For the third time in as many years, Durham’s government officials have moved a protective boundary around Jordan Lake in southwest Durham. The change, made this week by county commissioners, is the latest advance in a tug-of-war over where Jordan Lake and its protective buffers begin and end.

Determining the lake’s boundaries is an exact science, but the methodology is open to interpretation. In recent years, two opposing groupsa developer and an environmental protection grouphave commissioned surveys to determine the lake’s official perimeter. Both surveys used different methods and produced different results. Though given the option for an independent study of Jordan Lake, the board on Monday instead voted 3 to 2 to adopt the boundaries indicated by the developer’s survey, conducted in 2005.

Commissioners Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron cast the opposing votes to the change, Heron lamenting the history that had brought the commissioners to the quandary.

“If the majority of this board had voted to let the county conduct an independent survey for $85,000, this issue would have been laid to rest,” Heron said. “We can’t let land speculators call the shots.”

The board’s vote has weighty implications. By approving a shift in the lake’s protective buffer, the commissioners have opened the door for a 164-acre housing and shopping complex planned in its watershed and for potential lawsuits stemming from their decision, which was based on a survey of the lake’s boundaries paid for by the developer, who has an $18 million interest in the outcome.

The tug-of-war over Durham’s county maps began four years ago, when Neal Hunter, then the owner of nearly 300 acres in southwest Durham, commissioned a survey to gather data to determine Jordan Lake’s boundaries. The survey showed that a wedge of Hunter’s land south of Stagecoach Road and west of N.C. 751 was not in a critical watershed area, as had been indicated on Durham County’s decade-old maps. That same chunk of land was where Hunter and his partners, Southern Durham Development, want to build 751 Assemblage, a mixed-use development with a planned 1,300 residences and 600,000 square feet of retail and office space. But being included in the critical watershed would impede any such development.

Hunter took his survey to Durham’s planning director, Frank Duke, who in 2006 changed county maps in favor of the new data. But last year, county officials discovered that Duke had acted without authority. In order to change the maps to reflect the new data in Hunter’s survey, the method first had to be vetted, and the change had to be approved by commissioners, which was the task for them this week.

Before they voted, though, commissioners sat through a three-hour public hearing, during which more than 50 stakeholders and citizens spoke. Most opposed the zoning change, which would move Jordan Lake’s buffer to the west, thus removing land owned by Southern Durham Development from a protected area. The changes would open the area to development and make it eligible for future water and sewer services from the cityessential amenities for the new community envisioned there.

Many decried the idea of development so close to Jordan Lake, which currently provides drinking water to Cary and Chatham County. It would pollute waters that already are tainted, they said.

Supporters of boundary change said that allowing development near the drinking water reservoir would bring jobs, tax revenue and land for schools to help the county’s budget.

“Do what is right for the masses of people,” said Jackie Wagstaff, a former City Council and school board member. “They’re not going to have a clue about Jordan Lake. What they are going to have a clue about is jobs.”

Still others called for a halt to the vote. Durham Planning Commission member Wendy Jacobs asked county leaders to reconsider what a majority of the boardalbeit with a different membershipalready shot down last year: a determination of the proper method for surveying the lake and an independent survey.

“A decision of this magnitude needs to be made with the utmost thoughtfulness, care and transparency,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs’ appeal was the same solution the Planning Commission had unanimously recommended. But it was clear that proposal didn’t appeal to a majority of commissioners: Chairman Michael Page, Joe Bowser and Brenda Howerton.

Howerton, who expressed doubts until moments before she voted, conceded that this decision was just on a zoning change, not the approval of any development.

“Knowing that the development is going to come back to us, I know that this is not the end of this process,” she said.

Indeed, this could be just the beginning.

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