Kentington Heights residents may protest rezoning

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 06:42 PM

Some Kentington Heights residents are saying they may formally protest a developer’s request to zone only part of the south Durham subdivision for a proposed car dealership.

And in the process they’re raising questions about the way both the developer and city officials are approaching a neighborhood whose owners, for more than a decade, have been eager to see the land zoned for commercial development.

“This is a conspiracy to divide and conquer,” said Antoinette Hawes, a Chanticleer Drive homeowner.

Kentington Heights is just south of The Streets at Southpoint mall. But despite problems with failing septic tanks, the neighborhood isn’t connected to the city sewer network that serves the mall and its environs.

Property owners in the early 2000s said they preferred to sell rather than to connect, and asked the city to allow commercial development there so they could sell without taking a financial hit. The City Council obliged with a non-binding policy change that said commercial was an appropriate use for the subdivision’s land.

But it held off on actually passing the follow-up zoning change while property owners – some owner-occupants, other absentee owners – negotiated with potential developers.

The most likely developer for a few years now has been WRS Inc., a South Carolina company that at one point was thought to be assembling a $20.5 million site for a new Wal-Mart.

That possibility apparently evaporated when the chain opted to put a branch on Durham’s Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, so now WRS is working on the car dealership idea. Its zoning application indicates it’s collaborating with the Hendrick Automotive Group.

But Kentington residents like Hawes and Jeannette Wilson object because the plan envisions using only part of the neighborhood.

Wilson emailed City Council members on March 10 to say that she and her remaining neighbors would file a formal protest petition against the rezoning, to force WRS to muster a six-vote supermajority to get its application through.

She also said that while the Wal-Mart project was on the table, WRS had intended to buy the entire neighborhood, with sale prices “mutually agreed upon” and contracts signed.

Once prospects for a Wal-Mart disappeared, the developer backed out of those deals and halved its previous offers for the land, said Wilson, who lives on Kentington Drive.

“Many of us could not afford to take the reduced amount and did not,” she told council members. “It was a situation in which many of us felt manipulated and that the company was attempting to take our property for less than it was worth.”

The issue, Hawes added in an interview, is that Kentington’s remaining owner-occupants feel they need to receive enough to ensure that they can buy new homes mortgage-free.

“You need to look at the demographics of the people out there,” Hawes said. “All these people are old and can’t get new financing. They have to be able to go out and pay cash for a house.”

“We are committed to moving, but not committed to struggling later,” she added. “It’s not about greed; we’re just trying to get what we need. No one’s trying to do the Hollywood champagne thing.”

But City Council members in 2009 agreed to a further policy change that signaled they would consider a rezoning that included less than the full neighborhood. The change responded to fears at the time that a holdout or two, drawn from Kentington’s roster of absentee owners, might try to block the Wal-Mart deal in search of a better offer.

Wilson and Hawes both said owner-occupants don’t want to be left without a deal and with a car dealership as a next-door neighbor.

But City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin in February told elected officials the WRS proposal “should not harm” any Kentington Heights homeowners it leaves out because they or a developer could file their own commercial zoning application.

Lewis Cheek, a lawyer who’s working for WRS, said Tuesday he believes his clients have “got a lot of support for the project” and are pressing ahead.

“If there is a protest petition, we’ll just have to try to approach it and it’ll be up to the council to decide whether they think the project is a good one or not,” said Cheek. “But we’re confident in the project. We think it’s a good one.”

Cheek declined to comment on WRS’ prior dealings with residents, saying he didn’t represent the company then. WRS executive Stacy Woodhouse couldn’t be reached for comment.

South Durham activist Steve Bocckino, a near-neighbor of the site, told City Councilwoman Diane Catotti via email that he’s “pretty sure” the application will attract a protest.

He said homeowners and WRS are facing a real problem, which is that “only a small portion of commercial developments merit the $300,000 an acre most of these folks, on 0.45-acre lots, would need to relocate.”

“The developers aren’t the bad guys; they are just paying what the market will support,” Bocckino told Catotti, adding that Kentington Heights residents “were poorly served” years ago, when Southpoint was in the works, “by those who told them they could get a million an acre.”