Bigger isn’t always better, say neighbors in Old West Durham

A majority of respondents to a survey in the Old West Durham neighborhood were in favor of a neighborhood protection overlay.
A majority of respondents to a survey in the Old West Durham neighborhood were in favor of a neighborhood protection overlay. The Herald-Sun

Residents of the Old West Durham neighborhood support making it harder to build larger homes or renovate existing properties – at least according to a recent survey of neighbors.

The results stem from a community meeting at E.K. Powe Elementary School last week, where around 100 people gathered to voice feedback to a proposed neighborhood protection overlay (NPO).

The NPO – which would be only the second NPO in the city if approved – would limit the scope of what property owners are able to build in the 400-plus property neighborhood.

The meeting, which was testy at times, focused on five regulations for new construction and renovations. The first draft, posted online at, would limit the size of new homes or additions, a move aimed at reducing the number of old homes being demolished in the neighborhood.

During a presentation at the meeting, it became apparent that many of the regulations were aimed at stopping certain developers from combining multiple lots and building larger, multi-family homes. One developer in particular, Jeff Monsein, who doesn’t live in the neighborhood but owns more than 60 properties in it, drew the ire of the crowd for some of his comments.

The NPO presentation identified multiple homes owned by Monsein as properties that the NPO would have prevented from being built as large as they were. One specific property at 1021 Carolina Ave. was singled out several times as a main concern.

Monsein has come out strongly against the NPO calling it a “terrible idea” that “is going to hurt property values.” He has placed signs that read “Vote No NPO” across Old West Durham, mainly at properties that he owns.

Some residents felt uncomfortable with how much the NPO appeared to single out Monsein – with one resident responding to the survey by saying “I am not opposed to increased density done within limits, but this (NPO) is too restrictive and designed to stick it to Jeff Monsein. He has torn down some slummy properties and put nice rentals in their place.”

Proponents of the new regulations hope that limiting the size of new houses and additions will keep the character of the historically blue-collar neighborhood intact. Some 50 percent of residents there are renters.

The NPO’s roots date back to 2012, when signatures were first gathered, and since that time the amount of new construction has increased. The changes has concerned many residents, with one longtime resident responding to the survey by saying they wanted “protect” Old West Durham from “mini-dorms and houses that take up entire lots.”

According to information compiled by neighborhood organizers, 83 percent of all the homes in Old West Durham were built between 1900 and 1950, and 85 percent of the housing stock is single story.

The median house size is 1,350 square feet – but for homes built since 2010, the average square footage has risen to 2,700 square feet.

All five introduced regulations garnered at least 70 percent of support from neighbors who answered the survey, which asked whether residents supported a specific regulation, could support it with modest changes or did not support it at all.

The potential borders of the neighborhood protection overlay in the Old West Durham neighborhood. Courtesy of the City of Durham

The five proposed regulations were:

▪  A maximum ratio of heated square footage to total lot size of 30 percent, including any garage or accessory dwelling unit. This measure received 70 percent support from residents, while 14 percent did not support it. 16 percent would support it with modest changes.

▪  A maximum building height of 30 feet for a primary structure and 18.5 feet for accessory dwellings. The height restriction received 72 percent support, while 20 percent did not support it, and 8 percent said they would support it with minor changes.

▪  A maximum lot area of 12,000 square feet and a minimum lot width of 50 feet. Capping lot size received 83 percent support from respondents, while 16 percent would not support it, and 1 percent would support it with slight changes.

▪  A mandate of at least one canopy tree between the rear wall of a primary structure and the rear property line. This measure received support from 84 percent of respondents, while 15 percent would not support it, and 1 percent would support it with minor changes.

▪  Restrictions on the size of parking areas and driveways on a property. Parking restrictions were supported by 83 percent of respondents, while 14 percent did not support them, and 2 percent said they could support them with slight changes.

Organizers of the NPO were happy with results.

“I think it says we are largely in consensus,” Old West Durham resident Dan Welch said. Welch has been part of a group of around eight residents who wrote the draft.

“You are never gonna get 100 percent, but 70 to 80 percent is pretty good. There are some things we need to adjust and ... we have some slight tweaks to make. But we are largely on track ... and we will eventually get this to the planning commission.”

In all, 88 feedback sheets were turned in for analysis – a number that planning department staff members called a “pretty good” response rate.

The city’s planning department will be responsible for giving the City Council a recommendation on the NPO – whenever it is submitted. The planning department will be partly responsible for determining if a consensus has been reached in the neighborhood on the NPO.

The City Council will ultimately have to approve the regulations.

The proposed regulations that residents seemed to want modified the most were the floor-area ratio and the height of accessory dwellings provisions.

While many people felt that a 30 percent cap did not go far enough, many residents who left feedback supported bumping the ratio to 35 percent.

Many residents also wanted to make the height restrictions more flexible, so as to allow for 2-story accessory dwellings. The proposed height limit would only allow for 1.5-story accessory dwellings, a measure that seemed to be aimed at limiting the size of “in-law suites,” which are accessory dwellings that some property owners use to supplement their incomes.

“I should not be restricted to adding on new construction or what I may need for future living needs, such as in-law apartment dwellings,” one survey responder wrote.

While a majority of respondents were for the NPO, the most staunch opponents to the NPO seemed to oppose it out of principle, with many saying property owners should have the right to do whatever they want with their property.

“If the commodification of property is your problem, then capitalism is your enemy,” one respondent wrote in large letters over the entire survey.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes