The N.C. Division of Water Quality has signed off on a private developer’s controversial survey that significantly redraws Jordan Lake’s boundaries, paving the way for Durham city and county elected officials to alter the lake’s protected areas as early as April.

Simultaneously, an online petition has gathered 1,400 signatures opposing the plan, which signatories say will result in fewer environmental protections, even as the state is proposing a bold strategy to rid Jordan Lake of pollution that has placed the drinking-water supply on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Impaired Waters list since 2002.

In a letter to the Durham City-County Planning Department (PDF, 580 KB) dated Feb. 4, state regulators ruled that the agency “accepts and approves your proposed revisions to the critical and protected area boundaries around Jordan Lake.”

The revisionswhich Durham County submitted to the state in Novemberare the result of a 2005 survey commissioned by Neal Hunter, a developer who owned land within Jordan Lake’s critical watershed, a one-mile boundary that severely limits development near the reservoir’s shore.

If adopted, Hunter’s survey would effectively move out of the restricted area 164 acres that he sold, in 2008, to Southern Durham Development, a company that plans to build a dense, mixed-use project called the “751 Assemblage.” Hunter is a minority shareholder in Southern Durham Development.

Julie Ventaloro, the state watershed protection program coordinator at DWQ, told the Indy that adopting the state-approved survey is now “in Durham’s hands.” Steve Medlin, Durham’s planning director, confirmed that his department has begun preparing amendments to the comprehensive plan and Unified Development Ordinance to reflect the revisions, which it will present to City Council and the Board of County Commissioners for a vote. Both governing bodies must conduct public hearings before adopting the changes.

“DWQ has signed off on it; now we have to execute it, by carrying it forward to the governing bodies for them to approve and authorize modifications to both the comprehensive plan and the zoning atlas,” Medlin said.

The Durham Planning Commission, a citizen-run board, must first make a recommendation, which Medlin estimated would occur in April. The board’s decision would be non-binding.

In the Feb. 4 letter, John Hennessy, a supervisor in the DWQ’s compliance and oversight unit, wrote that “updated maps as well as natural processes” might have accounted for a “considerably different location” of the lake in Hunter’s surveys.

Hennessy also notes that Durham’s standards are higher than the state’s regarding watershed boundaries. (The state requires a half-mile boundary for critical watersheds; Durham stipulates one mile.) Hunter’s survey would not affect the state’s requirements, Hennessy writesthe same argument Hunter’s brother, Jeff, made in a December letter to DWQ.

Ventaloro said her department considered the fact that Hunter had a vested interest in his surveywhich covered only the portion of Jordan Lake that affected his propertyand that Frank Duke, Durham’s former planning director, violated state code in 2006 when he accepted Hunter’s survey without review. (In November 2008, after learning of Duke’s actions, the Durham Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to submit Hunter’s survey anyway.) However, Ventaloro said DWQ chose not to preclude Durham from accepting the survey based on these facts alone.

“It was discussed, the fact that it was done by a private company, but it was submitted through Durham,” Ventaloro said. “We put a lot of responsibility on the counties, and we also put a lot of faith in their efforts. We have an oversight role here, so we really do rely on the expertise of the local governments to enforce the regulations, through their ordinances.”

If Durham accepts Hunter’s survey, Ventaloro said, it will be the first time watershed maps have been changed in North Carolina based on a private developer’s partial surveying of a water supply. The division’s preference, she said, would be a survey of the entire lake. She pointed to Durham County’s 1998 survey of Ellerbee Creek, which only affected one portion of the Falls Lake reservoir. However, that survey was conducted by the county, not a private developer.

“It could conceivably open the door to multiple requests to revise the small parts of a watershed boundary,” she said. “It would just be better, and perhaps produce a better-quality product, if these boundary issues were looked at regionally, on a larger watershed basis, or even around one entire reservoir, rather than piece by piece.”

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