Debate grows about future of 2005 land-use plan

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 06:34 PM

It might be time for the city and county governments to rework the countywide comprehensive land-use plan that’s been in place since 2005, City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin told elected officials Wednesday.

Addressing the Joint City/County Planning Committee, Medlin said he’d asked his top aides to “bring forth to both administrations” the possibility of rewriting the plan.

That would likely include a fresh look at the map of projected land uses that officials consult when making zoning decisions, Medlin said, adding that for budgetary reasons the earliest such a project could start would be in fiscal 2014-15.

The existing plan while “a good instrument is somewhat antiquated” because the data that shaped it may not have been “as full as it needs to be” to undergird city and county policy decisions, Medlin said.

His comments came in answer to a question from City Councilwoman Diane Catotti, at the conclusion of a briefing on how much land in Durham is zoned for industrial development.

The briefing indicated that while there’s a lot of industrial zoning, little of it is attached to sites that seem like prime recruiting prospects.

But the issues surrounding the comprehensive plan go deeper than that, as it’s been apparent for a while that local officials are no longer in accord about what should happen development-wise in some parts of the county.

The plan in broad terms calls on the city and county to channel public- and private-sector investment into the center city and eastern Durham, while limiting it in northern Durham around the city’s drinking-water reservoirs.

Most recent troubles have focused on south Durham, where officials have encouraged the build-up of the retail node around the Streets of Southpoint mall.

But the plan calls for a tapering-off of density from Renaissance Parkway south to Durham’s border with Chatham County. Several developers – the sponsors of the controversial 751 South project most notably – have challenged that policy.

Medlin said he’d broached the possibility of a plan rewrite with City Manager Tom Bonfield’s office.

But Bonfield on Wednesday said the only discussion he’d had with planners was a brief one the day before about whether it would be worthwhile “to somehow revisit” the plan “in southern Durham where we keep having all these onesies and twosies come in.”

The manager’s “onesies or twosies” comment alluded to the several requests for rezonings below Renaissance Parkway that would allow more development than the non-binding comprehensive plan favors.

Along the way, officials “continue to hear the variety of opinions from the property owners who say it’s only a little increase” or “it’s not economically feasible” to stay within the plan’s density limits, Bonfield said, noting contrary arguments that officials shouldn’t change the plan at all.

“It’s difficult to deal with those on a parcel-by-parcel basis,” he said. “That’s why we call it a ‘comprehensive’ plan.”

But Bonfield noted that the decision on whether to launch a rewrite isn’t up to administrators. Elected officials, starting with those on the Joint City/County Planning Committee, have to make the call.

The 2005 plan was written under the direction of Medlin’s predecessor as planning director, Frank Duke.