For it or agin' it, there's bound to be a show. But no matter what words are said there and then, you can bet they won't be the last. -- Jim Wise, on last night's Board of County Commissioners meeting
Durham's senior statesman among pro-jo pundits penned these words in The Durham News last week, writing about the seemingly endless debate taking place over the 751 South development.
Sure enough, his words were prophetic, though perhaps not shockingly so. As midnight drew near, the BOCC voted to fend off a decision on the 751 South rezoning case until their August 9 meeting -- setting up an interesting night for debate, given the presence of a pro-billboards text amendment on the docket that evening, too.
The vote came after hours of public hearing commentary, largely repeating the same pro-and-con arguments that we've seen in the discourse in recent weeks. (Supporters point to the positive tax base impact, the opportunity to add population in Durham, and the creation of local jobs; opponents point to the proximity to a sensitive watershed, the refusal of the developer to voluntarily adhere to not-yet-final stormwater standards, and questions of whether the site's location is too rural and too distal from downtown and transit for dense mixed-use.)
On the one hand, the hours of public commentary seemed superfluous. After all this debate, it seems unlikely for any proponents to become opponents, or for opponents to transform into supporters all of a sudden. And that's among the segment of the public interested enough to attend or tune into last night's confab.
Among the five people on the BOCC whose opinions really count -- well, make that six and change; more on that in a moment -- it seems even less likely that anyone will be swayed to change their minds at this point.
And the added tension that the debate has brought on already-strained relations on the BOCC was evident from last night's bickering, particularly between former chair Ellen Reckhow and 751 supporter Joe Bowser. (More on that in a follow-up.)
But to not have had the debate would have cheapened the participation, the energy, the engagement of so many in favor of and opposed to the project.
In a sense, their comments seemed to come last night even in the absence of any impact as a sign of the passion and connectivity that those on both sides seem to feel for the project.
My friend Barry said over at his place last night that you could solve any worries about unchecked growth in Durham one way:
Simply require all prospective residents of Durham County to watch the video of tonight's meeting. No one will want to move here.
I'm not sure I agree. If anything, the deluge of public input and awareness and the fact you can turn dozens of people out even when the crux of the decision to be had has nothing to do with the comments points, to me, to the kind of civically-motivated, grassroots community Durham is.
Of course, one can argue that there's no benefit in having (by one count) seventy speakers talk about a project if none of the words will sway the argument. How's that civic participation, they might say?
Perhaps. But on the other hand, tell someone who's lived in Tampa or Chattanooga or the like that seventy people showed up to the umpteenth public hearing on something and spoke for hours, even though their words wouldn't have an impact, just because they believed so passionately in what they were saying.
Yeah, that's a Durham thing. And I think that someone repelled by that idea who chose a place other than Durham to live would be happier in the Apex-Cary-Holly Springs Axis of Homogeneity where strip malls and burbclaves live, than in our rough-and-tumble political world.
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But all of this is secondary to the question: so how'd it turn out last night, and why the postponement until August 9?
That was a question, somewhat oddly perhaps, addressed at the end rather than the beginning of the meeting. BOCC chair Michael Page rebuffed attempts to get County Attorney Lowell Siler to speak to the validity of a protest petition at the meeting's beginning, waiting until the eleven o'clock hour to get that opinion.
Which of course motivated some of the public interest, since it really wasn't clear whether three votes or four votes would be needed to pass the rezoning.
As we and every other media outlet in town have recounted in recent days: the Southern Durham Development team a couple of weeks back went to NCDOT, offering an easement along 751 South's edge with the eponymous roadway -- an easement just wide enough that it would serve to exclude, it seems, some of the signatories to the protest petition from legally committing to such an instrument.
Reckhow complained at last night's meeting that the developers were aware of Planning director Steve Medlin's acceptance of the protest petition as valid, something that happened shortly after the easement was granted; the developers, Reckhow said disapprovingly, didn't mention the presence of such an easement until Friday the 23rd, the last business day before the Monday hearing.
On Monday, as was noted in the comments here and all over local media, NCDOT went to the unusual step of revoking the easement it granted. According to a press release, the agency says it "learned last weekend that by accepting the donation of right of way along N.C. 751 in Durham, the Department had inadvertently interfered in an active public participation process," saying it was unaware of the possible impact of its easement acceptance on a zoning case.
NCDOT issued what it called a "legally-binding action" in the form of a revocation of acceptance of said easement, something that NCDOT deputy divisional engineer told BOCC members late last night was unprecedented in his two decades with the agency.
Oh, really? asked BOCC'er Joe Bowser, the most vocal advocate for the project on the board.
The official, Joey Hopkins, told Bowser and the board that, no, there was plenty of precedent for revoking easements -- but those are temporary easements for construction purposes, which the agency accepts and revokes all the time.
And it's on this point that the 751 South debate turns, for the County at least.
County Attorney Lowell Siler, allowed to give his opinion at the end of the meeting, professed profound perplexity at the maneuvers, which had led to his emailed opinion to County leaders on Monday morning (he told the audience) that the protest petition was no longer valid thanks to the easement -- only for him to learn in the 4pm and 5pm hour, Siler said, that the NCDOT said it was revoking the easement, leaving the whole matter muddled.
Project opponents seem likely to reiterate the point Reckhow made during the discussion, namely, that NCDOT didn't just revoke the easement, but did so after what Hopkins described as an all-day affair that went all the way to the state Attorney General's office, and with a press release sent out to media outlets stating its intent hadn't been to get in the stream of the case.
Siler made the point that Bowser later picked up on in his questioning of Hopkins, though: where in the statutes does NCDOT have the power to revoke a permanent (versus a temporary) easement?
It's that point that Siler intends to research from now until August 9, when a decision will come in this case.
Well, maybe. What's that that Jim Wise said, again?
But no matter what words are said there and then, you can bet they won't be the last.
And of course, if it doesn't go in the developers' favor, there's always another possibility -- commingling annexation and rezoning cases at the City level, though the municipality has been perceived as being less favorable to development than the County is recent years.
For it or agin' it, there's a good chance you'll still be hearin' it, and hearin' the voices of plenty of citizens, for some time to come.
More coverage: See the Herald-Sun, N&O or Indy for coverage of last night's meeting; see the Indy for a summary of the case leading into last night's hearing, and for their coverage of the NCDOT easement issue. See also the Herald-Sun's coverage on the NCDOT easement debate.