Staff writer Matt Saldaña discusses this issue with Frank Stasio on WUNC’s The State of Things

Chatham County elected leaders have condemned Durham County’s recent decision to endorse a private developer’s survey that would re-define Jordan Lake’s protected areas. Neal Hunter, a developer who lives in Chatham County, commissioned the survey, which moved a proposed mega-project known as the “751 Assemblage” almost entirely out of the environmentally protected critical watershed, where it currently stands.

Hunter’s self-interest goes further: He is now a minority-partner in the development company seeking to build the 751 Assemblage1,300 dwellings and 600,000 square feet of office space on land he owned near Jordan Lake’s shore.

In a Dec. 15 resolution (PDF, 934 KB) sent to the N.C. Division of Water Quality, the Chatham Board of Commissioners requested that, barring an independent survey, Jordan Lake’s boundaries remain unchanged, in order to protect “the public health and welfare of those who utilize Jordan Lake and drink its waters, and in the principles of environmental stewardship.” The Durham County Commissioners rejected an independent survey last month, electing instead to submit Hunter’s survey to DWQ.

“The Chatham Board of Commissioners is alarmed that a survey paid for by a private developer shifting the normal pool boundary of the lake is being requested. We are asking that you reject this survey,” Chairman George Lucier wrote to DWQ. “Any adjustment to the normal pool boundary and the critical watershed area boundary should only be made if the results of an impartial and thorough survey determines if such a shift is justified.”

Lucier sent the letter to Julie Ventaloro, the state’s watershed protection coordinator, the same day Chatham commissioners voted 5-0 to adopt its resolution. He said that the county recently became aware of Hunter’s survey from concerned citizens in Durham and Chatham counties, several of whom cited a Dec. 3 Indy story on the re-drawn Jordan Lake boundaries.

One clause in the commissioners’ resolution highlighted Hunter’s conflict of interest: “Whereas [Hunter’s] survey was designed with the purpose of allowing additional density in the Upper New Hope section of the lake.”

The section where Hunter has proposed the 751 Assemblage project is one of the most polluted portions of the lake, further burdening it. Jordan Lake has been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Impaired Waters list since 2002 due to “excess nutrients,” such as nitrogen, which make it difficult for aquatic life to thrive. High amounts of nutrients also can require water to be treated with additional chemicals before it can be used for drinking.

“Whatever runoff comes in from that development is going to come down to Chatham County. We’ve seen what happened with Amberly when they did dense development by the lake,” Lucier said in an interview, referring to a controversial residential development in Cary. “If you had seen the aerial photographs of that, you could see that there’s a tremendous amount of sedimentation and erosion. We would like to prevent that sort of thing from happening in the future.”

Lucier declined comment on Durham County’s 3-2 vote Nov. 24 to reject an independent survey of Jordan Lake, electing instead to wait for DWQ’s official ruling on Hunter’s survey.

“The only thing that I know is that it was a mixed vote, and there were arguments against [Hunter’s survey]. Chatham County basically supports the arguments against it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lucier said that protecting Jordan Lake, a drinking water source for Chatham, as well as Cary, Morrisville, Apex and portions of Research Triangle Park, was “not a point of disagreement.” This month, Chatham commissioners passed amendments that strengthened its watershed, subdivision, and soil erosion and sedimentation control ordinances. They also created a new storm water ordinance, enacting stricter environmental protections of its rivers, lakes and streams.

By contrast, Hunter’s survey sought to reduce Jordan Lake’s critical watershed area, which limits development, by effectively re-drawing the shape of Jordan Lake. “What is going on, in [Durham’s] request, is flying in face to our own ordinances,” he said. “We’re willing to walk the talk, in terms of our own ordinances.”