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Neighbors to city council: “Urgent need to correct the zoning”

The neighbors working to save the buffer land to the south of West Point on the Eno have taken their concerns to the Durham City Council. They pointed out the developer’s proposal is based on the wrong plan from decades ago, the dangers of increased flooding on the Eno River’s capacity, and that the city itself wanted to preserve the land in 2012. 

The stretch of buffer land that slopes down from subdivisions toward West Point is called Black Meadow Ridge. It’s up for development by Chapel Hill-based Sun Forest Systems, which wants to build “Westpoint at Eno,” a 94-acre site with 278 townhomes and 101 single-family homes. 

“I am here to impress upon you the urgent need to correct the zoning of Black Meadow Ridge,” Arienne Cheek said at the Sept. 10 city council work session. “As (Planning Director Sara Young) explains, a planned development residential zoning district requires a development plan. But the record shows that such a development plan does not exist for these parcels.”

“I have seen first hand the increased flooding and commensurate damage,” said Nancy Cox, a neighbor and former member of the school board. “The three big rain events this year — not hurricanes — rain events have flooded Infinity (Road) between Vantage Point and Kenwood. The culvert under Infinity on this stretch has been eroded. All this water flows to the Eno.”

“Honestly, I want these parcels to be preserved,” Cox added. “My hope is that we can work with the landowners and all vested groups to ideally make the land part of the park.”

More development also is slated for North Durham, including a new Northern High School not far from the site.

The 94-acre site for “Westpoint at Eno” runs from Roxboro Road to beyond Stadium Drive, taking all of the buffer land Black Meadow Ridge. Source: Save Black Meadow Ridge
The site plan by Sun Forest Systems outlines the trees of Black Meadow Ridge before they are to be removed for the project. Source: Durham Planning
The density of the proposal calls for townhomes and is based on an old zoning from the 1970s. Source: Save Black Meadow Ridge

The Eno River Association’s Executive Director Jessica Sheffield also spoke at the work session: “You likely know of us. Since 1966, the Eno River Association has worked tirelessly to conserve the lands along… the Eno River and its many tributaries in Durham.”

The neighbors formed the group, Save Black Meadow Ridge, in early 2020, and have started a petition on Change.org. They filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment, pointing out inconsistencies in the site plan with Durham’s planning and preservation goals, and that a development of that density by the West Point park was not even up for public hearing. The neighbors themselves only found out through word of mouth.

What the group hopes the board will reverse is a July 2016 letter from then-Planning Director Steve Medlin allowing the project to go forward. The property’s zoning, dating back to 1970s, is for “PDR 6.2,” or 6.2 units per acre. However, the plan for “Foxmoor,” upon which Medlin gave his approval to Sun Forest was never approved for development. 

The planning department pulls approved plans linked to the zoning on properties as the basis for new developments. 

The plan for Foxmoor should not have been pulled, according to Planning Director Sara Young. But because of Medlin’s letter, Sun Forest Systems is now legally allowed to proceed. 

Medlin has not responded to requests for comment. 

The Board of Adjustment will continue the hearing on Save Black Meadow Ridge at its March meeting. 

City Councilman Charlie Reece asked Young at the September work session whether a rezoning of the property would change anything at this point.

Young replied the developer would be grandfathered in to the existing administrative process, or they could change their site plan to comply with the new zoning. 

“The site plan could be modified in process to comply with whatever determination we make as to whatever the base zoning requirements are without that former interpretation from the planning director,” Young said. 

Mayor Pro-Tem Jillian Johnson was sympathetic to the neighbors. “I feel like we often hear these sorts of arguments around density, … and I’m very skeptical of those arguments. But I think that in this case, I think that’s true,” she said. 

The city council has not changed the zoning. 

In late September, Cimarron Homes of Durham sold their parcel, a sliver of 2.2 acres at the western part of this development, to Sun Forest.

Sun Forest and partners: Environmental impacts have “no relation to the issues presented” and invoke memories of Margaret Nygard

Sun Forest and others working with the firm have tried to develop the area in the past. 

Keith Brown, the principal of Sun Forest, built his career on modernist homes highlighting the beauty of nature. However, Sun Forest in recent years has focused more on subdivisions in Chatham County. The developer is working with civil engineering firm Coulter Jewell Thames on the plans for this project. 

Sun Forest has filed a motion to dismiss the neighbors’ appeal and a motion to exclude the appeal narrative from evidence. The motions contend the Board of Adjustment has no jurisdiction in this matter, that the neighbors’ appeal is not timely, and that environmental impacts of the project have “no relation to the issues presented.” 

“This appeal raises only two issues, neither of which have anything to do with alleged environmental impacts or the design details… ,” the second motion states, and argues the section of the neighbors’ appeal on environmental concerns should be excluded. 

Brown, through his attorney, declined to comment for this story. 

Sun Forest also had proposed a similar development on Black Meadow Ridge in 2008, with about 250 single-family homes and townhomes. That was after Eno Drive, a proposal for a roadway that would have cut through the land, was defeated by preservationists and community groups.

