Three years ago, when construction crews were breaking ground for the Triangle’s newest, hottest monument to consumerism just a short walk from her house, Shirley Marshall wasn’t thinking about shopping. She just wanted somebody to take the toxic bacteria out of her drinking water.
Marshall, like many of her neighbors, has struggled with bouts of contamination in her well for many of the 30 years she’s lived in Kentington Heights, a community of African-American families in southwest Durham.
To help secure the neighbors’ endorsement–or more bluntly, quelch their opposition–the developers of the Streets at Southpoint mall agreed to bring clean water to Kentington Heights. They put up money that was supposed to pay for connecting the neighborhood’s three dozen or so homes to the city sewer and water pipes that were coming–along with 1.3 million square feet of shopping–to the edge of their subdivision just off Fayetteville Road near Interstate 40.
That arrangement was just the beginning of the battle over the future of Kentington Heights, a messy political and financial fracas that has pitted neighbors against each other in a race to cash in on real estate prices driven sky-high by the mall’s arrival.
Today, developers circle the neighborhood envisioning new strip malls while an unlicensed real estate “consultant” is promising riches for those who take his advice–and pay him for it. Meanwhile, Marshall must cart her drinking water in five-gallon jugs. The county condemned her well and it’s going to cost $4,000 to drill a new one.
From her front window, Marshall sees spanking new garden apartments filling up with residents who have chosen to live next to the new mega-mall. Those apartment dwellers have city water, but the pipes dead-end near the entrance to Kentington Heights.
“I don’t know why it didn’t happen,” Marshall says. “We’re right here in the middle of everything.”
In late 1999 or early 2000, Southpoint’s developer, Urban Retail Properties of Chicago, wrote a check for $84,500 to the Kentington Heights Neighborhood Association. An itemized agreement between the two parties dated Nov. 20, 1998 earmarked the bulk–$60,000–for water/sewer hookups for each house in Kentington Heights. The remainder was labeled for various projects, including $20,000 for 20 street lights, $2,000 for a neighborhood sign, and $2,500 for a traffic signal at Fayetteville Road and Kentington Drive, the main entrance to the subdivision.
“The long and the short of it was that Kentington Heights was looking for a bunch of things to be improved in the neighborhood,” says Jim Farrell, the Urban Properties senior vice president who negotiated with the neighbors. Urban wasn’t the only developer seeking the neighbors’ cooperation in return for financial favors at the time. The owners of South Square Mall across town, fearing correctly that Southpoint’s construction would be the death knell of their aging establishment, installed several new wells for Kentington Heights residents who were willing to speak in opposition to the various rezonings Southpoint needed from elected officials, according to Farrell and several residents who were approached.
But the $84,500 check from Southpoint’s developers sealed Kentington Heights’ support for the project, support that lent credence to the developers’ case while they sought government approvals. At public hearings in 1999, Kentington Heights residents, including current association president Alvin McMillian, testified that they supported the mall.
But since the neighborhood association cashed the check, a small group controlling both the checking account and the public spotlight have substituted the arrival of clean water with a different dream for the neighborhood: high profits from selling their land to a commercial developer.
“The commercial zoning idea came up later. At first, the whole neighborhood said, ‘We want a nice quiet neighborhood that’s residential,’” says Farrell. “But once you see the trees come down and the buildings go up, the mall becomes a reality.”
The shift in priorities–from pushing for neighborhood improvements to looking for ways to sell their property–was led by Anita Keith-Foust, a Durham political activist who hosts a weekly radio show on WAUG-750 AM and owns several vacant lots in the neighborhood.
Keith-Foust argues that while the neighborhood sought sewer and water hookups, it never ruled out the option of seeking commercial zoning.
“Water and sewer hookups are a separate issue from determining what the future land use would be for our land,” she wrote in an e-mail after declining to be interviewed. “We were being forced to choose between water and sewer or self-determination over the future land use of our property. That was undemocratic.”
