May 20, 2022

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North Durham Residents Want to Stop a Custom Home Builder From Developing Hundreds of Homes on the Cusp of West Point on the Eno

9 min read

Coffee importer Timothy Hill and his wife, Julie, searched five years for a home before purchasing a 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, red-brick house this spring in the Argonne Hills subdivision in North Durham.

The neighborhood, with homes built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is chock full of character. The Hills’ backyard features a grape arbor. There’s an old Black cemetery where gravesites hold the remains of freedmen and women who toiled at the Stagville Plantation about 10 miles away before settling in the North Durham community. Hill can leave his screened-in back porch and stroll through Black Meadow Ridge—a sloping, heavily wooded parcel of land—before ending up at West Point on the Eno Park and the Eno River.

“A piece of property like this does not exist in Durham anywhere else,” Hill wrote in an email to the INDY. “There is no public park like this closer to downtown that the city has.”

Before buying the home, Hill and his wife discovered that a developer with a reputation for building opulent, modernist homes wanted to build a development of 379 single-family homes and townhouses that would cover nearly 60 acres of Black Meadow Ridge, which sits less than 100 feet from their backyard. Tightly packed houses would replace a 10-minute walk through the woods and tree-lined walking trails to the city’s flagship park and Eno River—but not before the trees of Black Meadow Ridge are clear-cut, the sloping land’s granite foundations blasted away, and then graded smooth.

Hill felt reassured when he learned that a handful of his new neighbors and the homeowners association last year petitioned the city to stop the proposed development.

Hill is a reluctant activist who shies away from the spotlight. He knows that the fight to save Black Meadow Ridge has been going on for decades. But now he has joined his neighbors in a fight to stop the homebuilder from creating what they believe could be an environmental nightmare on the cusp of the city’s flagship park.

The fate of Black Meadow Ridge could be sealed over the next two months when the Durham Board of Adjustment decides whether the public will have a voice in what happens to the serene wooded land that slopes toward the Eno River.

How the proposed development came about from the start irks Hill and his neighbors. They say the initial green light for the development was based on nearly 50-year-old site plans that were incorrectly rubber-stamped in 2016 by a former city-county planning director after a 6-0 city council vote in March 2012 that called for a comprehensive plan and future land for Black Meadow Ridge as “rural, residential very-low density,” according to the City of Durham website.

Hill says the land was re-zoned in 2012 due to environmental concerns and also because it’s designated as a highest-priority watershed preservation area for the city. The December 2018 Eno River Watershed Assessment Report on the city’s website stated that the top source of pollution, as well as a threat to the river’s water quality and watershed health, is stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces, including roofs, solid decks, patios, sidewalks, driveways, roads, and compacted gravel.

Developer Keith T. Brown’s plans to cover Black Meadow Ridge with hard surfaces is troubling, Hill says, especially with the ongoing duress of climate change. Though it’s a stunningly beautiful area, and people surely would want to live there, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should. 

“Building at a high density with 70 percent or more impervious surfaces will have huge impacts on the environment and the Eno,” Hill says. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ this area will flood. It is a matter of when and how bad it will be.”

The city’s website shows that local water bodies are less healthy when as little as 10 percent of an area is covered with impervious surfaces. With natural ground cover, 50 percent of water runoff seeps into the ground where it is filtered by natural processes before reaching streams and creeks. Severe damage to nearby rivers, streams, and lakes can occur if more than 30 percent is covered with asphalt, concrete, brick and other man-made materials. The city also notes that 75 percent or more of impervious surfaces can exponentially change the way rain moves through the water cycle by increasing pollution that flows into nearby bodies of water and flooding. 

Hill adds that flooding at the Eno is already a problem: in 2019, more than a half million gallons of raw sewage leaked into the Eno after heavy rainfall.

“With the Eno River being designated as a water source last year, it is imperative it is protected and more pressure is not added to this fragile area,” he says.

The proposed development is spearheaded by Brown, who is also the founder of Point Ridge Park in Chapel Hill. The completed neighborhood will sit along the southern boundary of the West Point on the Eno, which spans roughly 400 acres once inhabited by the Eno Indians, who lived along the Eno River. 

Over the past two years, plans for the development have been met with widely reported objections from nearby residents and their supporters. They point to Brown’s success in gaining approval from the city-county planning department for the massive project five years ago without any public input.

A July 2016 letter to Brown from Steven Medlin, a former city-county planning director, confirms the site was granted administrative site plan approval. That’s significant because it allows him to undertake the project with no public input. Hill and his neighbors want the Durham Board of Adjustment to require the proposed development to undergo a major site plan review, which would include public notice and public hearings.        

“This is abnormal for any development,” Hill says about the approval of development plans that he says are inconsistent and outdated. “Much less one that impacts the city so greatly.”

In March of last year, a handful of Argonne Hills homeowners teamed up with the Horton Hills Homeowners Association and the Eno River Association to hire Chapel Hill attorney T.C. Morphis, Jr., who filed an appeal to the BOA that asked its members to “invalidate and reverse in its entirety the 2016 letter issued by Mr. Steven Medlin,” and require the proposed development to undergo a major site plan process.

