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Opinion: West Point is for all of Durham

When I think back on my experiences of West Point, it has always felt country, a drive away from the city center, and a place that I don’t really get to most of the time, busy with life and work.

In the ‘90s, when I was growing up, it was the place of crowded, sweaty Eno River Festival.

In the Aughts, when I was a reporter at The Herald-Sun, it was still a place for the annual crowded, sweaty, fun, Eno River Festival. Crafts, food, the mill, stalls of people selling things. It was so Durham.

But in the past year when I’ve gone to West Point to write about the development slated for Black Meadow Ridge, something has changed.

North Durham feels smaller, meaner – and during the summer, even rotten. It should feel like a trip to go from the Super Target and Sam’s Club area, where The Herald-Sun’s office used to be. But nowadays, it does not. There is something that has changed in Durham that made going to West Point in the past year more intense and dangerous, and at the same time, alarmingly casual. It was as if I was making a lot of effort to go to a North Durham dog park, instead of this place that holds so much of Durham’s history and memories of generations of Durham residents.

It’s difficult to hold on to your perspective when a place you’ve known has been wrecked so much and you’ve been prevented access to it while it was happening. But I think I can say as a Durham resident, and as someone who knew West Point when I was little – that it’s very upsetting to see what has happened there.

Here are the facts: Chapel Hill developer Sun Forest Systems is proposing to build 379 single-family homes and townhomes on Black Meadow Ridge, which is a buffer land to the south of West Point that slopes down to the park. The project, called “Westpoint at Eno,” got the green light from former Planning Director Steve Medlin in a letter issued July 2016. The Planning Department admits that Medlin was wrong to do so, since he based his decision on an old unapproved plan from 1973. How it works is city officials pull approved plans connected to the zoning on properties, and this is the basis for new developments. Medlin should not have sent that letter of approval.

Adding to that confusion, because of changes to Durham’s planning ordinance, Westpoint at Eno did not have to go through a public hearing even though it’s right next to the park. Neighbors in the area heard about it through word of mouth. They formed a group in early 2020 to raise awareness, called Save Black Meadow Ridge. The group has meticulously catalogued the ways in which the development is a bad fit for the area, and has filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment to reverse Medlin’s decision. The group also went before the city council to discuss a rezoning of the property.

Black Meadow Ridge is not just a buffer land but has been treated as a part of the park. It has been privately owned but always allowed for public access, both for the neighbors in the subdivisions and for naturalists who have written about it. The Black Meadow creek flows through the 94-acre land, which is covered with trees.

Black Meadow Ridge, from what I saw this past year, is still a distinctly “Durham” piece of land. For all the drama on it, it has been oddly protected and felt like Durham – actually probably too much so.

By contrast, while Black Meadow Ridge still feels like Durham, the West Point park has lost that feeling.

The hot, sweaty West Point I remember, filled with crafts and music and wading in the river. Too many people gathered in one place, which is exactly how Durham likes it. What happened to it?

West Point now feels stark, and it’s been polluted. People came to West Point and did just use it as a dog park during lockdown. There’s oil from cars in the puddles. The blue signs for COVID-19 masks and social-distancing are all around the park. The smell of dog poop wafts through the air all over the park from the extra trash cans installed, lingering in my clothes long afterwards. Boulders on the side of the main gravel road to keep cars from parking on the grass. The trails muddy and eroded from too much rain and foot traffic. Dead tree branches piled by the dam from floods. And there’s more that I can say.

People might say, “What’s wrong? You’re making too much out of this.” But there is the usual erosion and the usual pollution. What’s been going on these years has been different. West Point has lost its character so much that writing about it is also horrible now. Your imagination can’t help but go with the land and how it’s been wrecked and turned into something different. This is not normal.

What I really felt walking through West Point this past year was that nature has been objectified and made to tell a particular story. This is not the park responding to human activity. Actually, West Point would be healthier if it was left alone.

All of this should be the opposite. It should be that West Point feels like “Durham,” and Black Meadow Ridge is more remote, maybe stark, maybe friendly, but allowed to be more wild. I think this is how it used to be, but it’s been flipped around.

In 2008, when the area was more stable, the Friends of West Point, the Inter-Neighborhood Council, Durham City, the Eno River Association and the state parks system were debating how to preserve Black Meadow Ridge with its long-time owner.

If I had reported on that story, I would have gone out to Black Meadow Ridge, explored it, wandered more than I did this past year. It’s still easy for me to think back to how I would have felt writing about it back then. And that is because of the community and the discourse that would have held the feeling of this place for me.

Black Meadow Ridge is a place that is held by the community actively relating and working with each other. Without the community, what would happen to the land?

There are many questions that can be asked about what’s happening right now: Where is the Eno River Association? Since 2008, why hasn’t this property been bought by the association or the city to be incorporated into the park? Why was the rezoning never brought up between 2012 and now, to bring it in line with the subdivisions instead of this dense zoning that allows for townhomes right above West Point? Why is it up to a neighborhood group to raise awareness about what’s going on instead of the association? Where have the organizations that debated its preservation in 2008 gone? Dan Jewell of Coulter Jewell Thames wants to connect his firm’s involvement in this project to the work done by Margaret Nygard. But it’s clearly the opposite.

How has Durham gotten to the point where West Point has been wrecked, and no one says anything? And the buffer land that protects the park could be lost – and still, there is no public outcry?

Losing Black Meadow Ridge would be a horrible thing to happen in Durham, both because the city itself admits that Medlin was wrong, and because it would mean this community has failed to stand up for itself. We could lose this place of coming together permanently.  

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