State regulators have approved a private developer’s survey that significantly re-draws the boundaries of Jordan Lake, and the protected areas that surround the drinking-water supply reservoir. In a letter to the Durham City-County Planning Department (PDF, 580 KB) dated Feb. 4, 2009, the N.C. Division of Water Quality announced that it “accepts and approves your proposed revisions to the critical and protected area boundaries around Jordan Lake.”

Julie Ventaloro, the state watershed program coordinator at DWQ, told the Indy that changing the maps is now “in Durham’s hands.” The County must conduct a public hearing, and vote to adopt the state-approved survey, which was commissioned by a private developer who owned land within the affected area. Adopting the change would effectively move a 164-acre tract that was owned by the developer–and now slated for dense, mixed-use development–out of Jordan Lake’s critical watershed area, which severely limits development within one mile of major water supplies.

Neal Hunter, a minority partner in the company that currently owns the property, was the principle owner when he commissioned the survey and submitted it to the Durham Planning Department for approval. He also is listed as an owner of the property in a pending request to re-zone the property from low-density residential and rural-residential, to mixed-use development. (The proposed development, known as the “751 Assemblage,” calls for 1,300 residential units, and 600,000 square feet of mixed commercial and office space.

Following a November 2008 decision by the Board of County Commissioners, Durham requested state approval to re-draw the boundaries of Jordan Lake, based on Hunter’s survey. In 2006, former planning director Frank Duke accepted the changes without informing the board, or state regulators.

The DWQ letter, written by John Hennessy, a supervisor in the division’s compliance and oversight unit, says that “updated maps as well as natural processes” might have accounted for a “considerably different location” of Jordan Lake in Hunter’s surveys. Hennessy also notes that Durham’s standards are higher than the state’s regarding watershed boundaries. (The state requires a half-mile boundary for critical watersheds; Durham stipulates one mile.) Hunter’s survey would not affect the state’s requirements, Hennessy writes–the same argument Hunter’s brother, Jeff, made in a letter to DWQ.

Ventaloro said her department considered the fact that Hunter had a vested interest in his survey–which only covered the portion of Jordan Lake that affected his property–and that Duke, the former planning director, violated state code by accepting the survey without review. However, Veltaloro said DWQ chose not to preclude Durham from accepting the survey based on these facts alone.

“It was discussed, the fact that it was done by a private company, but it was submitted through Durham,” Ventaloro told the Indy. “We put a lot of responsibility on the counties, and we also put a lot of faith in their efforts. We have an oversight role here, so we really do rely on the expertise of the local governments to enforce the regulations, through their ordinances.”

Ventaloro said that, if Durham accepts Hunter’s survey, it will be the first time watershed maps have changed in North Carolina, based on a private developer’s partial surveying of a water supply. The division’s preference, she said, would be to have a survey of the entire lake. She pointed to Durham County’s 1998 survey of Ellerbee Creek, which only affected one portion of the Falls Lake reservoir. However, that survey was conducted by the county, not a private developer.

“It could conceivably open the door to multiple requests to revise the small parts of a watershed boundary,” she said. “It would just be better, and perhaps produce a better-quality product, if these boundary issues were looked at regionally, on a larger watershed basis, or even around one entire reservoir, rather than piece by piece.”

Hennessy’s letter similarly urges a more comprehensive effort to determine watershed boundaries, as “watershed boundaries may arise in other areas of Jordan Lake or other reservoirs.”

“We recommend that you continue to seek a regional systematic approach to making future revisions to your watershed boundaries,” he writes.

On Nov. 24, Durham commissioners voted 3-2 to reject an independent survey of all of Jordan Lake, favoring to wait for DWQ’s decision about Hunter’s survey. Last month, Chatham commissioners issued a resolution opposing the vote. Jordan Lake, which has been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired waters list since 2002–due to “excess nutrients”–is a drinking-water source for Chatham County, as well as Apex, Cary, Morrisville and portions of RTP.

A bill introduced last week in the state Legislature would remove all requirements adopted by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission for local governments to participate in a nutrient-cleaning and prevention strategy for Jordan Lake.