Vote on 751 South utility deal coming June 3

May. 23, 2013 @ 06:09 PM

City Council members have scheduled a vote June 3 on whether they’ll go along with a renewed request from the would-be developers of 751 South for city annexation, water and sewer.

The decision will follow a public hearing and it was clear from comments Thursday during and after a council work session that any approval of the deal will not be unanimous.

Councilwoman Diane Catotti, a longtime critic of the controversial development, advised “those of you that are planning to support this” to seek an additional concession from developers Alex Mitchell and Tyler Morris about widening N.C. 751.

Catotti’s wording implied that she is not planning to support the project. And an ally of hers, Councilman Steve Schewel, after the meeting said he has “not seen anything that would make me change my mind” about extending utilities.

The deal is on the table thanks to behind-the-scenes talks between the developers and Mayor Bill Bell, who’s signaled he wants to fend off a potential N.C. General Assembly intervention in the long-running dispute.

Schewel made it clear he doesn’t fault Bell.

“I totally respect his effort to negotiate something, and we’re negotiating with a gun at our head,” Schewel said. “That’s a difficult situation.”

Pro-development state legislators, Republicans mostly, came within a single vote in the N.C. Senate last year of passing a bill that would have forced the city to extend utilities to the project site.

Republicans in the subsequent election extended their majorities in both chambers. But to date, backers of the project have not introduced a new bill, apparently in deference to the talks between Bell and the developers.

The situation prompted one of 751 South’s most vocal critics, south Durham homeowner and political activist Steve Bocckino, to urge council members Thursday to refuse utilities.

“People say that politics is the art of compromise. But this isn’t compromise,” Bocckino said of the proposed deal. “A vote to approve 751 South would be nothing but preemptive surrender in the face of a flagrant shakedown by the developers’ pals in Raleigh. I’ve known all of you for years, and I believe Durham’s leaders are made of stronger stuff.”

He added that 751 South has only “a handful” of supporters in south Durham, versus “hundreds” of opponents who think it’s “too dense, too close to Jordan Lake and will trigger a retail tsunami down into Chatham County.”

The road issue Catotti raised concerned the developers’ promise to widen N.C. 751 from Massey Chapel Road to Renaissance Parkway.

Mitchell and Morris in 2010 had agreed to widen the highway along the frontage of their property.

The additional pledge would ensure a complete widening of the highway in south Durham, assuming that the developers of an unrelated project follow through on a similar commitment.

But the city could still be left holding the bag for adding lanes if the team behind the unrelated project, Southpoint Trails, “folds, flips their property, rezones or downzones in the future,” Catotti said, adding that officials should address that contingency with Mitchell and Morris.

Councilman Don Moffitt, however, noted that the council would have to approve any rezoning that releases a potential developer of the Southpoint Trails site from the obligation to help widen the road.

Catotti and City Attorney Patrick Baker also made a point on Thursday of establishing that 751 South’s developers had not, as part of the deal, agreed to reduce the project’s density.

The 2010 zoning of the site by County Commissioners allows up to 1,300 homes and 600,000 square feet of commercial space. That stands, and the council isn’t being asked to change the zoning.

The developers’ lawyer, Cal Cunningham, said in a May 13 letter to Bell that his clients anticipate developing 227 single-family homes and “595 combined apartment/condominiums” on the 751 site proper.

Another 173 single-family homes are anticipated on an adjoining parcel controlled by Mitchell’s cousin, Cree Inc. co-founder Neal Hunter that would become an addition to the existing Colvard Farms neighborhood.

Those add up to 995 dwellings, but Baker said he believes the numbers didn’t include rental units.

In any event, Cunningham’s letter “is not a binding commitment from the developer” that overrides the site’s zoning and the prospective water and sewer agreement, Baker said.