Industrial-land allotment still vexes planners

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 05:38 PM

There’s still an abundance of land in Durham zoned for industrial development, and a relative shortage of land that’s actually marketable to business-recruitment prospects, city/county planners say.

It appears only 32 properties in the county have the combination of 25-plus acres, close-at-hand major roads and utilities, buffering from nearby homes and lack of major environmental constraints that local recruiters prize, they said in a memo reviewed Wednesday by the Joint City/County Planning Committee.

Only two include 100 or more acres and none has more than 150 acres.

Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce officials have relayed word that the situation “limits our ability to recruit some large industrial” enterprises, Senior Planner Laura Woods told the committee.

She added that the issue merits further study, perhaps in the next update of local governments’ countywide land-use plan.

The memo revisited and reiterated a long-standing conundrum for city and county officials, particularly those that sit on the joint committee that oversees the work of Durham’s Planning Department.

At most recent count, the county had about 17,200 acres zoned for industrial development of some sort. Industry was using about 5,300 acres, the rest being vacant or occupied by homes, shops, farms and other things not classed as industry.

That leaves about 11,900 acres, but only about 1,650 of them are in a location that makes them “actually marketable,” Woods said.

Planners calculate that major businesses will soak up about 1,400 acres by 2035.

“We’re within that margin, but it is uncomfortably close,” Woods said of the county’s ability to meet future demand.

The situation is little changed from 2006, when former City/County Planning Director Frank Duke reported to the joint committee that there were 18,121 acres of industrial-zoned land in Durham County.

Even then, many in-town or northern Durham sites weren’t attractive to recruiters because they weren’t big enough or were subject to strict watershed regulations.

Duke at the time said only about four prime industrial sites – one in RTP, two in Treyburn and one in the U.S. 70 corridor – were vacant in all of Durham.

The discrepancy over the years has led some owners of zoned-for-industry land to ask the city and county for rezonings that would allow them to develop homes and shops instead.

Officials almost always have gone along, though not without fretting that they’re reducing the long-term prospects of growing the county’s tax and employment base.

The situation has sparked interest in working with neighboring counties.

County leaders have been talking to their counterparts in Person County about collaborating on an industrial park in Person’s southern reaches.

The city, meanwhile, plans to extend water and sewer to an economic-development district off U.S. 70 in easternmost Orange County.

It would almost certainly annex the node, but that might not offer much help on the industrial-land front as Orange County officials want more of a mix of “low-rise office and maybe commercial development,” Planning Supervisor Aaron Cain said.

The briefing complete, most subsequent questions came from County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs.

She wondered if the Planning Department’s study was using faulty assumptions about how much land industry will need in the future, given the ever-growing prevalence of automation.

If that translates into the ability to use smaller sites, “things might be better than that…,” Jacobs said.

But the study implies that it might be worthwhile to identify the prime parcels and be sure local policy recognizes them as “critical industrial sites” so officials don’t inadvertently zone them for less-intense uses, Jacobs and City Councilwoman Diane Catotti said.