Members of the community have shown up to City Hall in downtown Durham for months to sound the alarm on environmental issues caused by a surge in large housing developments.

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, the Planning Department took steps toward mitigating those concerns with proposed updates to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), Durham’s rules for development. Robin Schultze, a senior planner and arborist who presented the staff proposal, said there were several factors considered when crafting the amendments.

“There have been repeated concerns from residents, board members, and staff, including issues with erosion control, emphasis on tree replacement rather than preservation, and large residential developments with little-to-no topographical character and/or poor soil health,” Schultze said during the presentation.

To address these issues, the amendments emphasized two measures: phased development and tree preservation.

When preparing a site for development, contractors will often cut down trees and move dirt around all at once and as quickly as possible. That amount of disruption to the land at one time can impact the ecology of a site, causing erosion and stormwater run-off.

The phased development amendment stipulates that no phase of a project can exceed more than 50 acres. In addition, larger phases of development are subject to a higher percentage of tree preservation on the site. Both tools are ways the city believes it can reduce the environmental impact of development and save more “mature” trees instead of replacing them with young saplings.

Residents and developers each had concerns.

Keenan Conder, a lawyer for Morningstar Law Group, said the restrictions will ultimately make housing more expensive.

He said utilizing economies of scale is a way to build more homes and that larger projects can generally diffuse building costs among many homes.

“Unfortunately, these text amendments will make that more difficult by forcing projects to be broken down into smaller phases thus reducing the opportunity for economies of scale, thus increasing cost of housing,” Conder said.

Robin Barefoot, a lawyer and community member who was part of a lawsuit against the County over a development in North Durham, says the city could go further in protecting the environment and that developers are only concerned with their bottom line.

“The mass grading and the rate of development—and I don’t mean how many developments, I mean the voraciousness with which these developers are approaching these developments—taking all the trees down, taking all the soil apart in order to build, really has everything to do with their profit margin and nothing, nothing, nothing to do with affordable housing and certainly not about preserving our tree canopy,” Barefoot said.

Mayor pro tem Mark-Anthony Middleton laid out the complicated middle ground the city is trying to find when it comes to housing.

“We’re between two polar points: folk who want absolutely no trees cut down which is unrealistic, and developers who just want to do whatever they want which is unacceptable,” Middleton said.

Council member Javiera Caballero sees the new provisions as an opportunity for more creative projects, if residents are willing to accept them.

“Sometimes when you make the building envelope smaller, then the only way you’re going to achieve the units is with the terrible word of density,” she said. “If you’re really pushing on tree preservation, then that means your opportunity of where to put what is going to be limited, which is then going to make you potentially think about how you’re going to configure your building envelope, which could result in some interesting, innovative projects.”

Caballero likened it to a give and take.

“If folks are gonna ask for these more strident environmental protections, which I support, then we also have to be mindful and open and expansive of what the design is actually gonna look like and it might not be a neo-Colonial house because everything else is a neo-Colonial house and that’s what you’re used to looking at,” she said.

The UDO has been at the center of controversy due to the heated conversation around the privately-initiated SCAD text amendments.

The city is planning a full rewrite of the UDO in the coming months. City staff recently gave a presentation on the updated Comprehensive Plan during a special joint meeting between the Durham City Council and Board of County Commissioners on August 31.

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