N.C. Senate votes in favor of 751 South bill
After debating the economic and environmental impacts of the controversial 751 South development, the N.C. Senate voted 35-10 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would force the city to provide water and sewer services to the project.
Already passed by the House, the bill was expected to have one more reading in the Senate on Friday before making its way to the desk of Gov. Pat McCrory. Legislators had pushed back the vote several times.
The state’s intervention on the bill follows a 4-3 vote by the Durham City Council in June that rejected the proposed project developer’s request for water and sewer service and late for annexation.
The development is slated for 167 acres at the intersection of N.C. 751 and Fayetteville Road near The Streets at Southpoint and the Chatham County line. It’s proposed to include about 1,300 homes and 600,000 square feet of office and commercial space.
Besides debating the number of jobs the project would create and its potential impact on Jordan Lake, the senators also discussed whether the legislature should override local governments on planning decisions.
“If you want to become the planning commission for the state, that’s what we’re heading for, that’s what we do, if we allow developers to come through this door every time they get an unfavorable vote,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Person and Caswell counties. Woodard also is a former Durham City Council member.
Woodard also was critical of the job-creation claims made by project proponents. He said attracting jobs to the project is going to be “very, very competitive” given new office and apartment construction downtown, as well as planning work by Research Triangle Park officials to redevelop the business park.
“Now, you may say, ‘I didn’t know about these other projects, I didn’t’ know about the competition,’” Woodard said. “Of course you didn’t, you don’t live nearby…why are we debating this? Really, folks, isn’t that what we have city councils for? Shouldn’t they be the ones checking the tires on this project; asking these questions?”
Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat representing Durham and Granville counties who also is a former Durham city councilman, argued in favor of the bill. He said the project would bring more than 3,700 jobs during construction, with an impact of more than $166 million.
McKissick said he opposed a similar bill that failed last year because it wasn’t narrowly tailored. This time around, he said, he worked with Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, to define terms and conditions for the bill “which I think are fair, reasonable and very straightforward.”
Moore was principal sponsor of the portion of the language in the 751 South bill that was added in House committee to another bill that had passed first reading in the Senate. He also spearheaded intervention at the state level last year.
“This is not a global bill that has far-reaching implications,” McKissick said.
Other legislators weighed in about the bill, including Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican representing Moore and Randolph counties, said the development seemed like a good economic development project.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Democrat representing Chatham and Orange counties, said the development would further pollute an already impaired Jordan Lake. She also raised concerns about the developer’s process for seeking approval.
“This wasn’t a nice little straight path that everybody thought was just going along and this happy development, creating all these jobs,” she said. “To the contrary, this was a circuitous route with tricks along the way that ended us here. And now we can put lipstick on this pig if we want to.”
The bill, if given the final stamp of approval, would allow for the annexation of the 751 South property into Durham, along with land involved an expansion of the adjoining Colvard Farms neighborhood. The annexation wouldn’t take effect until 2023.
It also would require municipal governments to extend water and sewer services to a project if a property owner has applied voluntarily for annexation, but has been denied.
McKissick argued that the bill is narrowly tailored because it would have to provide notice within 60 days of the bill becoming law. The property owner also must agree in writing to the requirements of any utility extension agreement presented to the governing board at the same time of the failed annexation.
In a phone interview Thursday, Durham Mayor Bill Bell said that he would rather not have the N.C. General Assembly force the city’s hand. But he said he tried to negotiate a better deal knowing that the state legislature would do that.