Steve Bocckino, an outspoken opponent of 751 South, talks with members of the Durham Peoples Alliance at a protest the group held against the development on Thursday, June 17, 2010.
  • D.L. Anderson
  • Steve Bocckino, an outspoken opponent of 751 South, talks with members of the Durham People’s Alliance at a protest the group held against the development on Thursday, June 17, 2010.

At tonight’s public hearing county commissioners will decide whether one of the last stretches of rural land in southern Durham should be open to dense development. The vote, expected to happen after extensive public comment, is one of the most anticipated decisions in the last 25 years of Durham politics.

The 751 project would be enormous: 167 acres, 1,300 houses, townhomes, apartments and condos, plus as much as 600,000 square feet of office and retail space would be built in the environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake watershed. Much has been invested and much is at stake: Executives with Southern Durham Development, the company behind the project, have contributed thousands of dollars in campaign funds to several commissioners. Developers’ connections to county insiders, including former county planning director Frank Duke, has fostered public suspicion about the motivations of elected leaders and cost the county thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Yet, 751 opponents—who often have clashed with the few people in favor of the project, have demonstrated what can be achieved when citizens rally around a common cause.

Outspoken opponents of 751 South hoped last week that commissioners would deny the rezoning, ending the nearly three-year battle with Southern Durham Development. But due to last-minute legal maneuvers, developers could secure enough yes votes from the commissioners, continuing a circuitous and dramatic process.

If Durham county commissioners approve the rezoning and 751 South is built, it will be yet another win for influential developers who have toppled even the most staunch and organized public opposition. It will be another loss for residents who have unsuccessfully attempted to stave off other contentious developments that have transformed parts of Durham County: Treyburn and the Streets at Southpoint mall.

Regardless of the vote, though, 751 South will also permanently mark several commissioners’ legacies: Lewis Cheek, who, after leaving the board and receiving campaign funds from Southern Durham Development, joined K&L Gates, the law firm representing the developer; Michael Page, Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton, three members of the board who have been sympathetic, and even accommodating, to the developer’s legal maneuvers, and dissenters Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron, who have opposed the idea of the development in its proximity to Jordan Lake, which is already woefully polluted.

Although residents near the proposed 751 South have filed a formal petition requiring four commissioners to approve the project, the petition’s validity remained uncertain hours before the meeting. Lawyers and planning experts for the county are expected to present findings to commissioners at the meeting on the petition’s validity. If not, only three commissioners must approve the rezoning to allow the developer to move forward with 751 South. And if developers get those three votes, they will next have to persuade Durham City Council to annex the property into the city limits, the benefits of which would include water and sewer services to the development. If commissioners deny the rezoning, Southern Durham Development could still pursue annexation, and then appeal to the city to rezone the land.

The public hearing is expected to last several hours. Based on their past stances, Bowser, Page and Howerton are expected to approve the development, while Heron and Reckhow are expected to vote against it.

“There’s just been so much controversy on this one,” said Heron, the senior member of the board, a self-proclaimed environmentalist who said she will vote against the project. “Everyone’s known from the beginning where I was coming from.”

Power Struggles
For years, developers have been laying the groundwork for 751 South. F. Neal Hunter, a minority shareholder in Southern Durham Development and co-founder of the Cree semiconductor company, acquired hundreds of acres of land in the southwest corner of the county, near the Chatham County line. He developed approximately 300 acres into the Colvard Farms subdivision, where half-million dollar homes sit amid wooded trails just east of Jordan Lake. Hunter owns another 86 acres of largely undeveloped land east of Colvard Farms and just south of the 751 South site, which he told The Triangle Business Journal in 2008 he does not plan to develop.

It was when Hunter sold another 167 acres of land just north of Colvard Farms that residents of nearby communities started hearing about plans for 751 South. In 2008, Southern Durham Development applied to Durham County to rezone that land. And from that point, a stalwart corps of Durham residents has tried to stop the development at nearly every step.

These citizens—residents, political action committees and environmental policymakers—are concerned about dense development in the watershed of Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to Cary, Apex, Morrisville and parts of Chatham County and Research Triangle Park. They worry about quality of life in south Durham, where builders have furiously erected shopping centers and new neighborhoods in just the past 10 years. Opponents say they’re concerned about traffic, school overcrowding and the fact that an influx of new neighbors here would also carve up the last bastion of rural south Durham.

“Right now, it’s turning into Walnut Street in Cary,” said Steve Bocckino, who has lived in the Fern Valley subdivision in south Durham for almost 20 years. “It’s an overly developed playground for other people, but for the people who live here, it’s not so good. … I don’t want to live in a mall city.”

