Last month, the Durham City-County Planning Department approved a site plan for a Triangle developer’s proposal to build a 379 single-family home and townhouse community that would cover nearly 60 acres of land near West Point on the Eno Park and the Eno River.

There is an emerging groundswell of support for the project, notably among a 300-member, predominantly Black church congregation whose sanctuary is about a six-minute walk from the proposed project site. 

Groundbreaking, however, remains far from a shoo-in for the proposed development on an area known as Black Meadow Ridge, which sits along the southern boundary of West Point on the Eno, the city’s flagship park.

North Durham opponents of the development—most notably the nearly 60-year-old Eno River Association—are awaiting the outcome of a Board of Adjustment (BOA) public hearing in late May. That’s when the BOA will consider an appeal that seeks to reverse a 2016 planning department decision that has allowed the project to proceed without input from the city council or the public.

The appeal was filed on behalf of the  project’s opponents in March 2020 by Chapel Hill attorney T.C. Morphis Jr.

Morphis states in the appeal that a proposed 1972 housing development known as Foxmoor was contingent upon the existence of Eno Drive. Foxmoor, which called for 412 units and the construction of Eno Drive, was “ultimately scrapped,” owing to “its likely devastating impact on this most environmentally sensitive area of Durham.”

Meanwhile, Durham attorneys William J. Brian and Jeffrey Roether with the Morningstar Law Group on behalf of the developer last year countered the homeowners’ appeal by filing a motion with the BOA to “exclude the appeal narrative” that focused on the development’s environmental impact.

The Durham attorneys did not respond last week to an email or phone call from the INDY.

As previously reported, Christy Benson, an Elon law professor, says the fight to save the Eno from overdevelopment dates back to the early 1970s with the proposal to construct Eno Drive. Benson says the project never gained traction thanks in large part to Margaret Nygard, the legendary activist who is known as the “Mother of the Eno.” 

“She came out fighting mad,” Benson says, “and slowly beat back the proposed Eno Drive. There was a massive public outcry.”

Benson says the developers of the new proposed community are riding the coattails of the obsolete Foxmoor development.

Opponents of the project in recent months have garnered the support from the children of Holger and Margaret Nygard. Holger Nygard was a distinguished Duke University professor of medieval literature, ballads, and folklore. The couple’s life-defining work in the Bull City was spearheading a movement more than 50 years ago to save the Eno River from becoming a city reservoir.

The Nygards and others in 1965 formed the Eno Historical Society, which was later renamed and is now called the Eno River Association, according to the UNC-Chapel Hill Southern Historical Collection.

“We’re never distanced from the Eno River Association,” Kerstin Nygard, one of the couple’s daughters, told the INDY. “It’s in our blood with what’s going on with the Eno.”

Kerstin Nygard, a retired physician’s assistant who lives in Orange County, called the proposed development a tragedy for residents in the surrounding communities, for the city of Durham, for West Point on the Eno, and for the city’s water supply.

Kerstin’s sister Jennifer Nygard says she became involved in the fight to save Black Meadow Ridge after reading the INDY’s September story about the issue.

“I have felt galvanized to do something to try to protect the Eno at West Point as I regard it to be the worst problem for the Eno that has happened since my mother’s death,” Jennifer Nygard stated in an email to the INDY.

Jennifer Nygard is a visual artist whose work with the Eno River Association dates back to her early teens. Her art on the covers of the association’s brochures, calendars, and newsletters feature aquatic species that are unique to the Eno, including the Neuse River waterdog, the extremely rare Virginia pebblesnail, the redback salamander, the yellow lampmussel, and the Roanoke bass, a game fish that’s described as the world’s rarest bass.

“These creatures are important bio-indicators of the [Eno River’s] water quality,” Jennifer Nygard told the INDY.

Jennifer Nygard’s concerns were amplified more than three decades ago with an inventory of Durham County’s natural areas, plants, and wildlife prepared by the NC Natural Heritage Program.

“Water quality within the Eno is particularly threatened by the proliferation of impervious surfaces, lawns, and other non-point surfaces of pollution,” inventory editors Elizabeth Pullman and Alice C. Wilson stated. “The eroding effects of stormwater runoff also threaten natural communities, particularly where tributary ravines cross through the park’s boundaries in areas where development approaches the edge of the steep bluffs above the Eno.”

Opponents of the development say they’re fighting to block what they envision as tightly packed houses replacing a 10-minute walk through the woods and tree-lined walking trails to the city park and Eno River—but not before enduring Black Meadow Ridge’s hardwood trees being clear-cut and the sloping land’s granite foundations blasted away and then graded smooth. 

More pointedly, they say the community is on the cusp of an environmental nightmare and note that a December 2018 city report titled Eno River Watershed Implement Plan states the top threat to the river’s water quality and watershed health is stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces.

While awaiting the February hearing with the BOA, the opponents are fighting approval for the development’s water quality permit from the NC Division of Water Resources, which has regulatory oversight of the city’s water supply.

In a letter to state water quality officials, members of Save Black Meadow Ridge Group argued the development will harm the city’s long-term water supply plans, which include a new water intake at Nello Teer Quarry to provide drinking water to city residents. The Teer Quarry, less than a mile from the proposed development, has already been used since 2007 as an emergency water supply for Durham and Orange Counties, and now with plans for use as a long-term solution, the development’s opponents told state officials that the proposed high-density housing “will generate significant amounts of runoff and cause downstream water pollution.”

