City planners say a $3 million project to replace sixty-two hundred feet of outdated sewer lines in the North Raleigh neighborhood of Brentwood is “critical” because of the potential for overflow and the associated health and safety risks. But council member David Cox isn’t giving up his quest to move the project out of neighbors’ backyards and into nearby wetlands to appease a group of constituents.

At a council meeting Tuesday, engineering manager Eileen Navarrette fielded near-constant interruptions from Cox, which included Cox getting up from his chair to walk over to a map displaying the planned sewer lines route, pointing out the red-highlighted route with his hand. 

The focus of the controversy is on Ingram Drive, where resident Lorilyn Bailey—who submitted a lengthy citizen petition disputing the staff’s findings—objected to the sewer line going through her property. Cox tried to get the line moved onto the dried-up lakebed immediately behind Bailey’s property, but staffers determined that the vegetation and soil type there makes it protected wetlands, which means the city would need the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers to locate the sewer line onto that land. 

That, staffers say, is unlikely to happen, considering they have a viable alternative. The city has already obtained twenty-nine out of fifty-six easements required for the upgrade and invested $580,000 on the project to date.

Cox—who has been criticized for ignoring the city staff’s expertise—has been pressing this issue since at least December, when he attempted to get public utilities director Robert Massengill disciplined for going forward against Cox’s wishes, writing in an email, “I consider this matter so serious that I am requesting that it be looked into independently by the City Attorney and that corrective action, including disciplinary action, be taken immediately.”

A subsequent investigation found no wrongdoing on Massengill’s part.

On Tuesday, Cox disputed several facts laid out by the city staff—which includes engineers and soil scientists with experience in sewer line projects—including that the area in question was in fact wetlands. He asked for a survey to codify the boundary. Navarette told him that the same staff members who originally determined that the area constituted wetlands would conduct this new survey, which would cost $10,000 and take up to three months.

Bailey proposed a new route for the pipeline that would move the pipeline closer to the wetlands, but staffers presented an aerial photo from 2010, when the lake was still full of water, with the new path overlaid to show it would still cut into the area considered wetlands. Moving the pipes onto the wetland would permanently damage sensitive lands, Navarette said.

This Cox also disputed, claiming the scrub grass would grow back.

Cox continued to disrupt Navarette, “correcting” her on the number of properties in the area and detailing the difference between scrub grass and trees. At one point, council member Nicole Stewart asked if the staff could continue its presentation. 

“I would like to fill in what I consider missing information,” Cox said, asking the matter be moved to Growth and Natural Resources Committee, on which he serves on with Russ Stephenson, Kay Crowder, Dickie Thompson, and Stef Mendell—a council majority that tends to favor neighborhood concerns over staff recommendations and the city’s long-term planning goals. 

Council member Corey Branch—who chaired the meeting with Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Crowder absent—seemed annoyed.

“Can we have her finish the presentation for the sake of those who are here in the public and for council members who are not here?” Branch asked.

Thompson questioned how long it would take to vet the matter in committee, with Crowder out of town for the rest of the month.

Stewart said she has been consulting with environmental groups in the area and expressed concern that the city could be opening itself up to a lawsuit if it moves the pipes onto protected wetlands.

“I have real concerns about the types of priorities we seem to be bringing up and not thinking about the big picture,” Stewart said.

Even so, the council voted unanimously to have staff do the $10,000 delineation study and referred the matter to the GNR Committee.