Durham County Commissioners met in closed session Thursday morning to discuss next steps in the controversy around an intensely debated protest petition that could have limited commercial and residential development around Jordan Lake.

The controversy surrounds a petition filed last month by an environmental group whose members wanted to make it harder for county commissioners to redraw protective barriers around the lake. Had the petition been validated by county staff, commissioners would have been required to cast a 4-to-1 “super-majority” vote in favor of redrawing the lines. Instead, Durham’s planning department, led by Steve Medlin, ruled the petition invalid, and the commissioners ended up moving the watershed boundary on Oct. 12 by a contentious 3-2 vote.

Now, however, Medlin has changed his mind. A memo released Wednesday shows that he believes the protest petition is valid. But County Attorney Lowell Siler still doubts the validity of the petition, questioning whether John Gunter, president of the Chancellor’s Ridge Homeowner’s Association, is authorized to sign for the association. Gunter signed the petition in representation of some common areas of the Chancellor’s Ridge development.

So what’s next? County Attorney Siler told commissioners, essentially, that their hands are tied. If anyone wants to question a vote commissioners took last month to move the Jordan Lake watershed, it’s going to have to be an outside party in a lawsuit, he said. Commissioners cannot go back and revisit the decision they made in October, even though they have since learned they took the vote under now-questionable circumstances.

“The central issue is, a vote has been taken and the only way to amend that is to go to superior court,” Siler told commissioners Thursday morning. “We’ll defend that action,” he said, referring to the commissioners’ October decision.

Ellen Chiosso is director of the Haw River Assembly which filed the protest petition. When Siler says the issue is to be resolved in court, she says, he fails to fully explain that this means a small nonprofit group has to sue the county government and city-county planning department, which have broader resources and deeper pockets.

“We’re hoping to meet that challenge, but it’s a big challenge,” Chiosso said.

The rezoning of the protective watershed is a mess itself (read previous stories). The county and developer Southern Durham Development have been in a tug-of-war dating back to 2006 about where the watershed lines should be. When commissioners voted Oct. 12 to redraw the boundary, they cleared a major hurdle for Southern Durham Development, which wants to build a sizeable residential and commercial development right next to Jordan Lake.

On Thursday, County Commissioner Becky Heron called the situation regarding the petition a “fiasco.”

“There were some mistakes made that we’re suffering for right now,” she said. “And the public is suffering for.”

This story was originally posted on Triangulator, our news blog.