Durham Herald-Sun, Feb. 18, 2009

Council delays vote on runoff rules

By Ray Gronberg : The Herald-Sun
Feb 18, 2009

DURHAM -- Complaints from downtown development interests have prompted the City Council to delay until next month a vote on new rules to control runoff in parts of Durham.

The decision came after officials from Downtown Durham Inc., Scientific Properties and other groups told council members the draft ordinance could penalize the sort of high-density projects the city wants downtown and near potential transit stops.

The problem comes because the usual method to control runoff is to install retention ponds or other devices that chew up land that's just not available in those places, they argued on Monday.

"We need to make sure our priorities are in alignment," said Patrick Byker, a Durham lawyer who attended Monday's council meeting as the spokesman for the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.

Administrators have asked the council to pass the new rules to comply with state mandates. Council members signaled that passage is likely because the city could potentially face a $25,000-a-day fine if it's not in compliance come April.

"We're not going to put the city in jeopardy," said Mayor Bill Bell, who nonetheless favored the postponement.

Officials and developers alike indicated that the likely solution involves allowing developers to buy their way into compliance, perhaps by helping the city or state acquire environmentally-fragile land in other areas to offset the potential impact of their projects.

A similar solution is in place in Raleigh and Cary, which are in the Neuse River basin. Southern Durham drains to a different river basin, the Cape Fear, and now lacks the type of controls the state wants.

Cary officials prod developers to contribute money to North Carolina's Ecosystem Enhancement Program, a 5-year-old program state and federal regulators set up to orchestrate purchases of wetlands and other property to offset damage caused elsewhere.

Byker said a similar effort for the Cape Fear basin "would take away a lot of the heat in the discussion" Durham officials are now having with developers.

City officials believe the point has merit and are interested either in tying on with the existing program or creating their own.

The concern about the state's program is that it's possible to "put money in there and [see it] go way downstream," instead of remaining in the area it's raised, Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees said.

Locally, Durham County has compiled a long list of sensitive lands worth preserving and "we can help facilitate that through interested parties," City Councilwoman Diane Catotti said, arguing for using so-called buy-downs to address the runoff problem.