The Kentington Heights Neighborhood Association and Keith-Foust’s colleague Ronnie Jennings began lobbying the Durham City Council to designate their neighborhood as commercial property. Saying that most residents didn’t want to live near the new behemoth after it was built, they asked for the change to make their land more attractive to developers who would pay top dollar to put new businesses along Fayetteville Road adjacent to Southpoint and its powerful shopping draw.
After negotiating with developers for city sewer and water funds to improve their neighborhood in late 1998 and into 1999, Keith-Foust and other property owners were suddenly testifying at public hearings on Durham’s long-range land plan in September 2000 saying they wanted the right to sell to the highest bidder.
By November 2000, according to documents obtained by The Independent, nearly $25,000 of the money paid to the neighborhood by Southpoint’s developer had gone into the pockets of two individuals helping with the lobbying effort. The group paid $7,514 in legal fees to Durham attorney and current clerk of court candidate Larry Hall, who lobbied politicians on the group’s behalf, according to a handwritten ledger. Another $17,250 was paid to Jennings, who now claims to be the neighbors’ current agent in negotiations with potential buyers.
“If it were not for his knowledge, background, and persistence, we would not have commercial designation today,” says Keith-Foust, who encouraged the property owners to hire Jennings. “He got the results that we wanted, that’s the reason I know he is qualified to work as a consultant in this matter. He did, and is still doing, an excellent job for poor people who otherwise would not be able to afford his services.”
Keith-Foust says Jennings worked for free on the project after his contract ran out. She disagrees that he is “representing” any one property owner, saying, “Each property owner represents themselves.”
As for what remains of the original $84,500 paid to the neighborhood, association leaders aren’t saying.
“Nobody knows what happened to the money,” says Kentington Drive resident Joe Lomick, who lives next door to the association president but can’t get an answer from him. “Mr. McMillian keeps telling me he’ll show me the books next Wednesday, next Wednesday. I guess next Wednesday ain’t got here yet.”
Other residents say the money’s been spent already, without authorization from a majority of the stakeholders. (McMillian did not return several phone calls.)
Jennings, who declined to be interviewed, stands to make a bundle of cash from the neighborhood’s business. Internal association documents obtained by The Independent show the neighborhood association planned to pay him a total of $26,000 for six months of consulting work, in addition to the 4 percent sales commission his contract with each willing property owner stipulates. In letters to residents, he presents himself as knowledgeable about zoning regulations and construction contracts. He lists among his credentials being hired by the city government and major local developers.
“I am your consultant. I will work with you to get the price that you need,” Jennings wrote to Kentington Heights property owners on March 7. “Let’s get ready to build wealth for your family!”
That kind of transaction requires a real estate license, says Real Estate Commission attorney Tom Miller, and Jennings doesn’t have one. That’s why he’s currently under investigation by the Real Estate Commission for his involvement in Kentington Heights.
“If I go to someone and say, ‘I want to help you get top dollar for your land if you pay me to help you,’–that’s what a real estate license is for,” says Miller, who received an anonymous complaint about Jennings on April 17. The complaint, signed by “a concerned real estate broker,” alleges that Jennings is taking advantage of Kentington Heights property owners and practicing real estate without a license.
Since Keith-Foust and Jennings began lobbying for commercial designation, the residents have divided into several camps, with about 25 people separating from the neighborhood association and its affiliation with Jennings and hiring Charlotte-area real estate agent Jim Jervis to represent them. Jennings’ supporters, however, say Jervis is trying to collect more business for himself and have accused him of sabotaging Jennings. Jervis declines comment on whether he authored the complaint.
In promotional materials for his company, J & J Contractors and Consulting, and on his resume, Jennings cites experience in development negotiations and construction projects, including working with the creators of NorthPointe shopping center in northern Durham. Bill Anderson, of NorthPointe Development, says Jennings helped his general contractor find and hire local minority contractors for work on the shopping center along Interstate 85.
“He was very helpful in finding subcontractors,” says Anderson, who is also considering a commercial project near Southpoint.
But some of Jennings’ claims prove questionable. He says in his literature that he was hired by the City of Durham for several construction projects, including renovations at the police station.
