One of the few things more massive than the Greystone Apartments project is the headache that ensues after listening to the Historic Preservation Commission discuss it. That’s not to say the commission hasn’t raised essential points about what would be a game-changer for Morehead Hill. I’m just pointing out that a 20-minute discussion on the definition of “vegetation”well, couldn’t the city legal department head this off?

To catch you up on the saga, Lomax Properties proposed a 160-unit apartment complex to be built adjacent to the Greystone Inn in the historic Morehead Hill Neighborhood. Since last summer, when Lomax Properties floated the plan, the Greensboro-based developer has heard a persistent refrain from displeased residents of the Morehead Hill Neighborhood Association, Durham planning staff and the HPC: Too big. Too tall. Too ugly. Go away.

After a year of being told to talk to the hand, Lomax ditched its old architect and hired a new one, Lucien Roughton of Durham. On Tuesday morning, the developer unveiled new design plans in hopes of assuaging critcs and finally clearing the HPC.

On the first two counts, Lomax succeeded. The final hurdle proved more fomidable.

The plan calls for four smaller buildingsrather than three large oneson three acres bounded by Duke Street, Morehead Avenue and the Durham Freeway. Buildings would hide the parking lot from the street. A pool would be tucked in the northeast corner near the freeway so that the revelry wouldn’t disturb neighbors.

More large trees would be saved. Smaller varieties would be cut down, particularly near the freeway ramp, with many of them replanted on the parcel.

“This is a much-improved version of the project,” said Bruce Mitchell, president of the neighborhood association. “If this project were to be approved, I could live with it.”

Then came the hand.

Nearly every commission member acknowledged the redux was a vast improvement over the original’s suburban blight, but “it’s still the tallest, largest, longest building in the district in mass and bulk,” said HPC member David Neill.

“I don’t know how to make a large-scale apartment complex compatible with this district,” added HPC’s Jennifer Martin.

Another hang-up centered on trees. The guidelines state that “existing vegetation” must be maintained.

Yet “vegetation” could mean that no projects could disturb any greenerygrass, shrubs, weedsNeill said. “A strict interpretation of the statute could give us an absurd result.”

This launched a 20-minute verbal volley about which trees should be saved, where and how many. “It seems absurd that the vegetation next to the ramp contributes to character of neighborhood,” said HPC’s Micah Kordsmeier. “I’m concerned about mass and scale.”

While neighbors prefer to keep a lovely green meadow, considering the development pressures near downtown, other projects could be a lot worse.

“Because of the zoning, a lot of other unsavory things could have gone on this property that were smaller,” said Liz McGuffie, who lives across Vickers Avenue from Greystone. “I would prefer to see that meadow, but it’s not realistic. I’d ask you to look at the value of this project and give it some serious consideration.”

The HPC granted Lomax a one-month continuance. The developers could amend the project to build more buildings, but smaller ones. “Find the tallest building in the district and come in a foot under,” Neill said. “Find the largest building and be smaller.”