County planning staff and the county attorney announced this morning that a petition (PDF) filed by residents near the proposed site for a controversial development is valid. The petition carries sufficient signatures from the required percentages of land around the site, which is south of Stagecoach Road and west of N.C. 751 (see map), said Patrick Young, Durham’s assistant planning director.

Now the petition will require four of five county commissioners to approve the rezoning of 167 acres of land in south Durham on which a developer wants to build a large mixed-use development called 751 South. The valid petition is seen as a small victory for residents opposed to the project because of its proposed location in rural Durham County and within the watershed of Jordan Lake. The petition is yet another stumbling block for Southern Durham Development, a small company that has worked for more than two years for its plans to clear public approval. The process has been hamstrung left and right with lawsuits and other delays.

The petition is valid both under the county’s current adopted ordinance, and a state law that passed on July 9, Young said. It includes signatures of individual homeowners and of the president of the Chancellor’s Ridge Homeowners Association president, who signed on behalf of a common area in that subdivision. (See the jump for more about that common property.)

Although the deadline has passed for petitioners to add their names to the document, names may still be removed if a signer changes his mind.

Under the county’s current ordinance (see section 3.5.13), the petition needed the signatures of the owners of 20 percent of the area within 100 feet of one side of the property. In this case, the signatures represent 45 percent, more than enough, Young said.

However, state legislators just passed a local bill to unify the county’s ordinance on protest petitions with the city’s ordinance. That new bill, which appears to be effective immediately, requires the signatures of property owners of 5 percent of the area in a 100-foot buffer around the entire boundary of the property being rezoned. Petitioners who signed represented 11.8 percent of that land, Young said.

The petition will come into play at a public hearing currently scheduled for tomorrow morning. Commissioners have planned to officially open the public hearing tomorrow, but postpone the official hearing until July 26. That’s when Southern Durham Development is slated to ask Durham’s Board of County Commissioners for the rezoning.

Residents who signed the petition were anxiously awaiting the planning department’s ruling (which was expected late last week) because of the controversy surrounding a previous protest petition in this case. That petition, intended to challenge the county’s determination of the truest measures of the Jordan Lake watershed, was ruled invalid, then valid. A lawsuit has resulted from the case.

Now, about that Chancellor’s Ridge property… In the past, some residents of Chancellor’s Ridge have taken issue with whether a member of the HOA is authorized to sign the petition on behalf of all of the HOA property owners.

“Based on our evaluation, they had the legal right to do so,” Young said.

If someone were to contest whether signatures for the Chancellor’s Ridge property were legal, the scenario could unfold two ways.

Under the current Unified Development Ordinance, the common property represents 26.2 percent of the properties adjacent to the land to be rezoned. Under the methodology indicated in the new state law, the property represents 6.4 percent.

“On the new methodology, even without the HOA signature, [the petition] would be valid,” Young said. “Barely, but it would be. Under the old methodology, it would not be. But based on the information we have, these signatures are valid. There’s been no dispute of that.”

UPDATE, 6 p.m.: Southern Durham Development President Alex Mitchell released a statement several hours after the announcement Tuesday:

751 South is designed to be an innovative and exciting place to live, work and shop. We believe that it will join the ranks of Southpoint Mall, DPAC, and the American Tobacco Historic District in affirming that “Good things are happening in Durham.” As unfortunate as today’s announcement may seem, it in no way diminishes our enthusiasm for the future of our project. We are hopeful that when all of the relevant information is presented, 751 South will have earned the support of the Board of County Commissioners, moving it closer to becoming a reality.