In a split vote Monday night, the Durham City Council rejected a developer’s request to annex a tract of land in southeast Durham for a 380-home development.
The CSC Group, a local firm with a handful of communities in Durham and Wake counties, had hoped to build a mix of townhomes and single-family homes on 117 acres it owns near the intersection of U.S. 70 and Leesville Road.
Members of Preserve Rural Durham showed up to lend a voice to water quality concerns the council debated at length. They argue development in southeast Durham is polluting Lick Creek with sediment that ultimately flows into Falls Lake, where most of Raleigh’s drinking water comes from.
Pam Andrews, founder of the group, distributed vials of muddy red water taken from Lick Creek after a rain storm to council members ahead of the vote. She called it “tomato soup.”
“Every development clear-cuts and mass grades our land, leaving red soil filled with nitrates and phosphates to pour into Lick Creek and Little Lick Creek, which is already impaired,” Andrews said. “The saturated creek flows with blood red tomato soup a short distance to Falls Lake.”
The City Council ultimately deadlocked 3-3, with Council member Jillian Johnson out sick.
Mayor Elaine O’Neal and Council members DeDreana Freeman and Monique Holsey-Hyman all cited environmental concerns before voting against the annexation.
“There’s not any way, shape, or form we should just turn a blind eye to that and wait for the government to come in and do testing,” Freeman said. “We have to acknowledge with our common sense that there’s something wrong and we are creating this problem.”
O’Neal said she didn’t want Durham to be “the next Flint,” the Michigan city where contaminated drinking water became a public health crisis, and was wary of more development in the area.
“I don’t really need the science to know that we have an issue,” O’Neal said. “Call it a moratorium, call it whatever … We have an obligation, I think, to have a pause.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton — who voted for the annexation with Council members Javiera Caballero and Leonardo Williams — said the only evidence presented was anecdotal and concerned stormwater runoff, not drinking water.
“Is there a causal link scientifically between these sediments and turbidity and people getting sick, people dying?” Middleton pressed staff members, who said there was not. “That’s critical for us to answer as a government. … No one has quoted any science at all.”
Caballero said in areas across the Wake County line in areas not annexed by Raleigh, sprawling development produced its own issues.
“What we have seen are very large, very expensive homes on septic and that also isn’t environmentally sound policy,” Caballero said.
Nil Ghosh, the attorney representing CSC Group, noted most of the acreage is zoned for industrial use.
“I think that kind of got left out of the conversation,” Ghosh said in an interview after the meeting. “You get a special use permit, you could put a landfill on this property today. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen, but it’s possible.”
Leesville Road intended for suburban development
Durham is crafting a new comprehensive land-use plan that could reshape how the area develops.
“This whole area was intended to transition to suburban-style development and that is one of the reasons that the city has invested in infrastructure out there, to facilitate that,” Planning Director Sara Young said. “That is a carryover from the 2005 comprehensive plan that we are seeing built out today.”
In May, the Planning Commission unanimously voted not to recommend CSC Group’s proposal, saying it was not sustainable to build sprawling developments without affordable housing commitments.
Those who spoke in favor of the project said boosting Durham’s housing supply would have helped ease affordability concerns. The developers offered Monday night to include three affordable townhome units, plus a $80,000 contribution to Durham’s affordable housing fund.
“We need more housing, and this project can help to address the shortage, at least partially,” Leesville Road resident Fanxing Li said.
“This is an ideal location to serve the rapidly growing need for housing,” added Anthony Catalano, a representative of Hoffman Carolina, which owns several large parcels in the area.
Rebecca Freeman, another member of Preserve Rural Durham, argued the proposed development was too dense.
“It needs to be less dense than what is proposed,” Freeman said. “The infrastructure and support for southeast Durham is already stretched way too thin.”
Farrington Road neighborhood approved
Earlier Monday night, the City Council voted to annex and rezone a property on the opposite side of the county, clearing the way for a new suburban development there.
EPCON Communities, a national home builder specializing in 55-plus communities, plans to build 67 single-family homes in the 5200 block of Farrington Road, just west of Interstate 40.
The neighborhood will be hooked up to city water and sewer.
EPCON has over a dozen communities in North Carolina, including in Durham and Cary. Ghosh said these homes would likely sell at Durham’s median home price, which is around $410,000, according to the latest data.
The vote was split 4-2, with Caballero and Freeman voting no.
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