751 critics worry about contracts bill

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 04:37 PM

Opponents of the 751 South project are worried a bill filed recently by Durham’s state senators could be a stalking horse for the controversial project.

Introduced Wednesday, the bill would authorize Durham County to use “design/build” contracting for water and sewer projects.

County officials and bill co-sponsor Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, say the measure would expand the contracting options available to the county when it upgrades the sewage-treatment plant that serves RTP and other parts of south Durham.

It “has nothing to do with 751,” said Woodard, who opposed the 1,300-home development when he was on Durham’s City Council.

Passage would give the county, like some other governments around the state, the authority to hire a single firm to design and construct a water or sewer project.

It already has the traditional authority to hire a company to design a project, send the resulting drawings to contractors for bids, and then hire a firm to actually build it.

County Engineer Glen Whisler is urging officials to get permission to use the design/build option because “the industry is moving toward using a single entity that would be responsible for both design and construction so that [the result is] a fully integrated product,” said Deborah Craig-Ray, assistant county manager.

Using traditional bidding, it’s sometimes “difficult to get competitive bids on unique, proprietary and complex projects such as wastewater plants,” she said.

Woodard, offering his own take, said using design/build could save Whisler “a lot of hassle and the taxpayers of Durham a lot of money, and get us the plant repair a lot quicker.”

Woodard is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, who couldn’t be reached Friday for comment.

The pair has also introduced similar legislation that would allow the city to use design/build for the new police headquarters it’s planning.

The method would complement existing authority for traditional contracting, and the “construction manager at risk” system city leaders used for the Durham Performing Arts Center.

The construction-manager approach involves choosing a construction firm early on to work with architects on the initial design and orchestrate the hiring of subcontractors. The at-risk part is that the construction manager sets a maximum price for the project when blueprints are nearly ready, and then has to eat any cost overruns.

Whisler’s city counterpart, Joel Reitzer, said city leaders haven’t decided which contracting strategy they’ll use for the $45 million police headquarters but want the full range of choices.

The county’s move caught the eye of Steve Bocckino, one of the most vocal of 751 South’s developments.

He contacted The Herald-Sun early on Friday to say the bill “looks like it may be another 751 South end-run.” Bocckino relayed similar sentiments to Woodard.

The would-be developers of 751, Alex Mitchell and Tyler Morris, are counting on receiving county sewer service because the city has declined to extend utilities to the project.

They still need water hookups, but given the city’s stance have been looking into wells and a possible tie, via a private contractor, with Chatham County’s utility system. Durham County doesn’t own a water treatment plant.

Bocckino’s worry alluded not just to those factors but the county-requested state law that in 2010 affected a formal protest against the project’s zoning.

Until that law passed the General Assembly, the city and county had used slightly different standards when judging the eligibility of neighbors to sign a protest petition.

Such petitions trigger a supermajority requirement for the approval of a protested rezoning.

The 2010 law aligned the county’s petition standards with the city’s, an administrative simplification for the City/County Planning Department that 751 critics nonetheless felt worked to their disadvantage.