“Just look at some of the things we’ve accomplished . . . Durham City contracted J & J to help renovate existing buildings,” his brochure states.
But Jennings was just certified as a city vendor–a necessary process to qualify for publicly funded contracts–on May 10, 2002, according to Jamie Addison, acting director of Equal Opportunity and Equity Assurance. The city’s purchasing manager and the police department’s project planner have never heard of him.
“Our records indicate that J & J Contracting has not been contractually involved with the City of Durham,” says Purchasing Manager Joe Clark.
Of the two endorsements on his brochure, one is from Hall, who has collected legal fees from Kentington Heights. The other quote is from Keith-Foust, who lives across town but bought 15 Kentington Heights lots in January 1991. Keith-Foust paid a total of $15,213 for the lots at a foreclosure auction in January 1991, an average price of $1,014 per lot. In 1999, she sold seven of those lots along what is now Renaissance Parkway to Southpoint developers at $20,000 each, according to county land records.
Jennings’ company, which lists his home address and Keith-Foust’s phone and fax numbers on its letterhead, is not registered as a corporation with the N.C. Secretary of State’s office. Jennings himself also has a lengthy record in Durham County court files, ranging from several cases of writing worthless checks to complaints of his landlords of overdue rent, as well as recent civil suits involving disputes with a used car dealer over payment for a Jaguar and a county complaint about child support for his young daughter. Hall has often represented him.
Dan Gernandt has first-hand experience with Jennings as both a customer and a neighborhood consultant. The only white resident of Kentington Heights for 14 years, Gernandt runs an auto service shop at his home on Chapparal Drive. He says Jennings recently stiffed him on a $250 tab for car repairs.
“After getting $17,000 or $18,000 from here, he said he doesn’t have any money,” says Gernandt, who eventually let Jennings retrieve the car anyway.
Gernandt has not signed up with Jennings or Jervis, saying he wants to stay out of the fray.
“It’s pretty disgusting, really. They all decided to come in here and make as much profit as they can while we’ve been the ones suffering while this mall went in,” Gernandt says. “They’re just looking to get rich off the situation.”
Despite his plan to stay neutral in the battle for the neighborhood’s business, Gernandt recently wound up the subject of a screaming match between supporters of Jennings and supporters of Jervis on May 7. In the hallway outside a brainstorming session held by city/county planners to discuss the plans for land around Southpoint, Jennings’ supporters accused Jervis of reporting their neighbor for violating city ordinances for running a car shop in a residentially zoned area. Jervis says he didn’t do it. Gernandt, who had left the meeting before the fight broke out, is convinced he did.
“At this point, I don’t know who I can trust–who’s my friend and who’s my enemy–so I’ve decided to just sell and leave,” he says.
But dueling agents and conflicting agendas make commercial developers leery of the Kentington Heights land, say several who’ve looked at possible projects there.
Any commercial project would require at least 50 contiguous acres, they say, meaning many individual owners would have to negotiate in a united bloc. Developers estimate Kentington Heights land to be worth about $200,000 an acre on the commercial market today, but there’s no guarantee a commercial project would gain government approvals.
“The purchase and development of that property will take someone with the wherewithal to do a master development plan and get it approved,” says Jervis. “The market will set the price for the property.”
Even though the City Council voted 4-3 on Jan. 7 to designate the neighborhood as commercial land–a victory Jennings claims credit for–a proposed commercial project would still have many steps to go through, says Durham Planning Director Frank Duke. The commercial designation cuts two weeks off the controversial rezoning process, Duke estimates.
As of today, neither fat offers from commercial developers nor city sewer and water have appeared in Kentington Heights, leaving residents looking for a way out.
“I want to leave, I want to go to another place,” says Lomick, who has lived on Kentington Drive since 1977. “I’m just tired and it’s time for a change.”
Shirley Marshall says she wants to move away from her water problems and all the controversy, but she’s not optimistic about the prospects.
“It’s not going all that good right now,” she says.