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Comprehensive plan update gets another go-around this afternoon

Durhamites will get a chance to examine and potentially to influence one of the county’s most important planning documents this afternoon. 

The six-year-old Durham Comprehensive Plan is about halfway through its first major revision. In one way or another, the document touches upon nearly every major aspect of life in Durham County. It has 18 chapters covering land use, housing, historic preservation, commerce, conservation and the environment, transportation, recreation, education, capital projects, and public infrastructure and buildings, among other topics. 

Each chapter briefly examines relevant issues, lays out goals and details a few strategies for realizing those goals. These guiding principles often take up relatively little space. The text of the housing chapter, for instance, runs 11 pages, of which about half deal with ensuring that subsidized housing is distributed more or less evenly throughout the county. 

This part of the 18-month revision process is the time for the first of two scheduled rounds of public comments. When the next round comes, in the fall, a draft plan revision should be complete. The process is being led by Laura Woods, a senior planner in the City-County Planning Department who helped create the original plan. 

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So far, though, there has been relatively little public curiosity about the revisions. The two plan update open houses held over the past week collectively drew about 20 visitors. (The final open house in this comment round will be held Thursday from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at North Regional Library.) 

Nearly all of the interest in the plan thus far, Woods said, involves possible changes to the Future Land Use Map, which guides zoning. “‘What land use is designated for my property’ is a typical question,” the senior planner said.  

Current land use designations will remain in place for most property in the county. That not-particularly-dramatic answer may be a clue to why the process hasn’t drawn a great deal of attention. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be a radical change this time around,” Woods said, referring both to the land use map and to the plan text itself. 

One reason planners are unlikely to make wholesale land use changes is that alterations require public notice. The cost of printing and mailing such notices adds up quickly, Woods said. 

A lot of the changes that will be made involve deleting strategies that have been completed and adding new ones that have bubbled to the surface. 

The roster of tasks that are done or in process includes creating specialized plans or rules for Ninth Street, downtown Durham, Fayetteville Street and city gateways. Another item on the checklist, revising the mixed-use ordinance, is under way now. 

One future task will be revising county plans for Research Triangle Park once the park foundation’s internal review process is complete. Others will involve creating documents to guide the development of various “suburban transit support areas” that are likely to get train or express bus stations, according to future mass transit plans. 

The order in which new tasks are tackled will be determined in conjunction with elected officials, Woods said. 

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Nathan Lott was one of just a handful of visitors to the plan open house held Tuesday afternoon at the South Regional Library. He noticed the event when he was leaving the building after having used a public computer; he ended up stopping in the meeting room and spending 25 minutes getting a guided tour of the presentation. 

“It had the [section] about the economic development and I knew I wanted to say something about illegal aliens,” said Lott, a contractor. “They come in and bid real low on the projects, which is good for the customers, but it’s destroying the white and black contractors.” 

Lott said that some immigrant contractors will bid jobs at a quarter of what the work might cost him. He said this race to the bottom price-wise has forced him, like other contractors, to use undocumented laborers. 

On the sheets provided at the open house, Lott asked planners to consider how to prevent this kind of detrimental economic competition. 

But it’s doubtful that they will be able to provide a satisfactory answer. The current chapter on economic development makes no reference to immigration. Organizations with more resources than the Durham Planning Department (read: federal law enforcement agencies) have been unable to resolve immigration issues to general satisfaction. And the matter is mostly considered to be a federal issue, not a local one. 

Which isn’t to say that the plan does not contribute anything important to local public policy. Currently, the document supports such goals as eliminating substandard housing, helping low- and moderate-income families improve home energy efficiency, encouraging business expansion and development that creates livable wage jobs in low-income neighborhoods, integrating long-range transportation planning with local land use plans and development policies, educating consumers about water conservation and preserving scenic rural vistas through “viewshed protection measures.” 

And whether they’re answered or not, other issues raised through the comment process seem very relevant to Durham’s present and future. 

In a written comment, one visitor asked what could be done to save the Liberty Warehouse, the historic former tobacco auction warehouse that was condemned recently after its roof collapsed. Another asked how to secure jobs and homes for convicts who have completed prison sentences. Someone asserted that the United States can’t be a world-class economy with its current high rate of fossil fuel consumption. Others questioned what could be done to improve the channeling of stormwater, which seems particularly relevant given last Friday’s flooding on University Drive. 

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The revision process is slated to culminate in an updated plan being adopted by both Durham’s City Council and its Board of County Commissioners this fall. Since the comprehensive plan is a policy, not an ordinance, both bodies may change their minds about the guiding principles it contains. 

But Woods doesn’t expect that to happen. 

“The elected officials have committed to following them,” she said. “There are no examples over the last five years when they weren’t followed. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume they will be followed in the future.” 

Woods added that the comprehensive plan is closely tied to the Unified Development Ordinance, which elected boards have far less ability to overturn. 

Individuals with questions about the comprehensive plan can contact Woods at Laura.Woods@DurhamNC.gov or 560-4137, Ext. 28248. 

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