Durham City Council members voted unanimously Monday night to rezone property on Farrington Road for a light rail operations and maintenance facility.
The vote came after about four hours of public comment and council discussion on the matter.
About seventy people signed up to speak, the majority opponents with concerns about noise, traffic and chemicals at the site, and a lack of communication from GoTriangle, the public transit agency over the light rail project.
Proponents, who included a former mayor, former city council member, the Durham Housing Authority CEO and representatives from such influential groups as Durham CAN, the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit and the People’s Alliance, emphasized the vote as important to the light rail project’s overall viability and said concerns about the ROMF had been over-blown.
Ultimately, Council members said while the concerns expressed were worthy of consideration, they did not believe the facility would be as disruptive as neighbors feared and that the drawbacks of the site were not enough to outweigh the greater benefits of light rail to Durham and the region.
GoTriangle intends to apply for federal funding for light rail in April. The project is also hemmed in by deadlines from the state. Legislators inserted into the state budget that GoTriangle must have all local funding committed by April 30, 2019, and all federal funding committed by November 30, 2019. If those deadlines aren’t met the project would be removed from current and future consideration for state funding, which the budget capped at $190 million for Durham-Orange Light Rail.
The Farrington Road site was chosen from five properties along the 17.7-mile light-rail route, which stretches from the University of North Carolina to North Carolina Central University. According to GoTriangle, the site presented the best size and alignment with the line, and the most limited impacts to the environment, historic sites and existing infrastructure. GoTriangle asked to rezone the property from residential to light industrial, and make a corresponding change to the future land use map, which designated the area for officer and commercial uses.
Proponents talked about the benefits of light rail connecting residents, including low-income residents, to jobs; the potential for affordable housing along the light rail line; and the reduction of vehicle traffic if people take light rail instead of driving. Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott said light rail is integral to the agency’s future redevelopment plans, as seven in ten DHA sites are within a mile of a light rail stop and more units are planned.
Opponents – many of whom said they don’t oppose light rail in general – spoke mainly about noise, particularly the residents of Culp Arbor, an age-restricted community across the street from the site. Parents of students at Creekside elementary worried noise would hinder their children’s ability to learn, or that the facility would exacerbate traffic and prohibit them from being able to access the school in an emergency. By the time the meeting kicked off, an online petition against the rezoning had more than eleven hundred signatures.
But GoTriangle representatives said sound exposure levels from the ROMF detailed in a noise and vibration study aren’t a good representation of how neighboring residents would actually experience the noise because they represent an accumulation of noise over time. Dave Charters, GoTriangle’s design and engineering manager, said with planned noise mitigation efforts, noise levels would be comparable to a bus or lawn mower, rather than a jack hammer as the report suggests. (GoTriangle did recently adjust the study to show that twelve houses would experience more noise impacts than previously described).
Mayor Steve Schewel said he is satisfied the Farrington Road site is appropriate; he visited the ROMF serving Charlotte’s light rail light and couldn’t hear trains while in the building. “It’s not going to be a factory,” he said.
Light rail will be “transformative” for the region, he said, and “the biggest step we can take in order to have an effect on climate change locally.”
Council member Charlie Reece said he believed neighbors’ concerns were “baked into the design” of the ROMF from the beginning and that it would be illogical for GoTriangle to propose a facility that would produce the level of sound opponents fear. Council member Vernetta Alston said neighbors’ concerns did not persuade her that Farrington Road is an inappropriate location for the ROMF. Council member Jillian Johnson said noise is part of living in a growing city, and that light rail will help Durham manage that growth in a sustainable way.
“I really don’t think it’s going to be that bad, y’all,” she said.
Similarly, council member Javiera Caballero said while concerns about the safety and education of students at Creekside Elementary were not lost on her, getting cars off the road presents benefits for more children.
Council member DeDreana Freeman commended opponents – many from the fifty-five and over Culp Arbor neighborhood – for organizing, but said there would not be such robust conversation about the ROMF site if not for their “white privilege.” Residents of the area are being asked to carry a burden for the sake of light rail, but ultimately she said her main concern is ensure the project doesn’t do more harm than good.
Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said he expected to hear about “this brooding hell-scape” of a building. Before casting his affirmative vote, he said the ROMF is not that, nor an impact-free “shining” facility, and that he felt more comfortable voting for it after hearing comments on Monday.
“This is a principled vote,” he said. “I think it’s right for the city.”
“greater benefits” This is going to be a boondoggle without precedent for Durham
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