County to buy land near Falls Lake

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 06:21 PM

Acting via a split vote, County Commissioners have approved a $950,000 deal that will yield their government’s first open-space purchase near Falls Lake.

The 3-2 decision authorized County Manager Mike Ruffin and his staff to complete the purchase of 1003 Santee Road, a 260-acre property a little less than a quarter mile from the shore of the regional reservoir.

Supporters of the deal argued that the acquisition will help protect Raleigh’s drinking-water supply, serve the recreation needs of area residents and provide a lab for students at nearby Neal Middle School.

“Eastern Durham County has been a real growth area for the past 10 years,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. “It’s important for the citizens in that part of the county to have open space and recreation opportunities similar to the opportunities residents have in other parts of the county.”

Reckhow joined commissioners Wendy Jacobs and Michael Page in favoring the purchase.

The opposition came from commissioners Brenda Howerton and Chairman Fred Foster. Foster said he preferred amid budget uncertainty to hold on to the $650,000 the county will put into the deal.

“I think we could have better spent that money on the people that are going to be affected by some of the decisions coming out of Raleigh, as well as our own budget shortfall,” he said.

The purchase was something of an opportunistic move, as the property is now in the hands of a bank that acquired control of it in August via a foreclosure proceeding.

The site’s previous owner, Prometheus Development, bought it in 2003 for $789,000. The land became collateral in the summer of 2008 for a $635,000 loan to the firm from Capital Bank.

Capital now owns the land by virtue of a $618,120 bid in July’s foreclosure auction.

County tax administrators value the Santee Road tract at $839,649. But appraisals conducted in the run-up to the commissioners’ vote pegged its worth at $1.2 million to $1.3 million, Ruffin said.

“The property is partially developable for subdivision kind of development,” he said. “Had we not purchased it, it would surely have been placed on the market and sold for the appraised value we had seen.”

The county is only paying $650,000 because the city of Raleigh is chipping in the remaining $300,000, Ruffin and Reckhow said.

Raleigh officials decided to contribute because Durham County’s open space and real estate manager, Jane Korest, convinced them that the Santee Road tract would be “a pivotal purchase” in efforts to protect the lake, Ruffin said.

He added that the county had already banked the money it’s putting into the deal.

“This was in the capital program,” Reckhow said, referring to the county’s annual construction and maintenance reserve. “It’s been designated for open space for a couple years.”

Alluding to Foster’s concern for the 2013-14 budget, she added that it’s “not advisable to use one-time money to offset operating costs” a government incurs each year.” She acknowledged, though, that officials in theory could have opted to spend the $650,000 on other capital projects.

Reckhow said the purchase is “consistent” with local officials “Eastern Durham Open Space Plan,” city/county policy that’s been on the books since 2007. She also noted that several streams pass through the property before draining into the lake.

The 2007 plan called for park development on several sites close to Falls Lake, but didn’t specifically target the Santee Road tract.

Nonetheless, “when we are facing a large price tag for Falls Lake cleanup, it makes [good] economic sense to acquire property such as this that has benefits for water-quality protection and natural habitat, as well as opportunities for future low-impact recreation,” Bo Glenn, a member of the Durham Open Space & Trails Commission, said in an email advocating the purchase.

Glenn’s mention of a cleanup was alluding to the anti-pollution mandates the state has imposed on local governments in the Falls Lake watershed. Those mandates seek to reduce deposits of two key nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous, that disrupt the reservoir’s normal chemistry.