Governor signs 751 South intervention bill
Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday signed a bill that will force the city of Durham to provide water and sewer service to the controversial 751 South project.
The bill was one of 33 the governor, a former mayor of Charlotte, signed ahead of a weekend action deadline before they would have become law anyway.
The group included a “regulatory reform” bill and three others McCrory’s aides singled out for comment or explanation. They did not explain his reason for signing the 751 bill.
Reacting to the news, Durham Mayor Bill Bell indicated he was surprised that McCrory had opted to sign the bill instead of letting it become law without his signature.
“By signing it, it was an endorsement of what the legislature did,” Bell said.
The intervention is a pronounced departure from longstanding practice, custom and law in North Carolina of the state allowing city and town governments the discretion to decide whether to provide services to private-sector developments outside their borders.
Supporters of intervention in the General Assembly termed the bill a “property rights” measure that defends the prerogatives of private-sector landowners.
They didn’t like Durham’s City Council denying utilities to a site Durham’s county government, in a narrow, 3-2 vote in 2010, had labeled suitable for dense development.
Intervention supporters also touted the bill as a job-creation measure.
The county’s 2010 vote triggered lasting controversy because it broke sharply with joint city/county land-use policy that called for a tapering-off of development in south Durham from Renaissance Parkway south to the Chatham County line.
Critics of 751 South also have objected to its proximity to Jordan Lake, and to the political tactics of its would-be developers, Alex Mitchell and Tyler Morris.
McCrory, before first running for governor in 2008, had earned widespread notice in state politics for his defense of local-government prerogatives.
He was among the co-founders of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition and led the group in opposing a budget-driven impoundment of local tax revenue ordered in the early 2000s by former Gov. Mike Easley.
But in his second, successful run for governor in 2012, he didn’t answer a candidate questionnaire from the coalition that asked whether decisions about extensions of city services should be made by municipal leaders or the N.C. General Assembly.
His main opponent in that race, former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, told the coalition that cities “should control their operations” and service extensions should be conditioned on both “demand and acceptance of the public.”
Potential legislative intervention in the 751 South dispute already was a live possibility when the coalition asked the question of the candidates. A similar bill failed in the 2012 session of the General Assembly by a single vote in the state Senate.
That was a “bad piece of legislation to start with,” and this year’s version, though modified to address some of the city’s concerns, still sets “a bad precedent,” Bell said.
Extending utilities or not “was a local decision, has been a local decision since time started, so to speak,” Bell said. “For state government to get that detailed in micromanaging local government I think was inappropriate, especially since they had given us the authority to do that.”
Bell acknowledged that local governments are “creatures of the General Assembly” under the state constitution. “But in creating us, they had given us that authority, and in intercepting it, they got more involved than I think was appropriate,” he said.
McCrory Chief of State Thomas Stith – a former Durham city councilman – and press aides Kim Genardo and Ryan Tronovitch couldn’t be reached Friday for comment.
The new law, though in theory a statewide measure, is tailored to apply only to the circumstances of 751 South. It gives Mitchell and Morris a 60-day window to request utilities.
McCrory’s signing started that clock and thus gave the developers until Oct. 22 to apply.
The measure conditions intervention on the developers’ honoring the promises they’ve made local officials about road improvements and other things intended to soften the project’s impact on local infrastructure.
The law annexes the 751 South site and the Durham portion of the adjoining Colvard Farms development into the city of Durham effective in June 2023.