Every year, thousands of Durham residents flock to the West Point on the Eno Park for the annual Eno River festival, to look at crafts, eat food, listen to music, and even take a dip in the river itself.
But with a dense residential development planned for nearby, some neighbors are sounding the alarm that the project could ruin the park, and damage the health of the Eno River.
Sun Forest Systems, a Chapel Hill-based custom design and building company, wants to build “Westpoint at Eno,” with 278 townhomes and 101 single-family homes. The 94-acre site runs along the south of the West Point on the Eno park, with an entrance on North Roxboro Road.
The development would build over Black Meadow Ridge, an area that is a buffer between the West Point park and neighborhoods. Black Meadow Ridge has been under discussion for possible conservation over the years.
“We had heard about this just through word of mouth,” said Chris Hodgson, who lives in one of the neighborhoods right behind Black Meadow Ridge.
Hodgson is part of “Save Black Meadow Ridge,” formed earlier this year. The neighbors have hired an attorney and filed an appeal with the Durham City Board of Adjustment, asking the board to halt the project’s move through planning. They also have set up a web site and are getting the word out through social media.
One of the main concerns of the neighbors is the impact a development of this density and size would have on the West Point on the Eno.
The neighbors say in the appeal that the development should be going through a public hearing process. Instead, the project only has to go through administrative approval at the planning department.
Site plans were filed in July 2019.
“Nobody had communicated to any of the neighbors this was happening. A neighbor literally came across it,” Hodgson said. “That was the first thing that struck all of us. Pretty much everybody we talked to has said, ‘How is it possible to approve this with zero public input?’ It’s such a large undertaking.”
The neighbors have hired an attorney and filed an appeal with the Durham City Board of Adjustments. They also have set up a web site, started a petition and are getting the word out through social media.
Sun Forest Systems, the developer behind Westpoint, was founded in 1984 by Keith Brown, an architect who has designed various modernist homes in the Triangle.
Point Ridge Park LLC, based in Chatham County and with Brown as the registered agent, was set up for the development.
The company did not respond to a request for comment this week.
Since hearing about the development, the Save Black Meadow Ridge group has compiled planning documents, going back to the decision that gave the project the initial go-ahead. That was a letter from Steve Medlin, then-planning director, in July 2016.
In that letter, Medlin said the development’s density was allowed on the basis of existing zoning and a site plan for a similar development called “Foxmoor” — from 1973.
“After reviewing the case file and the plan on file with the Planning Department I have confirmed that the site can be developed under the existing development plan of record…,” Medlin wrote.
The neighbors are questioning the validity of this decision.
“This whole thing is predicated on this plan from 1972. One of the things we want to do is get the records from behind it. Why is this plan getting constructed and why is it all of a sudden getting built now?” Hodgson said.
“Whatever was approved in the ’70s is not what was submitted,” Hodgson added. “There’s just a certain part of not doing your job that’s part of this whole thing. If the planning department was more thorough in 2016, we wouldn’t have to do this appeal.”
The Board of Adjustment will hear the appeal on Sept. 22. Until then, Sara Young, Durham City interim planning director, said the project will continue to go through the planning department.
“After a thorough review, the former director’s letter has been interpreted as binding as no other contradictory documents have been found,” Young said in an e-mail.
“By law, the site plan must be approved. We cannot predict if that will occur before or after the hearing of the appeal,” she added. The only way to stop the development now is with an injunction.
Young took over in June after the departure of Patrick Young, who had been Durham’s planning director since 2017 and is now Raleigh’s lead planner. Medlin was planning director 2008 to 2017.
The planning department is still waiting for the developer to address technical issues in the plan. As of this week, Westpoint had not yet been approved.
The Save Black Meadow Ridge group also points out other problems in the townhomes site plan, including environmental impact to the Eno River and the West Point park, not to mention the destruction of the Black Meadow Ridge itself.
The development is on “keystone” parcels in Durham’s Critical Areas Protection Plan, which means they are “the highest priority private parcels identified for protection in each watershed,” according to the neighbors’ appeal.
The West Point park is considered the crown jewel of Durham’s parks and a focal point of the city’s heritage. The Eno River festival at the 404-acre park is an annual celebration of the river and Durham itself.
Eno River and the park also have been beset with flooding problems in recent years, which have been documented by the Save Black Meadow Ridge group on their web site.
Black Meadow Ridge has trails that runs from the subdivisions down to the park. There are pines and hardwoods, black boulders and creeks.
When reached for comment, Eno River Association’s Executive Director Jessica Sheffield said they will not seek an injunction to stop the development.
The nonprofit held the virtual “One Eno” festival this year. Sheffield referred questions on flooding issues on the Eno and at the West Point park to the Save Black Meadow Ridge group. The Eno River Association recently received $2 million in funding.
This is one of several recent changes to affect the Eno River. In April, the Durham City Council reclassified part of the Eno as a water source to allow for a new water pump flowing from the Eno into Teer Quarry.
Save Black Meadow Ridge is not the first neighborhood organization to raise attention for the buffer land. In 2008, there was the “Friends of West Point,” that discussed possibly transferring ownership of West Point on the Eno to the state parks system, which would also preserve Black Meadow Ridge.