elected officials make the contentious call (the commission is an advisory body, so the matter would have gone to city council whether it approved or not).