But why the interest in this property now?

The July 2016 letter from then-Planning Director Steve Medlin wrongly approved the plans based on an old proposal from the 1970s that was not approved. Source: Save Black Meadow Ridge

Dan Jewell, president of Coulter Jewell Thames, provided a statement defending his work on this development by sharing memories of former business partner Ken Coulter’s work with Margaret Nygard’s efforts to preserve the Eno River. Coulter died in 2009. 

“My former (now deceased) business partner Ken Coulter was one of those swept up in the Eno River Preservation movement in the late 60’s,” Jewell wrote. “Ken was a close friend of the matriarch of the Eno Preservation movement, Margaret Nygard. In fact, the offices for the Friends of West Point were in Ken’s (our) building for many years up through the early 90’s, when I started working with Ken. I recall many occasions when Margaret would come up for a visit, long flowing silver hair and bare feet, bouncing in as if she was still a young woman in her teens.” 

Coulter had been asked by the Erwin Companies, developer of “Foxmoor,” to look into the lands on both sides of the Eno to see what was viable for development, according to Jewell. Out of this came West Point on the Eno and Black Meadow Ridge to the south and the trails and parks on the north bank of the Eno, and the zoning for PDR 6.2 happened, Jewell wrote, because if Black Meadow Ridge, West Point and other public lands had been developed, the density would have been RS-10.

“Could you imagine if 48 years ago that entire Erwin property had been developed out as a cookie cutter subdivision of 1/3 acre lots going all the way down near the Eno? I cannot, and am glad that Ken’s plan ended up with what is preserved and in public ownership today,” Jewell wrote. 

Jewell then delved into Coulter and architect Frank DePasquale’s work together. Sun Forest’s development would come up to the “Frank DePasquale House” itself, which is located on Chateau Road. 

Jewell wrote: 

“You see Ken and Frank had come up with this idea that a logical, defensible physical separation between the preserved lands and the lands where homes were to be built should be a scenic parkway. That’s why Ken proposed that Eno Drive be built along the northern edge of the Black Mountain Ridge property, to provide a clear delineation, and allow folks to drive along the edge of the Eno preserve… .”Just like the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Ken once told me. You may or may not be aware that my firm is working with the current property owner on the plans that are being reviewed by the city, and the construction of that portion of Eno Parkway long ago envisioned and fought for by Ken and Frank is part of that plan.” 

Jewell also argued that townhomes would be more affordable and the new development would provide access to the gem that is the West Point park to more people. 

“(West Point) quite probably wouldn’t exist today if Ken and Margaret had not been able to convince the Erwin Company to only develop a portion of their property and preserve the rest for the public good, and the County Commissioners to wisely rezone this 60 acres to a residential density that made the economics of NOT developing the lands close to the Eno economically viable for them,” he wrote. 

“Yes, I think this history shows that a wise accommodation was made 50 years ago, and that deal should be respected for that and the many reasons enumerated above,” Jewell concluded. 

Black Meadow Ridge

Various groups have tried to preserve Black Meadow Ridge over the years. 

After the push for Eno Drive ended, the Friends of West Point organization and Inter-neighborhood Council mulled a purchase of the land by the state for it to be incorporated into the state parks system. But the purchase did not come through, partly because of the reportedly $4 million price tag, a high amount owing to the density of the zoning and its appeal to developers.

In 2011, the planning department and Medlin moved forward with a rezoning of the land to the less dense zoning. That proposal was pulled. In March 2012, the city recognized the sensitivity of the land and the need to preserve it. The city council approved a resolution guiding future land planning to designate the land “RS-10.”

Watch the Durham City Council approve a resolution for lower density zoning on Black Meadow Ridge in 2012.

Black Meadow Ridge in summer 2020. The buffer land slopes down to West Point from subdivisions. Photo by Monica Chen
The West Point on the Eno in January. Signs for COVID-19 were all around the park. Photo by Monica Chen
The historic mill at West Point. Neighbors with Save Black Meadow Ridge are raising the alarm about flood risks to the park and historic buildings. Photo by Monica Chen

According to the book, “Durham County Inventory of Important Natural Areas, Plants, and Wildlife,” West Point park is habitat to some species that are listed as threatened or rare, such as the yellow lampmussel, a river mussel. Sedimentation control is especially important for mussels because they cannot relocate during periods of heavy rain.

The book’s authors wrote about the need to protect water quality in the Eno. The West Point park is where the terrain changes from steep slopes that are more naturally protective of wildlife to flatter landscape. The park is also where heavier foot traffic and commercial development meet the Eno.

“Water quality within the Eno is particularly threatened by proliferating impervious surfaces, plans or other non-point sources of pollution,” the authors wrote in 1999.

“We ask that you not allow this issue to linger any longer,” Cheek said to the city council in September. “And instead, to take action to protect Black Meadow Ridge and West Point on the Eno River Park and the river with the correct zoning that has been intended for this land.”

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