Donna Frederick has lived in her dark brick home in the Colonial Village subdivision for nearly 20 years.

Frederick retired last year after owning and operating the now-closed Playhouse Toy Store on Ninth Street after more than a dozen years. She enjoys puttering around in the wooden garden plots in her front yard before sitting down with a cup of tea on her home’s screened-in front porch.

She used to enjoy the shade afforded by the massive oak, magnolia, and pine trees that were on her neighbor’s property next door. But in February, developers who purchased the lot knocked down the house and garage before cutting down the hardwood trees.

Those trees were lost under an initiative Durham City Council members approved several years ago with the goal of increasing density to keep up with demand for more housing. In 2019, council members, by a 6-1 vote, amended the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) in hopes of undoing decades-old vestiges of discrimination that have prevented generations of African Americans from owning homes and amassing wealth.

The update, known as Expanding Housing Choices (EHC), amends zoning rules in neighborhoods near downtown to allow for higher density, which city and county planners believe is key to stabilizing housing prices as the city grows.

But now, some community members think the city’s EHC plan has had the unintended effect of fueling gentrification and displacement that’s taking place in neighborhoods that had “naturally occurring affordable homes,” also known as “NOAH.”

Nate Baker, an urban planner who serves on Durham’s planning commission, described the EHC as a “missed opportunity” during its formative stages that could have enabled the city to retain its affordable housing stock.

“The EHC does the opposite of that,” Baker told the INDY last week. “It spurs additional gentrification and displacement, to a certain extent.”

But city council member Jillian Johnson this week told the INDY she has not seen evidence of gentrification as a consequence of the EHC initiative. She pointed to a late 2020 letter presented to the city council that reported 50 related permit applications have been submitted to the City County Planning Department.

“I do not believe this volume is enough to have been a driver of gentrification,” Johnson said in an email. “Developers do not need EHC to build expensive single-family homes on less than two acres of land. They could do that before EHC and can do it now.”

Among the trees felled by the developer next to Frederick’s property was a giant oak that stood in her former neighbor’s front yard, along with a massive magnolia and several pine trees. Soon after the oak tree was knocked down, Frederick posed beside the fallen hardwood. Frederick stands at about 5 feet, 4 inches. The top of the trunk reached her chest.

“That’s how wide it was,” Frederick told the INDY. “It was a huge oak. You couldn’t get your arms around it.”

A building permit filed with the Durham Planning Department in January shows that the developer, Hayes Barton Homes, is using a small lot plan to build four two-story, single-family homes on the land, which covers less than two acres. The building permit application, which has been approved by the city, also shows plans for the replanting of two trees on each lot.

“These are not start-up homes for most people,” Frederick told the INDY. “The developer says the homes will sell for $350,000.”

For Frederick, living on a fixed income and facing the prospect of higher property taxes is one thing. But she points to a bundle of issues with the ongoing construction related to affordability, health, environmental impact, and the city ordinance that allows builders to construct homes on less than two acres of land without input from community members.

Now, with the absence of trees that shaded her home for decades, Frederick wonders what the impact will be when the weather warms up, especially during the summer months.

As the INDY previously reported, the absence of tree canopies in low-income communities leads to higher temperatures that fuel high utility costs and a higher incidence of health-related issues.

While standing in her yard last month, Frederick points to how the land slopes downward onto East Club Boulevard. She thinks that without the trees’ root systems to hold water from heavy rainfall, combined with the impervious surfaces that are a feature of home construction, stormwater runoff and sedimentation will flow into the nearby Ellerbe Creek.

Frederick also thinks that developers are taking advantage of what she describes as “a loophole” in the city ordinance that exempts them from having to hear neighbors’ concerns if they are building on plots of land that are less than two acres.

In an email to the INDY, Bo Dobrzenski, an assistant manager with the city-county planning department, says that state law exempts from the subdivision construction review process privately owned tracts of land “whose entire area is no greater than two acres [divided] into not more than three lots.”

Dobrzenski added that Durham’s UDO “mandates this exemption.”

“There is no site plan review or preliminary plat submittal required for a subdivision of less than six new lots,” Dobrzenski said.

The planning department official also noted that the exemptions have been in place statewide and locally “for many years.”

As for the wholesale tree removal that took place on the Colonial Village property, Dobrzenski says the city’s UDO also “does not require tree coverage for projects that are less than two acres.”

Allen Wells, the founder and owner of Hayes Barton Homes in Raleigh, last week told the INDY that he’s “trying to do the right thing and build affordable housing because there’s a great need, and I’ve done nothing but get grief.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” he adds.

Wells says his company did everything the city required in order for him to receive a building permit.

“I did all of the things that I’m required by law to do,” he says.

“It’s not illegal, but it is unethical,” Frederick says.

She thinks the builder will replace the hardwoods that stood for decades next door with landscaping trees—crepe myrtle, perhaps.

“The builder says they are going to replant trees and hedges, but hedges aren’t trees,” she says.

She pointed to the nearly half dozen young cherry trees in black plastic buckets that she intends to plant this spring, and lamented the loss of hardwoods that stood for decades next door.

“That was tree shade for my home,” she says. “It will take 20 years to get that back.”

“The city is encouraging multiple-density units. I get it,” Frederick says. “I get that $350,000 is the average price of a house in Durham. There’s one right up the street selling for $700,000. The problem is that the people who live here have to move out of the [town] where they work.”

Frederick wants the city council to intervene and require developers of small residential projects to seek input from neighborhood residents in the same manner as if they are working on a large development.

According to records filed on August 4 with the county register of deeds, Durham’s Weitz Real Estate purchased the home next to Frederick’s from former owner Ronald Dexter Cates, who could not be immediately reached for comment.

Frederick says she contacted the new owner of the home, and Tyler Weitz visited with her the next day.

Frederick says Weitz walked the lot with her and seemed to understand her concern about preserving the tree canopy in the neighborhood. Frederick says Weitz told her the plan was to build two homes on the lot and preserve the magnolia, oak, and pine trees on the property.

Last week, Weitz told the INDY that Frederick contacted him after the house was removed, and says he thinks Frederick’s “critiques were quite fair,” and he apologized to her “for the lack of notice about my plans.”

But on November 12 of last year, Tyler Weitz sold the property to Hayes Barton Homes for $316,000, according to records filed with Durham County’s register of deeds office.

Frederick says the new developer, who specializes in custom-built homes, “decided to build four houses with no trees.”

“Those of us who live in the community wondered, ‘How can he knock down trees, and without us having a say-so?’” Frederick told the INDY.

Frederick says she understands that Durham leaders have determined to increase the Bull City’s housing stock “by any means necessary.”

“You can’t stop gentrification,” she says. “But the city is saying one thing and doing nothing. It’s unfortunate. It’s not a builders’ problem. It’s a North Carolina General Assembly problem. There’s no incentive for builders to build $100,000 homes.”  

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