Durham County

It's neighbor vs. neighbor in Old West Durham over zoning

In this Herald-Sun file photo, John Schelp (center) leads a three-mile walk through Old West Durham’s colorful past. Old West Durham Neighborhood Association is proposing a Neighborhood Protection Overlay.
In this Herald-Sun file photo, John Schelp (center) leads a three-mile walk through Old West Durham’s colorful past. Old West Durham Neighborhood Association is proposing a Neighborhood Protection Overlay. The Herald-Sun

After a yearlong process described multiple times as "contentious," Old West Durham's proposed Neighborhood Protection Overlay made it to the Durham Planning Commission Tuesday night.

While the commission is an advisory board, it makes recommendations to the Durham City Council, which will vote this spring on whether to grant the neighborhood association the overlay. And the commission recommended no.

Much of Old West Durham is old mill worker housing of modest homes within walking distance of Duke's East Campus and the Ninth Street commercial area that has The Regulator Bookshop, Elmo's Diner and other independent and chain stores and restaurants. And more recently, a new Harris Teeter.

An NPO is a resident-initiated zoning overlay "that seeks to create context sensitive zoning regulations for a particular geography," according to the Durham Planning Department. The zoning tool was implemented when the city and county adopted the Unified Development Ordinance in 2006, but there is only so far: Tuscaloosa-Lakewood approved in 2008. NPOs don't regulate architectural design, but in Tuscaloosa-Lakewood, for example, there is a maximum building height cap of 35 feet.

Municipalities describe neighborhood protection overlays differently. Raleigh has 18 neighborhood conservation overlay districts and Chapel Hill has 10 neighborhood conservation districts.

Tree canopy and house size

Old West Durham's quest for an NPO comes down to trees and house size. More specifically, "to ensure that new residential development is compatible with the established urban form, modest scale, and mill village character of the neighborhood. Preservation of green space and tree canopy are primary motivations for the formulation of a number of these standards.”

Barbara and Pete Welanetz bought their house on Knox Street eight years ago. They want the NPO. Barbar Welanetz said some new homes are out of scale and overwhelm neighboring homes. Pete Welanetz handed out green "Yes NPO" signs for supporters to hold up. Those in support of the NPO also wore green Old West Durham T-shirts.

John Temple, who has lived on Hale Street for 54 years, opposes the NPO. He loves Durham, he said.

"This argument that it’s developers against the neighborhood does not hold water to me," said Temple, who was born in Watts Hospital.

"I love my neighbors, I just disagree with them right now. [The NPO] takes away private property rights," Temple said.

Temple said that increases in rent are not as much landlords gouging rental rates as much as a reflection of property taxes increasing.

An Old West Durham Neighborhood Protection Overlay would need an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance and a zoning map change.

For the past year of meetings and many emails, the Durham City-County Planning Department has given technical support to the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, which proposed the NPO in 2014.

The Old West Durham NPO would cover 93.6 acres, which is 428 parcels owned by 295 people. The average house is a one-story house of about 1,500 square feet built in 1930. Residents are 57 percent renters and 43 percent owners.

The initial NPO was revised and submitted in January. What it would do:

  • Establish a floor area ratio (FAR) to limit bulk;

  • Lower primary and accessory structure heights;

  • Standardize lot dimensions to reflect the predominant subdivision pattern;

  • Require a backyard tree; and

  • Reduce parking requirements and prevent “over-paving” of driveways.

'Contentious' process between neighbors

Simeon Furman, who lives on Knox Street, said he opposed the NPO in 2014 because he thought it was overreach, but changed his mind.

"We know Durham is rising and becoming more expensive," Furman said. He bought his home in 2004 for $91,000 and said it is now assessed at $259,000.

James Wilkins, whose family has lived on Alabama Avenue for 70 years, said that NPO supporters shut down any opposition from neighbors.

A few Planning Commission members were absent and two recused themselves: Tom Miller, who lives close to the NPO, and Nil Ghosh, who said it's a shame the case is so polarizing.

Commissioner George Brine said the contentious process may have relied a little too much on the Old West Durham listserv, leaving out people who don't spend much time online. He disagrees with some NPO stipulations like height without considering relation to setbacks, and the backyard tree mandate. He said you can't manage tree canopy without tree preservation.

"I hate to see how this has divided neighbors and I can see that’s happened here," said Commissioner Paul Hornbuckle. He said the property tax rates are ridiculous and need to be addressed by City Council and county commissioners.

Commissioner Carmen Williams said the NPO is a control issue.

"It’s about who wants to control what, when and how," she said.

"This very strong issue is before the city government because you guys could not compromise," Williams said.

The Planning Commission vote was 5-4 against the NPO. Hornbuckle, Brine, Elaine Hyman, Charles Gibbs and David Harris voted against the NPO. Williams, Brian Buzby, Cynthia Satterfield and Akram Al-Turk voted in favor.

The NPO will come before the City Council in May.

In February, Mayor Steve Schewel emailed Old West Durham leader John Schelp to express concern the NPO would hurt affordability in the long run by making duplexes, triplexes and quads impossible to build.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan