The Durham council chamber, nearly packed to capacity, was awash with yellow “No” and lime-green “Yes” signs on Monday night in anticipation of the city council’s precedent-setting decision regarding a set of citizen-led zoning regulations in Old West Durham. In the end, the culmination of years of contentious debate among the neighborhood’s residents, the council unanimously approved the regulations for a neighborhood on the cusp of rapid change.

The new set of rules, known as a neighborhood protection overlay, or NPO, aims to reduce teardowns and limit the size of new construction in the area. The NPO was created to ensure that new development in OWD would match the character and integrity of existing properties in the neighborhood. Some residents complained that recently constructed houses took up nearly all of the space in their lots, towered over surrounding properties, and left little room for canopy trees and other greenery. Some urban planners warned that new regulations could exacerbate affordable housing issues. Yet supporters countered that housing prices across the neighborhood will likely rise regardless of the overlay and that, in the short term, the NPO may preserve smaller, affordable units.

Prior to the decision, dozens of concerned neighbors on both sides offered their perspective to the council. Jeff Monsein, a developer who owns fifty-three properties across OWD, argued that his new developments have contributed to the neighborhood’s turnaround from a place that was once rundown and dilapidated to one that is flourishing and in high demand.

Those who opposed the NPO expressed concern that they were discouraged from offering their opinion at neighborhood meetings.

Council member Charlie Reece said that, while the overlay is not perfect in every regard, “From an outsider’s perspective, the neighborhood has done a remarkable job” of organizing and developing a proposal and reforming their proposal based on the opposition’s concerns.

Prior to the vote, the council acknowledged concerns about the contentious nature of the process of developing the NPO. However, council members also said that it was their role to ultimately vote on the regulations themselves rather than on how they were drafted.

The zoning regulations only affect single and two-family housing. Zoning for triplexes and other units designed to increase density that could eventually be approved by the city council would not be affected by the new proposal.

A poll funded by a group of residents who opposed the NPO, with the assistance of the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology, was frequently referenced by homeowners on both sides. The poll, which was released in the days leading up to the decision, indicated that, of those who responded, roughly 57 percent of homeowners supported the proposal, while around 40 percent opposed it. Renters tended to support the NPO at much higher margins. But only 43 percent of the surveys that were sent out to homeowners were returned, and a comprehensive tally could not be obtained.

Old West Durham will join Tuscaloosa-Lakewood, the only other neighborhood in Durham that has implemented an NPO. In cities like Raleigh and Chapel Hill, citizen-led zoning initiatives are far more common. Raleigh has nineteen overlays, for example.

The approval has set a new precedent for how the city council weighs the balance between reigning in development while maintaining property rights.

But council member Mark-Anthony Middleton warned that some of the issues that the NPO touches on aren’t going away anytime soon and cannot be fully controlled by a set of zoning regulations.

“To those that are looking at home tonight or who may be listening in the chamber, take note and get ready,” Middleton explained. “Because there’s going to be some communities that are going to be dealing with this who may not have this robust an effort mounted against ongoing gentrification and ongoing pricing out of communities in our city. And I weep for them. I’m concerned about them.”