Orange, Durham officials collaborating on business node

Apr. 24, 2013 @ 10:39 PM

A 20-year-old plan to spur economic development on the edge of Orange County appears likely to command more and more attention from city of Durham officials as planning for water and sewer connections gets under way.

The plan targets a roughly 1,000-acre patch of land around the U.S. 70/Interstate 85 interchange and the N.C. Railroad main line that Orange County officials call the Eno Economic Development District.

It’s on the Orange/Durham border near the Bennett Place historic site and Eno River State Park – a location that has Orange officials looking to Durham for the water and sewer service industrial or commercial development there will need.

The two governments have agreed to collaborate, and in January the City Council signed off on hiring engineers to master-plan the backbone of the future piping network. That work will cost up to $121,000 and will be paid for by Orange County.

Presuming the two governments like the initial results, the city would extend the engineers’ contract, relaying them another $100,000 to $400,000 to prepare detailed blueprints and permit applications.

Orange County is paying for the work using money from a quarter-percent sales-tax surcharge its voters approved to raise money for schools and economic development.

“The difference between a 20-year plan and what we’re doing now is, we have the money to at least start doing the infrastructure, which seeds [business] activity,” Orange Commission Chairman Barry Jacobs said.

But city involvement in providing water and sewer also brings with it the prospect of the city’s eventually annexing land in the Eno node.

Cross-border annexations aren’t particularly new to Durham officials – part of Chapel Hill is in western Durham County and a bit of Raleigh extends into eastern Durham – but this one has a few built-in political issues they have yet to confront.

Durham city/county planners, looking ahead, will ask the City Council on June 3 to approve non-binding land-use policies for the node that largely track those the Orange commissioners have already established for it. The policies would set the framework for zoning decisions that would follow a future annexation years from now.

The Durham Planning Commission earlier this month voted 13-0 to endorse the staff proposal.

But its decision came only after members heard a dissenting opinion from Old Hillsborough Road resident Darcy Wilson, who told them allowing large-scale commercial development in the node would “destroy the character” of nearby residential areas and potentially threaten the nearby state park.

Wilson was among a number of people who live in and near the node who opposed a zoning package for the node the Orange commissioners approved last September.

The Orange zoning would govern development there until and unless the city of Durham starts annexing the node.

“The very western part of it, the part farthest removed from Durham, still has some unresolved issues as far as the residents are concerned,” Jacobs said. “But I think the vast majority of the EDD has support from the property owners and a great opportunity to develop.”

More broadly, the node is part of a policy that remains controversial with key Orange County political activists.

Orange officials decided in the early 1990s that they wanted to establish target areas for business development. They eventually created three, the Eno district among them, along the I-85 corridor.

But critics said the policy caters to a traditional sort of business-recruitment strategy that doesn’t value the promotion of grassroots enterprise. They also are dubious of the kind of local-government collaboration with business groups that’s routine for Durham officials.

Jacobs said the Eno node is likely to continue to evolve slowly, in part because the ownership of the land in it is fractured.

“There are a lot of small lots in” it, he said. “To aggregate enough to do a large-scale project is more of a challenge than it is in our other two EDDs.”

Orange officials also have transportation questions to sort out. The I-85/U.S. 70 interchange will likely be reworked as part of a future widening of the interstate, and there are questions about transit provisions for the area.

There’s talk of an east-west bus line that would connect Mebane to Duke University, but Jacobs said there are disagreements about its routing.

Triangle Transit officials prefer one using the interstate; Orange officials prefer using U.S. 70, as the interstate, though faster, “would not serve a lot of the areas we’d like to serve, including” the Eno node, he said.

Jacobs said Orange officials have been talking to campus leaders at Duke, trying to interest them in the notion of seeing the Eno node “as a potential economic gateway to the university.”

Work on a park-and-ride lot dovetailing with a bus line is a key possibility on that front, he said.

He acknowledged that Orange officials probably should be talking more to city elected officials. Most of the between-government discussions to date have played out at the staff level.