When Charlie Reece asked his Facebook friends for thoughts on a rezoning request coming before the Durham City Council this week, he expected a few repliesmaybe “three or four people already in my social network weighing in,” he says.

After all, the debate over North River Village, a proposed commercial and residential development at the intersection of Guess and Latta roads, had been simmering long before the issue was scheduled for consideration on June 5, so he assumed some people would want to weigh in.

But Reece, who was elected to the council in 2015, didn’t anticipate anything like what happened.

Five days and some shares on the neighborhood-level social network Nextdoor later, Reece’s post had garnered 131 comments. His city council email inbox was flooded with sixty-six emails from residents both for and against the rezoning, adding to the scores of messages the council and the Durham Planning Commission have received since Halvorsen Development Corporation first made its plans for the north Durham site known in 2015.

“This is the first time where we’ve had tons and tons of people speak out on both sides,” Reece says. “That’s what stands out to me, how unusual it is. No matter what decision the council makes, we’re going to make a lot of people unhappy.”

He’s right that the council will inevitably make a lot of people mad. He’s also right that this entire affair has been somewhat surreal, at least in its intensity.

A hearing before the planning commission in February lasted three hours, with thirty-three people signing up to speak. One speaker read a poem about a pair of crows questioning the development’s location. Another painted an alarming image of an ambulance unable to reach an injured elderly resident because of traffic and a nurse making mistakes after a noisy, sleepless night.

Ultimately, the commission voted 11–2 against the rezoning request, with several members saying that, because they’re appointed rather than elected, they didn’t feel comfortable making a decision that would affect a community where people care so much about the outcome. They’d rather defer to the city council.

The ardor hasn’t tapered off since. After Reece’s post on May 19, a few residents emailed him saying they’d been hesitant to express themselves for fear of retribution from neighbors. One turned down an interview with the INDY for the same reason.

Another indication of how weird this has gotten: talking points circulated by the development’s proponents advise arriving at Monday’s seven p.m. council meeting at six fifteen. “Try not to wear red, as that generally is the color that opponents wear,” the information reads, like this is some suburban iteration of the Bloods and Crips.

Opponents, meanwhile, recommend arriving at five forty-five.

Most people have heard of North River Village because of one of its potential tenants: Publix. But there’s a lot more to the development than one of the country’s favorite supermarkets.

Halvorsen, based in Boca Raton, Florida, is seeking to develop the eastern portion of the mostly wooded lot for outdoor seating and up to ninety thousand square feet of commercial space, including the approximately forty-five-thousand-square-foot Publix, three freestanding commercial buildings, and “inline” stores flanking the Publix, which would be the first of the supermarket chain in Durham. Although the lease agreement, which Publix announced in December, is contingent on zoning approval, the store has played a big role in the marketing of North River Village from the start.

Patrick Byker, a partner at Morningstar Law Group, an arm of a local team working with Halvorsen, says it’s too early to say how many stores the commercial side would include or what they will be. Rise Biscuits and Donuts, he says, is “pretty well locked in.”

(Nil Ghosh, an associate at Morningstar, serves on the planning commission. He did not participate in February’s hearing.)

The other half of the acreage would be developed for approximately sixty detached homes built by Durham-based Cimarron Homes. The two sides of the development would be connected by walking trails and sidewalks, Byker says.

This setup has stirred debate over whether North River Village is actually a mixed-use development or just a strip mall with some houses behind it. City staffers say they don’t have enough information to decide. Either way, approving the project could contradict a city policy.

Strip malls are discouraged in this suburban area. But city code also says that transit-friendly commercial nodes should be at least a half-mile apartmore than twice the distance from North River Village to the nearest existing node.

According to city staff, rezoning the site as mixed-use would generate an additional 10,712 vehicles trips per day on the roads around it. Whether road improvements, including new turning lanes, are enough to handle that added volume has been a dividing point between supporters and opponents.

So too is the question of schools, given that Easley Elementary, which is adjacent to the site, is currently at 108 percent capacity; however, the city estimates that the rezoning will add only three students to area schools.

And then there are environmental concerns: at its closest, the site is about a half-mile from the Eno River, which leads to worries about runoff and the loss of greenspace.

For opponents, this development is a potential slippery slope. They fear the rezoning will lead to overdevelopment in north Durham. Why not use another site already cleared of trees and zoned for commercial use?

“The sprawl will just go further and further out until you get into Bahama and Rougemont,” says Jackie Brown, who chaired the planning commission during an unsuccessful 2003 effort to rezone the same site for commercial use.

On the other hand, North River Village would be the first shopping center built in the area since 1994. The area has lagged behind other parts of Durham in new home construction.

For these reasons, several realtorsand residents itching for something newhave voiced their support for the development. Many of them see North River Village as a tolerable tenant for a site bound to be developed at some pointand the only way to ensure road improvements in a part of the county they feel has been forgotten.

“Because we show the area and we hear the feedback, we know what people are saying and why they don’t want to move up here,” says Cindie Burns, a realtor and nearly lifelong north Durham resident. “They love it, but there’s no shopping. They love it, but it’s all dated. They love it, but there’s not any new construction.”

North River Village, proponents say, is an opportunity to fix that.

“Speak to the youth who attend Northern High School,” resident Arnie Boardwine wrote to Reece. “You will hear that they cannot wait to graduate and leave Durham. Why? Because there is nothing here; the area is not growing.”