“The current plan is for the Teer Quarry intake to fill only during times of high baseflow from the Eno River and Lake Michie, which corresponds to the times of the high runoff,” Black Meadow Ridge group members state in the letter. “This would mean higher levels of pollution entering the intake from the development, in particular from the Black Meadow Creek tributary within one mile of that intake.”

The activists’ letter to state water quality officials also pointed to public safety issues with stormwater runoff contamination into Warren and Black Meadow Creeks, particularly in the mouths of the two tributaries that “are some of the highest used places on the West Point on the Eno City Park for swimming, fishing and recreation.”

“In particular, the pools at the end of Black Meadow Creek are used for fishing and playing in—especially by younger children with their families,” the group stated in the letter. “Warren Creek on the other hand flows near Sennett’s Hole which is used by hundreds of people every summer weekend for swimming, fishing and recreation.”

The parcel of land is targeted for development by Chapel Hill developer Keith T. Brown, who has a reputation for building opulent, modernist homes. But last week, Timothy Hill, a coffee importer who lives in the Argonne Hills subdivision, told the INDY that Brown has outsourced the project to D.R. Horton (formerly Terramor Homes), a national company that refers to itself as “America’s Builder.”

In September, officials with Terramor Homes’ offices in North Raleigh applied for a permit from the NC Division of Water Resources to “permanently impact” more than 4,000 square feet of wetlands and 149 square feet of streams to construct the residential development.

In an email to the INDY, Ben Lunnen, president of D.R. Horton’s Central Carolina Division, said the company is currently under contract to purchase the project from “a local developer; however, we do not yet own the referenced property.”

“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to provide much needed housing at affordable price points in this area of Durham,” Lunnen added. “Our proposed project will allow residents to live closely to and enjoy the West Point on the Eno Park.”

Lunnen said D.R. Horton’s plans include “a greenway connection through the property which would not only allow future residents to have walking access to the park but would also allow neighboring communities to access it as a public greenway trail.

“We are hopeful that this project may serve as a catalyst of development in the area, something that many of the neighbors of the project have expressed interest in.”

Timothy Hill and Jennifer Nygard both say that about 1,200 people submitted letters expressing their disapproval of the development to state water quality officials prior to a January 20 public hearing.

But there is support for the project among residents who point to an acute affordable housing crisis exacerbated by a limited housing inventory.

Robert Northam Jr. is the pastor of the Faith Community Church, an 8,000 square-foot structure that sits on just over 10 acres of land a stone’s throw away from the proposed project.

“We’re the gateway to the Eno,” Northam says.

Northam says the nearly 24-year-old church has been at its current location since 2008. Although the majority of its members are African American, the church members include Hispanic and white worshippers. The majority of the church members live in North Durham. The average age is 38, and about 60 percent own their homes.

Northam told the INDY this week that he, along with the overwhelming majority of the church members, supports the project.

“I have talked with our members individually and collectively. The church is excited to support the project,” he says. “I’m in the people’s business. I believe having 300-plus homes near the church gives us the opportunity to help people.”

The church’s stance on the proposed development, the pastor added, is about “seeing North Durham progress and move forward.”

Northam says the church has a team that has researched proposed developments in the area, and he’s confident that city leaders will hold the developers accountable to protect the Eno’s legacy, which includes providing the region with safe drinking water.

Northam also notes that he has seen a diminished interest in the park over the past 20 years, and that future homeowners near West Point on the Eno will use the area for “walking, running, jogging, and walking their dogs.”

“It’s literally going to bring opportunities to what [the development opponents] are fighting against,” Northam said. “I believe it’s going to resurrect interest.”

Scott Carpenter, a lifelong Durham resident who supports the project, thinks opposition to the development smacks of elitism.

“The problem of NIMBYism is what is at issue here,” Carpenter, who has purchased two homes in North Durham since 1992, wrote in his letter of support to state water quality officials.

“There are too many transplants that buy their slice of the residential pie and then decide no one else should get access to ‘their’ area of the environment,” Carpenter wrote. “Where do they think the next generation of adults is supposed to live? Where do they think the next group of future Durham residents are supposed to go? They focus purely on the future increase in their own property values, while piously claiming they want to protect the environment over and over again. Funny, I never hear these environment-protecting naysayers volunteer to tear down their own homes and replace them with reforestation projects. It’s always, ‘No, don’t build anything new (now that I’ve gotten my piece of the pie).’”

The cost and availability of housing is becoming a major problem in the area, Carpenter added.

“This new home building project is needed in north Durham.”

The Nygard siblings disagree.

“Sure, there’s a need for good, affordable housing, but this is not the spot,” Kerstin Nygard says. “This is a natural environment that should not be disturbed by bulldozers. It’s not just my parents’ legacy, it’s the legacy of thousands of people in the community. It’s part of what makes Durham so special.”

“Green spaces and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive of each other,” Jennifer Nygard says. “My mother predicted that we would have to defend what we had saved, and she saw this as never-ending.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Durham Board of Adjustment meeting addressing this proposal will take place in late May. 

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