751 intervention bill surfaces in N.C. House

Jun. 11, 2013 @ 07:56 PM

A bill that would force the city to extend water and sewer to the controversial 751 South project is on the move in the N.C. House.

Legislators on Tuesday attached pro-751 language to an otherwise unrelated bill requested by the city that already had passed the N.C. Senate. The House rules committee signed off on the change and scheduled the measure for a floor debate this morning.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said the bill reflects the terms of a bargain he struck with state Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the legislator who’s spearheaded calls for General Assembly intervention in the long-running dispute.

As drafted, the measure would codify the agreement “negotiated between the city and the developer” that calls for project sponsors Alex Mitchell and Tyler Morris to pay for a widening of N.C. 751 in return for access to city services, McKissick said.

The deal is the same one the City Council rejected last week by a 4-3 vote.

In the General Assembly, it’s now “a matter of coming up with something that’s fair and reasonable and creates a win-win” for both sides, McKissick said on Tuesday. “The alternative might have been a directive that the city provide water and sewer and that was it.”

The bill would annex the land involved in 751 South into the city, along with land involved in an expansion of the adjoining Colvard Farms neighborhood. The annexation would take effect in 10 years.

Unlike the deal the council rejected last week, the city wouldn’t have the authority to back away from the annexation if officials thought absorbing the site would be a money-loser for their government. It would, however, gain that authority for other projects.

The McKissick/Moore language – crafted by Gerry Cohen, the lawyer and former Chapel Hill town councilman who heads the General Assembly’s bill-drafting office – is styled as a statewide measure that applies to every city and town in North Carolina.

It requires municipal governments to extend water and sewer services on a developer’s request, provided the developer unsuccessfully sought annexation and applies for services within 60 days of the bill’s becoming law.

An earlier draft of the bill by Cohen, circulated to City Council members last Thursday, would have tied the start of the 60-day clock directly to a city’s rejection of annexation. The subsequent change of phrasing appeared to narrow the possibility for other developers to take advantage of the legislation.

The bill additionally says developers can demand water and sewer only if they offered as part of their request for utilities to provide road improvements, and agree in writing to fulfill that initial promise.

The measure in practical terms further bars the city from changing the zoning of 751 South and Colvard Farms, except in accord with a request by the developers.

That would preserve Durham County Commissioners’ controversial rezoning vote in 2010, which allowed up to 1,300 homes and 600,000 square feet of commercial space on the project site.

The House is scheduled to begin its deliberations today at 8:15 a.m. Members have to vote twice on the bill before it can return to the Senate for potential concurrence.

McKissick said there could be “some further tweaking” of the bill before it clears the House. He said he consulted Durham city attorneys and Mayor Bill Bell as he worked with Moore, and “had some conversations with other council members as well.”

As a statewide measure, the bill if passed would have to go to Gov. Pat McCrory before it could become law. He would have the choice of signing it, vetoing it or allowing it to become law without his signature.

McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, made his initial splash in state politics in the early 2000s as an advocate for local governments. But this spring, as governor, he opted to let a bill that stripped ownership of Asheville’s water system from its city government become law without signing it.

The governor could have a pro-751 voice at his side in the person of his chief of staff, former Durham City Councilman Thomas Stith.

Stith is a behind-the-scenes player in a Durham big-three political group, the Friends of Durham, that’s vocally supported the massive project.

His wife, Yolanda, is also a lobbyist who until this year had business ties with Reginald Holley, the lobbyist Mitchell and Morris retained for the General Assembly’s 2012 session to help push for legislative intervention in the dispute.

Mitchell and Morris are not currently working with Holley or any other lobbyist, according to N.C. Secretary of State records.

The 2012 intervention bid generated a bill that passed the House but fell one vote short of gaining Senate approval.