Durham Planning Commission member resigns following City Council's vote on Virgil Road development

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Monday, June 17, 2024
Durham Planning Commission member resigns
A member of the Durham Planning Commission has resigned following a vote regarding a new development in Durham.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A member of the Durham Planning Commission resigned following a vote regarding a new development in Durham.

Civil engineer Tony Sease tendered his resignation in an e-mail to City Council on Wednesday, June 12.

"There were a number of votes and a certain set of comments around the votes, but (the) Virgil Road case was easily the most prominent. That was a case that the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend denial, and for a lot of reasons I think warranted the decision to resign," said Sease.

"There's a good amount of times we've voted in the way the planning committee has, and there's times we haven't. That is the nature of the relationship between a policy making body and an advisory board," said Mark-Anthony Middleton in a conversation with ABC11 on Monday.

In his resignation later, Sease specifically mentioned City Council's vote on the Virgil Road project, which he described in his letter as "possibly the most egregious example" of a Council vote against the tenets of the Comprehensive Plan.

"Durham has the potential to be vastly more intentional around expecting applicants to come forward with projects that are far more consistent with the Comprehensive Plan," said Sease.

Sease described the Comprehensive Plan as a "guiding document" which was influenced by various community stakeholders to be considered when projects came before City Council.

The Virgil Road project calls for more than 500 homes (single-family and townhome) on just over 200 acres in the southeast section of the city. In January, the Planning Commission cited environmental concerns, over-reliance on vehicles, and land use amongst other reasons it objected to the project.

"I think we're all interested in finding ways to allow Durham to grow in ways that are much more economically rich, environmentally sustainable and still with an eye to equity," said Sease.

The Planning Commission serves in an advisory capacity, with City Council members ultimately making the final decision. Representatives for the project's developer, Taylor Morrison, and members of the public spoke in May at the Durham City Council Meeting about the development, with several hours of time devoted to the vote.

"We are proud to be addressing affordability tonight by doubling our commitment to 6% for 30 years with 3% at 80% AMI and 3% at 60% AMI. This will now provide 32 families high quality income restricted units," said Marie Farmer, an associate with Parker Poe, the law firm representing Taylor Morrison on the project.

Farmer highlighted varied housing stock, a 15-acre wildlife corridor, 100-foot stream buffers, all garages in single-family homes pre-wired for EV charging stations, and at least four National Wildlife Federation certified features in the pitch.

"This project will provide 531 new homes on previously undeveloped land that is within a five-to-six-minute drive to the Corners at Brier Creek," said Farmer.

Managing Durham's growth and affordability has been a point of emphasis for elected officials, as the city has seen its population more than double since 1990.

"In the issue of development, you have accommodated and pandered to private interests that are absolutely pillaging what is beautiful and wonderful about the Durham that we love," said Robin Barefoot, who opposed the project during public comment.

"My family has tried for the last 30 years to sell the land on Virgil Road. Property taxes were and continue to be a significant burden to our family. Many are retired on a fixed income and many of us don't make a lot of money. Conservationists have never approached us about saving this land," added Amy Bass, who supported the project.

Ultimately, City Council voted 4-3 to move forward with the development, with Mayor Leo Williams, Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, Council Member Javiera Caballero and Council Member Carl Rist in support.

"I want to keep fidelity with the plan that I voted for. This will not be the first time it's uncomfortable and I guess each of us will have to determine what is the threshold for us as decision makers and leaders that will give us comfort that we'll say 'OK, in this particular case, we can go past the 'future growth area.' And that's a question we're going to have to answer ourselves, but I like this project," said Middleton, prior to the vote.

"Our input I think is not from a perspective of saying 'no' to development. Our input is from a perspective of understanding from our respective sets of experiences interacting with development decisions and real estate investment and real estate finance and planning and the design professions in really instrumental ways to know that Durham can chart a much better future," said Sease.

As for Sease's now-vacant seat, according to Deputy City Clerk Paola Roland: "All positions are advertised for a minimum of 30 days on our City website and distributed to our Sunshine List. After this period, the City checks residency and tax delinquencies for applicants. The eligible applicants are then submitted to Council for consideration via an agenda item."

In the case of a resignation, there is not a time period for when a position must be filled, and City Council can choose to re-advertise the position.