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Local News

Durham City Council Rejects Huge Housing Development Proposal in Falls Lake Watershed

Credit: Durham City Council

By Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch

Competing concerns over Triangle’s housing shortage and fragile environment fuel 4-2 vote.

The contentious Kemp Road project – 655 single-family houses and townhomes on 280 acres in the environmentally fragile Falls Lake watershed – is dead, at least temporarily.

But before sticking a fork in the proposal, Durham City Council members dug into several underlying issues vexing residents of one of the fastest-growing areas in the country: housing, gentrification and race.

Ultimately, the council voted down the annexation and rezoning that opponents said would have contributed to pollution in Lick Creek. The creek, seven miles of which is on the federally impaired list, flows into Falls Lake. In turn, the lake feeds the Neuse River, which travels to the Pamlico Sound and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

The tally was 4-2 against, with Mark-Anthony Middleton and Leonardo Williams voting ‘yes.’

“We define very well what we’re against but not what we’re for,” Williams said before his ‘yes’ vote. “I’m so sick and tired of us only being against, and no plan going forward. This is a good project. We have a housing crisis. We have to choose people over deer.”

The location of the proposed Kemp Road project — Map: City of Durham

The proposal, put forth by developers Bethesda Associates of Cary, has been amended several times over the last 28 months, largely in response to city officials’ concerns. Last summer, the Durham Planning Commission voted 11-0 to send an unfavorable recommendation to city council, Policy Watch reported.

The developer agreed to widen parts of Highway 98, slightly reduce in the number of homes, and added a few units of affordable housing, with about 19 of them devoted to buyers earning no more than 80% of the area median income.

In addition to 300-foot stream buffers, well above the 50 feet that is legally required, the developer doubled the original amount of tree coverage and offered to donate 5.5 acres to the city for a park.

“The applicant has given you so many reasons to vote ‘yes,’” Nil Ghosh, the developer’s attorney at MorningStar Law Group.

Infrastructure, water pollution issues

None of those concessions, though, changed the fact that a draft city planning document advises against new development in areas east of Kemp Road to the Wake County line until adequate infrastructure is built. And a significant part of the proposed project would lie in that zone.

Nor have Durham officials figured out how to stem the flow of dirt into Lick Creek and Falls Lake, a drinking water supply for Raleigh. Parts of Falls Lake are also on the federally impaired waters list.

Sediment, some of it running off cleared lots, is filling in parts of the lake and the creek. That’s important because excessive sediment can suffocate aquatic life and bury breeding areas in layers of mud. Sediment is also carrying harmful bacteria into Lick Creek and Falls Lake, burdening municipal water treatment systems that must remove those pathogens before sending water to residents’ taps.

Pam Andrews, who lives near the proposed development, belongs to Preserve Rural Durham, an opponent for the project.  She noted that one of new comprehensive plan’s goals is “to protect Durham’s most sensitive areas. This has all of those factors.”

Durham has been lax in enforcing erosion and sedimentation rules in the Falls Lake watershed. A previous Policy Watch investigation found that neighbors for years complained to the city and county about a property owner who illegally dumped dirt, gravel and other unknown material on land near Falls Lake, with impunity.

Eventually, the state and county fined the owner, Russell Stoutt III, $100,000. However, because Stout did not pay the fine, it had to be forwarded to the state attorney general’s office for collection.

In other parts of the watershed, the environmental damage continues. Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop monitors the health of Lick Creek and Falls Lake. She presented recent photographs to council members showing coffee-colored, dirt-laden water leaving a drainpipe from a nearby property that is under development. That discharge is entering the creek.

Durham’s erosion and sedimentation rules aren’t “sufficient to control” this runoff, Krop said. But since the pollution is entering Lick Creek, that is a Clean Water Act violation. (Krop reported the incident to state regulators, who are investigating.)

Council member Jillian Johnson supported the project – but not in this spot. “I want us to build townhouses in most parts of the city and have higher levels of environmental commitments,” Johnson said. “My problem is where this development is. We created policies with developing this region and staff said not to build east of Kemp Road until we improve the infrastructure. We drew the line at Kemp Road and we shouldn’t walk back that policy.”

“This is an excellent project,” Council member Javiera Caballero said, “but if we say ‘yes’ to this, it will create a domino effect in an area we’re not ready to develop.”

A persistent housing shortage

Council member Deanna Freeman said he is frustrated by the lack of viable solutions to Durham’s housing crisis. “We have to make sure affordable housing isn’t at the expense of clean water,” Freeman said.

Durham is short on housing, especially for low- to moderate-income households. Median rental prices have increased 4.4% over the past year, although they have begun to level off. The average rent for a two-bedroom is $1,400 a month, according to data from Apartment List.

Home sales are also beginning to cool, but the average price is still over $370,000. With a 10% down payment, a household would still have to earn more than $100,000 annually to afford a home at that price, according to Mortgage Calculator.

In a lengthy discussion, Middleton questioned whether neighbors opposed the project on environmental grounds or implicit racial and class biases. “For some people ‘Preserve Rural’ is a code word” Middleton said, essentially for white people who don’t want urban interlopers – non-white people – in their neighborhoods.

“Some people lose their deer. Some people lose their homes and have to pack up and go to Burlington or Mebane,” Middleton said. “We are managing the growth of an American city that’s one of the hottest places to live. It’s not easy.”