Morphis, in the 52-page appeal, claims that Brown is relying on a zoning ordinance created 40 years ago that presumed the construction of Eno Drive, a major highway akin to the 147 Freeway that would have run through Black Meadow Ridge and West Point on the Eno Park. The appeal further notes that a proposed 1972 housing development known as Foxmoor was contingent upon the existence of Eno Drive. Foxmoor, which called for 412 units and Eno Drive, was “ultimately scrapped,” owing to “its likely devastating impact on this most environmentally sensitive area of Durham,” Morphis stated in the appeal.

One of the homeowners listed on the appeal is Christy Benson, an associate professor of business law at Elon University. She says the fight to save the Eno from overdevelopment dates back to 1973 with the proposal to construct Eno Drive. Benson says the project never gained traction thanks in large part to Margaret Nygard, a legendary activist who is known as the Mother of the Eno River system.       

“She came out fighting mad,” Benson says, “and slowly beat back the proposed Eno Drive. There was a massive public outcry.”

Last September, lawyers on behalf of Brown and Point Ridge Park countered the homeowners’ appeal, filing a motion with the BOA to “exclude the appeal narrative” that focused on the development’s environmental impact from the affidavit Morphis filed with the board months before.

Durham attorneys William J. Brian and Jeffrey Roether with the Morningstar Law Group argued that while seeking two forms of relief by calling for the BOA to reverse Medlin’s decision and for public input, Morphis’s appeal veered off course when he delved into other issues, particularly “the environmental impacts of the development, that have no relations to the issues presented.”

The Durham attorneys did not respond to an email from the INDY regarding the legal proceedings.

Last month, two workers used an excavator to uproot trees that stretched nearly three-quarters of a mile and 20 feet wide along the perimeter of Black Ridge Meadow. The broken trees, scattered vegetation, mounds of red dirt, and muddied holes are about 50 yards from the Hills’ and their neighbors’ homes.

Benson was surprised when she learned the developer was knocking down trees in the neighborhood before the BOA hearings.

“I thought the city was trying to expand the capacity of stormwater drainage near Stadium Drive,” Benson said.

Hill filed a complaint with the city-county planning department.

Planning Director Sara Young, in an email to the INDY, said staffers investigated the site after receiving Hill’s complaint and found “that clearing had occurred without the proper approvals.” 

Young explained that “clearing in excess of 12,000 square feet requires a land disturbance permit, issued by the County’s Stormwater and Erosion Control Division.”

Young also noted that the city’s Unified Development Ordinance requires a site plan for any development that requires a permit, so the amount of clearing by the excavator without an approved site plan was also a violation. 

“Based on these two violations both the City-County Planning Department and the County’s Stormwater and Erosion Control Division are pursuing enforcement actions,” Young added.

Hill’s backyard is less than 12 feet away from the historic, albeit long-neglected Holman Cemetery where the few remaining tombstones date back to the 1800s. 

Officials with Preservation Durham visited Hill’s home after the trees near his backyard were yanked out of the earth and stuck 68 small orange flags in the ground to mark potential gravesites. Hill thinks there might be as many as 80 graves at the site. 

Nicholas Levy, vice president of Preservation Durham, said in an email to the INDY that the gravesite is “an extremely important historic space—one we’re just beginning to understand.”

Given the acute housing shortage in Durham, complaints about the construction of new housing in the region seem counterintuitive. 

But the Black Meadow Ridge advocates say it’s not just about opposing home construction. They say the development will destroy nearly 90 acres of woodland that stretches from Roxboro Road to Stadium Drive. Black Meadow Ridge for decades has been home to Eno wildlife, hiking trails, hardwood trees, and ancient granite rock while serving as a buffer between the city park and their homes. 

“Black Meadow Ridge will be gone,” Hill said, while trampling over land not traumatized by the excavator.

Keith Brown, the developer, last week did not return a voicemail left on numbers listed as his cell phone or offices in Chapel Hill. An email sent to addresses listed for Brown were also unanswered. 

Brown is a Durham native and N.C. State University School of Design graduate. In 1984, he founded Sun Forest Systems, a custom design/build firm, one year after he graduated from college. 

In 2000, Brown was named The Carolina’s Year 2000 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. That same year, Brown was CEO and founder of BuildNet, once described as the darling of Wall Street before it went bankrupt.

An internet search shows that the developer has his own social causes, including an orphanage he co-founded for children in South Africa.

Benson and opponents of the development say Brown is trying to push the proposed development through by riding on the coattails of the obsolete Foxmoor development.

Benson, citing her work as a business school professor, says that she is not “inherently anti-development.”

“But we need a more equitable and sustainable base from an environmental standpoint and from a historical standpoint,” she says.

Benson points to centuries past when the Eno Indians resided in the area, and how formerly enslaved people found refuge on the land after the Civil War. She speaks about the white settlers who created the mill village in the deeply wooded area during the pre-colonial era and traded with the Eno tribe. She recalls the importance of the Mangum farmhouse and how the family rose to prominence. She notes how the Eno and Falls Lake continue to provide safe drinking water for residents in Durham, Wake, and Orange counties.

Now she worries that a fundamental part of Durham’s history may be lost.

The Eno, she says, “encapsulates so much of Durham’s soul.” 


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