This post was updated Wed., April 14 with a few more details and quotes.
(To read about billboards, click on the jump.)

The Durham Planning Commission voted 11 to 1 Tuesday night against plans that would allow Southern Durham Development to build a large mixed-use development with as many as 1,300 residences off N.C. 751 in southern Durham. The Rev. Melvin Whitley cast the only vote supporting the developer’s controversial plans to build 751 South, the massive retail and housing community near Jordan Lake.

“I cannot vote against job creation,” Whitley said shortly before he cast his vote. “I will not cast a vote against economic development when my community is suffering.”

But as an advisory board to city and county elected leaders, the Commission’s vote is strictly informative and symbolic. It doesn’t halt or approve the developer’s application to rezone the land. The real decision on whether to rezone 167 acres owned by Southern Durham Development will come in about two months when the Board of County Commissioners considers the case. (No date was set as of press time.)

The Planning Commission discussed the vote for three hours, hearing from three proponents of the development and 11 opponents. Among their concerns, opponents cited the fact that the site to be developed overlaps with a natural area that experts with the N.C. Natural Heritage Program say hosts several important plant and animal species. Supporters of the project say 751 South is a pedestrian-friendly community that will bring jobs, property tax revenue to the city and county and $6 million in road improvements.

Prior to the Planning Commission’s consideration of the matter on Tuesday night, Durham’s planning staff looked at Southern Durham Development’s request to have the land rezoned. Although the developer’s initial plans meet most regulations and ordinances, the staff found that the land to be developed does not leave enough of a buffer between untouched land that hosts important flora and fauna. During heavy rains and managed flooding, the area is covered with water and wildlife needs a sufficient area to move to higher, dry land.

Thus, the planning staff recommended that the rezoning not be approved by county commissioners. Read the staff report

(If the part about the natural heritage area sounds familiar, it’s because the Indy recently wrote about another development off N.C. 751 that is close to the same area that has been studied by the state and is also part of the Durham County Inventory of Important Natural Areas, Plants and Wildlife.)

The controversy surrounding the proposal for 751 South dates back more than four years. At the time, much of the 167 acres was considered to be protected as part of the Jordan Lake watershed and not much could be built there. But one of the landowners, Neal Hunter, hired a consultant to survey Jordan Lake. The consultant surveyed the lake’s boundaries and watershed, and found that most of Hunter’s land was actually not in the lake’s critical watershed, and thus could be developed with fewer restrictions. (Read more.)

In 2006, former Durham planning director Frank Duke heeded the survey’s findings and updated Durham’s land maps to reflect the new boundaries of Jordan Lake’s watershed. Controversy and three lawsuits resulted from Duke’s actions, but many matters were settled late last year when a judge ruled that Duke’s actions had been lawful. (Read other blog posts on 751 Assemblage)

Derailed by the controversy of where the Jordan Lake watershed existed and the subsequent lawsuits, Southern Durham Development’s rezoning application has been in the pipeline for 27 months since first being submitted.

In other news, the Planning Commission also unanimously recommended denial of a proposal by a billboard company to adjust the city and county’s current sign ordinance to allow digital billboards. (See previous posts). The highly controversial application by Fairway Advertising was strongly opposed by a legion of residents who have appealed to the Planning Commission and elected city and county leaders to continue to ban digital billboards and prohibit new billboards from popping up in Durham. Again, the Planning Commission’s vote is strictly offered as advice to the city and county governments, who will vote on the matter at a later date.

In an effort to compromise with Fairway and its proponents (notably Thelma White, who appeared to be the only resident speaking in favor of digital billboards), Planning Commissioner Fredrick Davis II asked Fairway to consider including certain amendments in its application, such as limits on the size and brightness of light of the billboards. The commissioners took a vote on this motion, but it was defeated. Four members voted in favor of approving Fairway’s application with the amendments Davis suggested (Whitley, Jarrod Edens, Tanya Mitchell-Allen and Davis), and eight voted against the motion.