Bocckino led the unsuccessful charge against the Streets of Southpoint mall. He and more than 300 residents have signed an online petition against the 751 development. Environmental, political and community groups including the Haw River Assembly, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham, have also joined the long list of challengers. Even the board of commissioners in Chatham County, where most of Jordan Lake is located, has urged Durham’s leaders to deny the development.

These groups have gone to great lengths to halt the developer’s progress through any avenue available. When a survey commissioned by Hunter showed that hundreds of acres of his land lie outside the lake’s immediate watershed, the Haw River Assembly raised thousands of dollars in donations to commission its own survey showing different—and more protective—boundaries.

Residents near the proposed development have implored county commissioners to vote against development approvals. They’ve filed formal petitions twice in the past year to require the developer to gain the approval of four of five of the commissioners to move forward with their plans. (Ordinarily, the developer would just need the support of three commissioners, a simple majority.) And when the county erroneously disregarded one of those petitions, those same residents collected thousands of dollars to sue the county. That lawsuit is still pending.

The resulting delays have stretched what normally is a yearlong process to rezone land to more than two years. The delays have proven frustrating and costly to the development company, its members have told elected officials. Southern Durham Development President Alex Mitchell declined to be interviewed for this story, but the project’s supporters, who appear to be vastly outnumbered by those outspoken against it, have also tried to influence public process through testimonials and letters published to Durham’s daily newspaper, the Herald-Sun.

Through public hearings, letters and its website, the developers have tried to appease the public’s concerns about traffic and water pollution. They promise a walkable community that will reduce residents’ dependence on cars. Developers also contend the project would generate $8 million in new taxes for the city and county and create more than 2,900 jobs. The project would also bring $6.5 million in road improvements and land donations for one or two new schools, a fire station and a satellite office for the sheriff’s department, representatives for the developer said.

Opponents of the project and several public officials have dissected these promises. It will take more than $6.5 million to counter the 24,000 additional cars expected to travel N.C. 751 daily if the complex is built. And of those 2,900 jobs, none can be guaranteed to Durham residents. Perhaps the most significant concern, even cited by the county’s planners, is that the project will not reduce residents’ and workers’ reliance on cars. The area targeted for this development is not on a public transportation route—a major barrier for people without cars.

But the promise of jobs in a recession was enough to garner the support of activists with the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham (of which several 751 South planners are members), as well as one outspoken leader from East Durham.

“The idea of creating 2,900 jobs is something that we just can’t walk away from, especially when you look at my community,” said Melvin Whitley, a minister who serves on the Durham Planning Commission. He was the sole member of the commission that recommended county commissioners rezone the land.

African-Americans in lower-income neighborhoods are feeling the effects of the recession more intensely, he said, from unemployment to cuts in social services. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the state’s unemployment rate at 10 percent, while Durham County’s rate is 7.5 percent.

“Part of a city’s ability to spend money for solving social ills comes from … their ability to bring in revenue,” he said. He said he voted with his conscience, for jobs and increased revenue from sales and property taxes. Whitley said he has received support in East Durham while encountering criticism when visiting neighborhoods west of downtown.

“It tickles me, the response I get depending on which side of town I’m on,” he said.

Lessons learned
Over the past two years, a number of twists in the developer’s pursuit of rezoning have led to many costly lessons for the county and its planning department. The county has spent upward of $70,000 in outside legal fees to defend itself after being sued twice in this case—once by Southern Durham Development, and once by residents near the project who filed the petition.

The lawsuits and other procedural issues in the planning process have prompted several elected officials and Durham County Planning Director Steve Medlin to reevaluate several policies. Among them, Medlin is evaluating the power of the planning director and to the method of evaluating the exact location of a body of water—one of the most debated issues of the 751 South development process. The county also recently asked the state legislature to change the law regarding formal protest petitions to help residents and planning staff to determine their validity. Residents who filed two petitions in this case had been hampered by the previous rules, which were broadly written and left too much to interpretation.

Some opponents to 751 South and petitioners, including Bocckino, have criticized the planning department for its mistakes, and even have levied accusations the department has unfairly favored the developer. Medlin denies any purposeful wrongdoing in his department.

“There’s been no ethical breaches,” Medlin said last week. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t made mistakes. I think people confuse mistakes with unethical behavior.”

Durham citizens, even those who live miles from the 751 South site, are guaranteed to head downtown tonight by the carload. If the commission meeting mirrors past such discussions, most of the speakers will be opposed to the plan and its potential detriments. But as this excruciating process has shown, those who are most vocal are not always the most powerful. Even the most stubborn opponents have predicted that commissioners will favor Southern Durham Development. Others hope that at commissioners’ meetings, where much of this controversy has played out—often unpredictably—over the past two years, anything can happen.