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We’ve seen these kinds of debates throughout the Triangle in recent years, and they’re always fascinating to watch. They go something like this: people move into a somewhat affordable urban neighborhood, full of bungalows and midsize houses. But as the years go by, some of those houses are bought out by developers, demolished, and then rebuilt into something much bigger, maybe even duplexes or triplexes. The neighbors who have been there for a while complain that the developers and newcomers are destroying the character of their neighborhoods. The developers and newcomers say they’re just taking advantage of their private property rights. Which brings us to the current neighborhood protection overlay debate raging in Durham.

  • Some background: The neighborhood in question in Old West Durham, where a decade ago houses were selling for less than $100,000. Now, prices are up in the mid-250s. A group of neighbors petitioned the city for an NPO that would require a backyard tree and regulate house sizes. They want “to ensure that new residential development is compatible with the established urban form, modest scale, and mill village character of the neighborhood. Preservation of green space and tree canopy are primary motivations for the formulation of a number of these standards.”
  • Other neighbors oppose the NPO, considering it overreach. As property owner John Temple told the Herald-Sun: ”This argument that it’s developers against the neighborhood does not hold water to me. I love my neighbors, I just disagree with them right now. [The NPO] takes away private property rights.”
  • On Tuesday night, the city’s planning commission—with a few absences and abstentions—voted 5–4 against the NPO. Per the DHS: “Commissioner George Brine said the contentious process may have relied a little too much on the Old West Durham listserv, leaving out people who don’t spend much time online. He disagrees with some NPO stipulations like height without considering relation to setbacks, and the backyard tree mandate.”
  • But the planning commission isn’t the final say. The issue will come before the city council in May.

WHAT IT MEANS: I’m certainly sympathetic to neighbors who moved in and saw their neighborhood change, but to me, the issue isn’t simply what kind of neighborhood Old West Durham should be, but rather what the broader character of the city will be. By limiting housing options such as duplexes and triplexes and reducing the amount of infill in urban neighborhoods, the NPO could drive up housing prices. As the DHS explains: “In February, Mayor Steve Schewel emailed Old West Durham leader John Schelp to express concern the NPO would hurt affordability in the long run by making duplexes, triplexes


quads impossible to build.” On the other hand, knocking down smaller houses and building gargantuan replacements isn’t exactly a formula for affordability, either.