County delays vote on eliminating staff plan-review board

Apr. 22, 2013 @ 11:25 PM

County Commissioners on Monday postponed action on a set of changes to Durham’s land-use rules that among other things would eliminate a staff-level board that reviews site plans for new development.

The delay followed complaints about the proposal from the Inter-Neighborhood Council and a group of south Durham residents who are fighting a proposed cell-phone tower Sprint wants to erect in their area.

“There’s just too much uncertainty” to act on the changes now, Commissioner Brenda Howerton said.

City/county planners drafted the new rules in response a 2009 state law – sponsored by state Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, D-Orange – that clamped down on the ability of administrators to make judgment calls about development applications.

Kinnaird’s bill sought to make sure judgment calls go through a “quasi-judicial” process, akin to a court proceeding, in front of an elected board or an appointed board of adjustment.

Durham has long delegated the review of most site plans – the detailed blueprints of a project – to a staff-level Development Review Board that includes officials from City/County Planning and several other departments.

It also has given the Development Review Board latitude to make some judgment calls, for example to decide whether a builder has done all he can to avoid harming trees in a neighborhood where the law has given the trees special protection.

But the state now allows administrators to decide a permit only when they have an easy-to-measure standard to which to refer.

City/county planners responded by reviewing Durham’s land-use law top to bottom. The resulting package of changes covers a wide range of issues. The fate of the Development Review Board has attracted the most attention, as planners propose doing away with it and letting the planning director approve site plans.

That’s attracted opposition from cell-tower opponents like Donna Rudolph, who argued Monday that local standards governing cell towers are too weak and that the elimination of the review board would cut off citizen input.

The Inter-Neighborhood Council – an outside-government consortium of neighborhood groups and associations – more broadly argued that the changes still allow the staff to make judgment calls.

“We found a number of places that do not in our opinion do what the [state] requires,” INC President John Martin said, adding that administrators would still have to act on site plans using standards that elected officials haven’t formally ratified.

The City Council approved the changes in March, after fielding the same complaints. Its members said the INC had come late to the discussion and that officials are addressing the cell-tower issue on another track.

Elected officials have since instructed Planning Director Steve Medlin and his staff to draft a rule that would require a Board of Adjustment review for any new towers that are taller than 60 feet.