On Monday night, the Durham City Council approved a land use change for nearly 55.9 acres—just east of South Miami Boulevard and south of Stirrup Creek Drive, dubbed Patriot Business Park—from the compact neighborhood tier to the suburban tier.

The change was for just a portion of a 101.57-acre site. Laura Woods, with the City-County Planning Department, told the council the change would be consistent with other portions of the site and is a prime site for industrial uses—which is what the developer wants to use it for.

While the council voted unanimously to change the land designation in the comprehensive plan, council members expressed concern about how changes to the compact neighborhood tiers are made.

Council member Steve Schewel wanted to know the status of a proposed commuter rail station that was once planned for that area. While there are no current Durham-only commuter-rail plans, there is talk about having commuter rail connect Raleigh and Durham. There was also a possibility of a light-rail station there once (if) an extension is built. But Schewel wanted to know what the department thought about the change, even though plans for commuter rail are far in the future.

Compact neighborhood tiers have been established for the areas around transit sites to help them “evolve into communities with development that is higher density, mixed use, and walkable,” according to the city’s website. Most of the discussion around compact neighborhoods has come about because of light rail—but before light rail, there was, of course, commuter rail.

“It’s no longer certain that a station anywhere close to that location will happen,” Woods explained. “The second consideration is the 2013 industrial land study [showing] the amount of prime industrial land … is in fact quite limited, and this site meets the criteria.”

This wasn’t the first time concerns about changing the designation have come up. On August 10, the City-County Planning Commission voted 11-1 to recommend the change, though some of the commissioners, pointed out the potential problems.

Tom Miller was the only Planning Commission member to vote against recommending the plan to the city council. His comments are extensive, but here’s an excerpt:

I oppose this change to the tier boundaries not so much on its merits, but because it requires us to make a dramatic change to the subject compact neighborhood tier without evaluating the impact to the tier itself. As I have said in the past, when big changes are proposed for compact neighborhood tier property, the correct analysis must include an evaluation of what our planning goals are for the tier and what impact the proposed change will have on those goals. I opposed the Farrington Road rezoning because the proposed project was so big it would impair the ongoing planning initiative to convert the tier to a design district. I did not oppose a zone change for the Straw Valley property in the Patterson Place tier, because the proposed change was so minor that it would have no impact on the planning initiative for that tier. In this case there is no ongoing initiative to convert the Miami Boulevard compact neighborhood tier to a design district, but the proposed boundary change is so great that it raises the question whether there should be a compact neighborhood tier in this place at all.

“A great deal has changed in terms of funding” since 2005, when the compact neighborhood was approved, Woods said. “The state legislature has changed; it’s simply no longer certain in any fashion that a [rail] station would be located where we thought it would.”

Council member Charlie Reece pointed out that, if approved, the compact neighborhood tier would get smaller—which bothered him. “This sort of piecemeal approach to considering these kinds of requests within compact neighborhoods may not be entirely consistent with a more comprehensive approach to understanding what we’re trying to do in these areas,” he said. “It seems to me that, if we decided at some point there was not going to be a rail station built, I would have liked to see us say this isn’t going to work, let’s figure out a better use for this area.”

He (and everyone else) voted for it anyway.