Durham leaders face requests for more planning money

Mar. 10, 2014 @ 08:38 PM

Activists worried about historic-preservation and cell-tower-regulation issues want County Commissioners to increase the budget of the City/County Planning Department so it can act on them.

The complaints came in on Monday, during a public hearing county leaders use as a lead-in to debate their government’s fiscal 2014-15 budget.

Former Inter-Neighborhood Council President John Martin told commissioners that work has languished on setting up or expanding two historic districts near downtown sought by residents.

One, for the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, has spent nearly four years in the review process, and City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin “can’t tell us” when another for the Golden Belt area might move forward, Martin said.

Similarly, south Durham activists opposed to a cell-tower project off N.C. 751 pointed out that officials have cited funding and limited staff time as reasons they haven’t acted yet on a request for additional rules on towers.

Tower opponents want tighter limits on placing cell antennas near homes, and claimed Monday that a “silent majority” of Durhamites supports that.

“Is this audience not great enough to be a priority in revising this ordinance that is grievous to our citizens?” said Donna Rudolph, a critic of Sprint’s plan for a new tower near her neighborhood.

The Planning Department operates on a $3.1 million budget, and receives money from both the county and city governments.

But it also relies heavily on permit-application fees, which dropped off sharply after 2008’s nationwide real-estate crash. The loss of fee revenue prompted a downsizing of the department staff that city and county officials have never undone, even as development has picked back up.

City and county officials also tightly monitor the allocation of staff time within Planning, via a departmental “work program” that spells out nearly to the minute what each of its employees should be doing.

The department budget became a major issue last summer when County Commissioners ordered a cut in their government’s contribution to it. They made no bones about it being retaliation for a City Council move to slash spending for an unrelated program in the law-enforcement arena.

City officials eventually made good the loss, partly in response to pressure from groups like the People’s Alliance that feared delays to an effort to establish new incentives for the construction of low-cost housing around future transit stations.