Land around Farrington Road in Southwest Durham has been in Isaac Woods’s family for more than a century, since his great-great-grandfather was freed from slavery, became a lumberjack, and starting using his timber proceeds to purchase property.

Over the years, that land—the family now owns about twenty-four acres—has been divided up and passed down. Family members have built homes, grown vegetables, raised chickens and hogs, and hosted reunions with a required lesson on the history of the family and its ties to the land.

“This land goes from one generation to the other. It’s a family norm,” Woods says. “Every generation is supposed to determine how they can best preserve this land for the next generation.”

That tradition was hijacked in March, Woods says, when GoTriangle bought his aunt’s house and another house next door that Woods built for his cousin. The public transit agency claimed those properties and four others under eminent domain, saying it needs the land for an operations and maintenance facility to service and store vehicles for the planned Durham-Orange light-rail line.

To build the facility, GoTriangle is seeking to rezone about twenty-three acres wedged between Farrington Road and Interstate 40 from residential to light industrial, with a corresponding adjustment to the Future Land Use map, which designates the area for office and commercial use.

The Durham City Council’s December 3 vote on those questions has implications for the viability of the light-rail project. The Federal Transit Administration has asked GoTriangle to nail down plans for the facility by the time it applies for federal funding in April.

“FTA wants to make sure before they commit funds that it will get built,” says GoTriangle senior planner Geoff Green. “A rail operations and maintenance facility is a critical piece of the project. You can’t have a light-rail system without a maintenance facility.”

A rail operations and maintenance facility, or ROMF, is exactly what it sounds like. About eighteen light-rail cars will be cleaned, inspected, repaired, and stored there. The Farrington Road site was chosen from five properties along the 17.7-mile light-rail route. According to GoTriangle, the site was selected because of its size and alignment with the line, and because other sites posed greater impacts to the environment and historic sites or required significant infrastructure changes.

Many neighbors of the proposed facility—including an age-restricted development across the street and parents of students at Creekside Elementary School, about a quarter-mile away—worry it will harm them and their corner of Durham. City council members have gotten dozens of emails asking them to reject GoTriangle’s requests, or at least delay the vote.

Last week, interim project director John Tallmadge said GoTriangle will be moving forward with the request and that choosing another site “is not a viable option.” That’s because, like every aspect of light rail, the ROMF is tangled up in a web of federal and state deadlines, and missing them could be the death of a project on which more than $90 million has already been spent.

In order to get $1.2 billion in federal money—about half of light rail’s $2.47 billion total cost—GoTriangle needs to first secure commitments from state and local funding sources. The state set a deadline of April 30, 2019, for GoTriangle to line up about $1 billion in local funding, including $102 million to be raised privately, and a deadline of November 30, 2019, for a federal funding commitment. Missing either puts at risk the project’s chances of ever receiving $190 million in state funding.

Between that timeline and the stated commitment of local governments to light rail, residents around the proposed ROMF worry that city council approval is inevitable.

Noise is of particular concern to residents of Culp Arbor, an over-fifty-five community across the street from where the ROMF’s parking lot would be. Most residents are sixty-five or older. A few are in their nineties. They need sleep.

“Age is a protected class and should be for a reason. We were not protected here,” says Ruth Ann McKinney, a retired law professor who has organized her neighbors in opposition to the ROMF.

According to an October noise and vibration study by GoTriangle, the ROMF will be noisier than other parts of the line, thanks to a curved track going into the facility.

The study describes these noise impacts in terms of A-weighted decibels (dBa), which account for how humans perceive sound. Most trains will come in following the end of peak service at about 7:30 p.m. and will exit at about 4:00 a.m. Operators are typically required to sound the trains’ horns before leaving.

Using FTA methodology, the study says the sound-exposure level of the trains from a distance of fifty feet will be 118 dBa, and over five seconds of braking on the curved track, the trains will generate 136 dBa. For comparison, at the same distance, rail transit on an “old steel structure” registers at about 100 dBa and a jackhammer at about 90 dBa, according to the FTA. (Trains elsewhere on the line are rated at about 80 dBa.) The noise study assumes there will be thirty-two “train movements” at the ROMF during the day and forty-eight overnight.

