Durham legislators still divided on 751 bill

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 07:47 PM

A caucus late Tuesday afternoon failed to produce agreement among Durham’s six legislators on what they should do about a pending bill that would force the city to provide water and sewer service to 751 South.

“The delegation is a little bit divided right now,” state Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said after the meeting. “Some want to kill it; some want to do what the bill says.”

Michaux added that members will likely have to “see what happens” when the N.C. House Finance Committee resumes debate on the measure.

The committee held a public hearing on the bill Monday, in anticipation of voting on it today. But the published House calendar didn’t list it as one of the bills that Finance members intend to consider today.

Tuesday’s Durham delegation caucus was important because it’s unusual, even for the 2013 version of the N.C. General Assembly, for the House and Senate to intervene in a local matter against the wishes of a county’s legislative delegation.

High-profile interventions into the management of Charlotte’s airport and Asheville’s water system followed intra-delegation quarrels, along Republican-versus-Democratic lines, among Mecklenburg and Buncombe county legislators.

Durham’s delegation is all-Democratic and thus operates at a disadvantage in the majority Republican House and Senate. But, presenting a united front, it was able last year to fend off an attempt to intervene in the 751 dispute spearheaded by state Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

Moore has resumed the push for a General Assembly decision in the wake of the City Council’s decision on June 3 to again decline to offer services.

Decisions by cities and towns on service extensions, annexation and zoning are by both law and custom discretionary.

Michaux, Durham’s senior legislator, made it abundantly clear during Monday’s hearing that he resented an out-of-town House member involving himself in the dispute.

Moore “didn’t have any business sticking his nose in Durham’s business,” Michaux told Finance Committee members, Moore among them. “It’s up to the Durham people, it’s up to the Durham delegation, to do what the people of Durham want to do.”

Moore also received a backhanded rebuke Monday from Finance Chairwoman Julia Howard, R-Davie, after Mayor Bill Bell told members that he tried to work out a deal with the developers because he’d been told the General Assembly would force the city to extend services to 751 South if it didn’t agree on its own.

“I’m sorry about that,” Howard told Bell.

But Michaux, state Sen. Floyd McKissick and House Minority Leader Larry Hall, all D-Durham, acknowledged at various points on Monday and Tuesday that the county’s legislators are now divided on the issue.

“I don’t think there’s any change from what it has been,” Hall said on Tuesday, adding that he remains opposed to the bill “in its current form.”

Michaux said he’s ambivalent about the merits of dispute.

“I don’t want the General Assembly telling cities and counties what to do,” Michaux said. “On the other hand, I look at what good this [project] might do for Durham. It’s a situation we have to wrestle with and pray over.”

City lawyers, meanwhile, advised council members Tuesday that a former colleague of theirs is talking to legislators and General Assembly staffers about flaws she sees in the bill.

Former Senior Assistant City Attorney Karen Sindelar told McKissick and the head of the assembly’s bill-drafting office, Gerry Cohen, that the current draft could wind up excusing developers from having to comply with the conditions County Commissioners attached to the project in 2010 when they approved its zoning.

It could also exempt 751 South from “standard city requirements” that apply to all developments, she told them in a memo that recommended several wording changes to eliminate the problem.

Sindelar retired late in 2010. Her replacement, Senior Assistant City Attorney Don O’Toole, relayed her suggestions to the council and said he and City Attorney Patrick Baker “are in agreement” that her proposals “are more protective of the city.”

But officials didn’t know whether McKissick, the delegation’s point man on the issue, would ask for the changes to be made, O’Toole said.

McKissick couldn’t be reached for comment.

The delegation also includes state Reps. Paul Luebke and Val Foushee, and state Sen. Mike Woodard. All are Democrats and all but Foushee are from Durham. Foushee is from Orange County; her district includes the northern reaches of Durham County.