South Durham density debate expands

Dec. 11, 2012 @ 08:08 PM

Another south Durham development proposal is making its way through the approval process that calls for more construction than existing policy would sanction.

On Tuesday, Durham Planning Commission members endorsed on votes of 9-4 and 10-3 plans for Montclair, a project sponsored by a Texas firm seeking zoning for up to 53 homes on 19.2 acres between Barbee Chapel and Farrington Mill roads.

The commission’s non-binding approval recommendation to the City Council came against the advice of City/County Planning Department staffers, who said it would further erode policy that calls for a tapering-off of density between the city limits, Jordan Lake and the county’s southern boundary.

Some members said there were neighborhood-specific reasons to override that policy, but others questioned the validity of the city/county comprehensive plan it’s embedded in.

“The comprehensive plan is out there and I’m not a big advocate, as it’s set up, for the comprehensive plan in so many ways,” said Rickey Padgett, a county appointee who joined the board over the summer after losing a bid for a County Commissioners seat.

Padgett, four other county appointees and four city appointees supported changing the plan to line up with the Montclair developer’s zoning request.

The Montclair application is coming through as a to-this-point deadlocked City Council mulls a decision about a different project, Southpoint Trails, that calls for placing 164 townhouses on a 27.9-acre site at the corner of N.C. 751 and Stagecoach Road.

Southpoint Trails also received a Planning Commission endorsement despite a staff recommendation against it. As the debate on that project has unfolded, city/county planners have voiced the same worry about undermining existing policy.

The Montclair developer’s local representative, former Planning Commission member Jarrod Edens, on Tuesday said his clients are willing to accept a density cap of 2.87 units an acre. Current policy would sanction up to two units an acre there.

Edens said Weekley Homes LLC needs the extra units to cover the costs associated with installing a sewage pump station and road improvements.

The developer is also bargaining with the leaders of the adjoining Barbee’s Chapel Baptist Church for parking and other services the church would need to expand some of its facilities.

Barbee’s Chapel’s senior pastor, Gene Hatley, attended Tuesday’s hearing and endorsed Montclair.

“We feel this project would afford us the opportunity to do something of the things we’d like to,” he said, singling out a potential expansion of the church’s classroom space but “not necessarily our sanctuary.”

The project also received support from nearby residents Michael Hining and Juliann Tenney.

Hining, a local architect, said his home is on an 8½-acre tract that doesn’t have a site on it suitable for a septic field. It instead has a sand filter that’s vulnerable to failure – making the potential availability of sewer service an attractive fallback option.

Tenney said the Montclair proposal “is not incrementally different in density” than nearby neighborhoods like Downing Creek that made it through the approval process years ago.

But city/county planners have pointed out that the tapering-off policy emerged from the political debates surrounding the development of The Streets at Southpoint mall.

“When the comprehensive plan was updated in 2005, the area of southwest Durham perhaps more than any [other] area of the county or city was analyzed very carefully by staff due to interest from citizens and elected officials,” Assistant Planning Director Pat Young said. “There was a lot of discussion about where in southwest Durham density would taper off or begin to taper off.”

Opposition to the plan change came from Planning Commission city delegates Harry Monds and David Harris, and county delegates Rebecca Board and Charles Gibbs. Board subsequently broke with the other three and joined the majority that favored rezoning.

“My concern is what some call the domino theory,” Harris said. “You allow this one, and the next one comes. Pretty soon you may as well not have a comprehensive plan if you continue to allow people to just override [it].”

“We know there’s a trend to at a step at a time increase density all along the southern boundary of Durham, one parcel at a time without thinking things through,” Board said, adding that Montclair’s density nonetheless “did not raise any red flags for me.”

City delegate Rebecca Winders supported the plan and zoning changes and said she’s concerned about the sewage-treatment situation in the area.

Given the fragility of septic systems, “possibly having a lot more septic systems in the Jordan Lake watershed would be less desirable than having slightly increased density,” Winders said.