McKinney says GoTriangle hasn’t meaningfully engaged with Culp Arbor residents, and argues that the burden is on the transit agency to reach out. Not all residents are internet-savvy, many have limited mobility, and, as retirees, they don’t hear about current issues from co-workers. A city as concerned about equity as Durham should care about that, McKinney says.

“You have to be determined to find information about the ROMF. Asking us to participate in the process is significantly different than if we were fifty-five, forty-five, or thirty-five,” McKinney says. She recalls one neighbor who intended to write to council members but couldn’t find stationery.

The last time the ROMF was widely discussed was in 2015, when the site was selected. But many Culp Arbor residents moved in since then; construction of the neighborhood’s second phase began in 2017.

“This the house I’ve dreamed of, and I don’t have the money to put to put it up for sale,” says Lyn Emerich, who moved in after Hurricane Harvey destroyed her Houston home in August 2017.

GoTriangle says it’s working on a noise-mitigation policy and has agreed to install along Farrington Road a berm no taller than four feet, a twenty-foot-deep vegetative buffer, and—behind that—a row of evergreen trees at least eight feet tall. GoTriangle says the building will be a maximum of fifty feet tall, and once annexed into city limits, it will be subject to a noise ordinance that limits nighttime noise to 50 dBa and daytime noise to 60 dBa.

Still, neighbors say an industrial facility doesn’t suit the area or the city’s comprehensive plan guiding future development.

They’re concerned about traffic in and out of the facility (there’s no light rail stop, so employees would commute in other ways), impacts to wetlands, lights shining into their homes, chemicals on the site, and the effect of all this on property values. Because of these concerns, the Durham Planning Commission did not recommend that the city council approve GoTriangle’s requests, although planning staffers do.

“A normal development would not be able to blow through all these stop signs,” says Culp Arbor resident Phil Post, who has a background in civil engineering.

GoTriangle has held five meetings since 2015 with area residents and says it’s committed to addressing their concerns. The agency is offering to make some road improvements, point all exterior lights downward, store any controlled fluids in tanks for off-site disposal, and not include a body shop or paint shop in the facility.

The rezoning request also limits the use of the site to an ROMF and an existing cell tower, meaning that if it’s approved and the ROMF isn’t built, any other use would require a new rezoning request.

According to Green, there’s no alternative site teed up, so if the rezoning isn’t approved, the agency would have “to re-evaluate.”

Woods shares his neighbors’ concerns. He isn’t opposed to light rail, but he says negotiating with GoTriangle has been “insulting,” and the stress is taking a toll on his elderly mother and aunt. While news reports say residents whose properties were taken via eminent domain have until 2019 to leave, Woods says his relatives were told to be out by July 22 of this year. (Their houses are now boarded up.)

“We took it as being racist because black folks own this land and they’re basically trying to steal it from them,” Woods says.

GoTriangle says landowners were given the opportunity to lease their properties from the agency until August 2019. It also rejects the suggestion that race was a factor: “GoTriangle is committed to treating everyone fairly, equitably, and in accordance with federal law, and we have made every effort to do so in this case.” 

Woods’s family is also challenging GoTriangle in court, seeking more money for their two properties. According to property and court records, GoTriangle acquired one of the properties, which was assessed for tax purposes at about $250,000, for $315,000. Tax records indicate that the second property, assessed at about $246,000, sold for $300,000, but court records say GoTriangle paid only $234,000.

“Like the rest of my family, this is what we call home,” Woods says. “We’ll make it. We’re a family that’s always been together, but these are conditions we shouldn’t have to go through.”

GoTriangle ROMF FAQ by Sarah on Scribd

One reply on “GoTriangle Needs a Place to Store Its Light Rail Cars. Southwest Durham Residents Wish It Wasn’t Next to Their Homes.”

  1. Amazing that GoTriangle, and local politicians in Durham are willing to sacrifice local communities at the alter of DOLRT, regardless of the detrimental impacts. ROMF 118dBa at 50′ per GoTriangle noise & vibration study exceeds City of Durham ordinance limits of 50dBa after 11pm. As comparison, HUD threshold for unacceptable housing environment is 75dBa and ambient noise close to urban transit systems and major airports is ~ 85dBa. INAPPROPRIATE LAND USE for that area. STOP THE DOLRT runaway train! Reference source material

Comments are closed.