Durham County

Residents want to control how another Durham neighborhood grows

The Forest Hills neighborhood, which has more narrow street boundaries than depicted in this map, has applied for a neighborhood protection overlay.
The Forest Hills neighborhood, which has more narrow street boundaries than depicted in this map, has applied for a neighborhood protection overlay. Google map

Residents of a century-old neighborhood outside downtown Durham want a say in what might get built there.

They applied for a neighborhood protection overlay, a layer of zoning that can determine how big a house can be and how many trees a lot needs.

Fresh off a contentious overlay the planning department worked on for Old West Durham, which the City Council eventually granted, the department told elected leaders they don’t have time to work on it this year.

But on Wednesday a group of City Council members and county commissioners told them to add it to their workload anyway, even if they don’t finish it this fiscal year.

The Joint City-County Planning Committee voted 4-1 to “prioritize” the overlay application from Forest Hills, one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. The city and county have a joint planning department, so the committee includes both city and county elected leaders. County Commissioner Brenda Howerton, Planning Commission Chair Brian Buzby and council members Mark-Anthony Middleton and Charlie Reece all voted in favor of moving forward with the overlay process. Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson voted against it. Johnson said she wanted to accept what the planning staff recommended.

Housing priorities

“Also it’s not a priority to me,” Johnson said. “For me, priorities are Expanding Housing Choices and affordable housing.”

Expanding Housing Choices is a year-long study the planning department started a few months ago to assess where Durham is on housing availability, choices and what residents want. As 20 new people move to Durham every day, the city and county are grappling with how to manage that growth.

“The work the planning department needs to be doing right now ... is dealing with affordability in this environment of growth that we’re already in,” Johnson said.

Forest Hills is next to the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood, the only neighborhood in the city that had a protection overlay until this spring when the City Council granted one to Old West Durham. The Old West Durham overlay process, which was started by residents but became the work of the city-county planning department, led to limits on the size of houses, placement of trees and density.

The Old West Durham process took 18 months and 1,200 staff hours, said Planning Director Pat Young. While other neighborhoods are considering overlays, only Forest Hills applied for one by this year’s deadline in June.

Density is what some Forest Hills residents, who mostly own single-family houses on large lots, do not want.

This past fall, a neighborhood meeting about a proposed townhouse development on the former Mary Duke Biddle property was met with opposition. That project has not come before the City Council yet. Forest Hills was developed in 1923 as Durham’s first automobile neighborhood just south of downtown.

“The neighborhood is not anti-growth, it’s anti-inappropriate [growth],” said resident George Vaughan after Wednesday’s meeting. He said they don’t want more dense housing, though their protection overlay proposal would allow accessory dwelling units, known as ADUs or “granny flats.” Their proposal allows ADUs to be built up to 40 percent of the size of the main house on a lot.

Forest Hills resident Ellen Pless told the City-County Planning Committee about the “quiet, winding streets” of the neighborhood laid out 100 years ago. She said overlay supporters are not interested in regulating building aesthetics, but rather density and trees.

Houses sold in the Forest Hills area this year ranged from mid-$200,000s, which is the median sale price of a house in Durham in 2018, to $1.1 million.

Adding a layer to the overlay discussion, the Forest Hills neighbors were represented by attorney Nil Ghosh of Morningstar Law Group. Ghosh is also on the City-County Planning Commission, but said he was there in his role as an attorney for Morningstar. Buzby said that the Forest Hills overlay would come before the Planning Commission and that Ghosh would need to recuse himself from related votes.

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What’s next

Vaughan said that the committee’s vote, which is an advisory vote to the council and commissioners, was a positive step. He said Forest Hills neighbors know the overlay process will take a long time.

In the meantime, the city and county are considering changing aspects of the overlay application process, though any changes would not affect the Forest Hills application submitted this year.

Late this fall, the council and county commissioners will vote on changing the process so that any NPO application would be initiated by the appropriate governing body at a public hearing. This amendment is anticipated to be heard by the governing bodies in late fall.

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