On a Wednesday afternoon, opponents of the rezoning are walking to the end of Green Oak Drive, to the front of the woods that would be chopped down to make way for North River Village. They are moms, dads, and children of all ages. Along the short walk, the group grows in number.

“So, what is this?” asks a man loading yard waste onto a truck. Someone explains. At first, the man says he doesn’t have any thoughts on the rezoning.

When asked again, he says he doesn’t believe his thoughts “would be very popular here.” He lives about five miles north, and the Publix would save him from having to go to Roxboro to buy groceries. But, he says, he doesn’t live here, so he keeps his thoughts to himself.

For residents of Green Oak Drive, there would be no escaping North River Village. As currently drawn, access to the residential side of the development would be directly across from the end of the narrow street.

As for the people who are excited about the new development, the neighbors say, they’re just not seeing the long view.

“I think it’s shortsighted,” says Julia Plourde. “It’s only new while it’s new.”

Many residents of this neighborhood have organized under the banner of the North Durham Quality Development Association. They mobilized fast.

As the team behind North River Village created a website, social media presence, and talking points, so did they. To stand a chance against a well-resourced development company, one of America’s favorite grocery stores, and a law firm that works on many developments in Durham, they had to.

“It needs to be done,” says Plourde. “There’s nobody else to do it. We don’t have any backers. We don’t have any money.”

“This is kind of a watershed moment,” says Roxanne Van Frarowe, who has lived on Green Oak Drive for eight and a half years. “If this were to pass, there would be a lot more development on Guess, and I think a lot of people sense that.”

Much of the debate over North River Village has taken place online, especially on Nextdoor and Facebook. As it often does, the Internet has brought to the surface the most strident perspectives. Things have gotten heatedand sometimes out of hand.

Case in point, the thread on Reece’s Facebook page.

Because both sides have become so versed in the issue, differing opinions are pointedly rebuttedparticularly those offered by people who don’t live in the immediate vicinity.

“How do you know what my commute is?” snapped one supporter after being told that the development wouldn’t affect where he lives.

“You know this is the Internet age, right?” an opponent replied.

One poster, identified as living in Chapel Hill, was told to “stay in your lane.”

And don’t even try to say north Durham has no good restaurants, as one commenter, who said she heard that the nearby barbecue spot Picnic wasn’t that good, learned: “‘I heard’ … yeah …? You ‘heard’?? OK. Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding. Bible, Proverbs 17:28.’”

(In fairness, Picnic is pretty great.)

Debbi Schwartz, who has lived about a mile and a half away from the site for twelve years, says she was hesitant to voice her support for North River Village. She posted about it on social media and says she was threatened.

“We’ll come to your backyard and dump trash and drug paraphernalia in your backyard,” she says she was told.

But over time she found more people who shared her view that North River Village would make the area more of a community. “If anything, it would bring people closer,” she says. “You’d have someplace where people could run into each other while they’re shopping or at a restaurant.”

The debate has played out offline, too.

A north Durham resident contracted to run the North River Village website and social media presence says he was pushed and yelled at during a meeting on the project at a private residence. On Reece’s thread, he referred to opponents as “crazy.” In return, he was called a baby and told to bring diapers to Monday’s council meeting.

About two months ago, members of the North Durham Quality Development Association bought lawn signs saying “just say no” and placed them in their yards and near the site. In the last couple of weeks, nearly identical signs urging “just say yes” have popped up right next to and in front the “no” signs.

William Richards, who lives on Green Oak Drive, says he and his friends who oppose the rezoning have been called irrational NIMBYs. The group was cursed at while protesting the development with their kids in April. Richards says most discussion about North River Village has been civil, but a few people have ratcheted up the language.

“This has gotten ugly. It really has. It has gotten pretty gross at times,” he says.

If opponents of North River Village succeed, they wouldn’t be the first to stop Publix from opening in the Triangle.

In 2015, public opposition halted the supermarket chain, which has stores in Cary, from opening in north Raleigh. At the time, the developer said that the “increasingly bitter and hostile climate” had made it “impossible to properly engage the community at large and for city council to weigh the merits of the case.”

In a sense, this feels similar.

It’s clear this debate is about more than Publix, about more than even this thirty-acre project. It calls into question how the city should go about managing its growth and balancing policy with what people want.

This was evident in February, in some planning commission members’ reluctance to be the ones making this decision.

“I want to step back from this conversation,” commissioner DeDreana Freeman said then, “and say that this split in this community marks what I’ve been talking about on a number of cases in that we don’t have a neighborhood-level planning process in place to make sure that we’re planning together rather than piecemeal when developers choose to move forward with projects.”

Charles Gibbs, who represents the area on the commission, voted against the rezoning. But as a forty-year resident of north Durham, he supports the project and plans to say so during Monday’s council meeting.

“To make a long story short, I think it would be good for the community,” he says. “What they’re planning would make a nice little village-type atmosphere, which would include the existing neighborhood.”

Reece, who says he won’t make up his mind until after Monday’s hearing, says the vote will come down to whether there’s enough evidence to say that a new vision for this little corner of Durham should replace an old one.

All we can be sure of is that it’s going to be a long night.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Why Are All These People So Pissed Off About a Grocery Store? “