Development practices in the Bull City have been under a microscope in recent months, from two very different perspectives.
On the one hand, the City Council has been working with staff on a development review process to address complaints, usually from developers, that plan review and approval is an over-lengthy, and sometimes unpredictable, process open to a great deal of staff interpretation.
On the other hand, residents, particularly those in less-settled eastern and southern Durham County, have been raising louder and louder concerns about suburban development practices such as mass grading, stormwater, and water source protection.
In the wake of last year's drought -- and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources' attempt to pin Jordan/Falls Lake cleanup costs on municipalities over their development practices, an action contested by Durham but which could cost north of $340 million for cleanup -- these latter complaints are getting more scrutiny than ever before.
One local player looks to come to the forefront in the next month: Durham's Inter-Neighborhood Council, which will consider in July a draft resolution intended to impact residential development practices in the county.
The INC's looked at this topic before, including earlier this year when Steve Medlin visited the INC to talk about his City/County Planning department's plans to review the environmental protection sections of the Unified Development Ordinance that governs development practices in Durham. Now the INC will consider a proposal that asks Durham's leaders to take a tough stand on development practices.
Mass grading and clear-cutting, which together remove existing intact tree stands and levels the ground to make homebuilding less expensive on a per-lot basis, are two factors cited in the INC draft resolution as problematic for the sustainability of development. Intact trees and natural topography, the resolution's authors argue, provide natural stormwater control and help filter out contaminants like nitrogen and phosphorus from run-off.
Those end up too often instead running out to creeks that feed Jordan Lake, the authors argue, which contributes to the pollution levels noted in the manmade reservoir.
These practices, according to the draft resolution, aren't prevalent in older sections of developments like Hope Valley, Woodcroft and Fairfield, where land preparation was done on a lot-by-lot basis, not a site-by-site one. (A factor that also plays, it's argued, into higher property values and aesthetics.)
At the same time, Chapel Hill mandates a greater buffer around streams and creeks that eventually feed into the water basis -- as much as 150' from the stream bank, according to the resolution, versus as little as 20' in some cases in the Bull City. In addition, many developments abutting Army Corps of Engineers Jordan Lake land end up with 25-50' buffers to the ACE property, as opposed to the 100' the Corps requests.
To this end, the resolution calls for a number of changes to development practices:
- Requiring lot-by-lot versus full-site clearing and grading "wherever possible"
- Prohibiting unbuildable land like power line easements, bodies of water and recreational facilities from counting towards natural open space requirements, while asking for 100' minimum uncleared buffers from Corps land
- Matching Chapel Hill's stream buffer requirements
- Strengthening requirements for saving "specimen trees" on site (those falling outside of a home's building envelope)
The INC committee drafting the resolution is considering other additions to the proposal, including:
- Limiting the percentage of impervious surface (including roads, driveways and the like) from 24% to 10%
- Increased stormwater runoff enforcement
- Limiting comprehensive plan changes to take place every three years, unless there's overwhelming support of neighbors for a development plan
- Restricting the urban growth line for Durham, presumably to exempt southern and eastern Durham from higher-density development
- Consider mandating the use of rain barrels, rain gardens, or drought-resistant landscaping for new homes
From this observer's view, I wouldn't consider the full set of requests to get tremendous traction -- as a whole -- with public officials, given the likely significant pressure one could expect from the homebuilding community and from landowners (many of whom are actively trying to bundle and sell long-held family farms for development) on what would amount to a dramatic change in development practices.
Still, a subset of these -- including concerns over mass grading/clear-cutting practices and the impact of runoff -- seem to already have traction with some public officials concerned by some of the development practices seen in recent developments.
The INC will take up a final version of this proposal at their July 22 meeting.