Council approves multiple developments despite objections

Council approves multiple developments despite objections

DURHAM, N.C. — A homeowner in a fast-growing area said city leaders aren’t thinking through all of the implications of their rapid-fire development approvals.


What You Need To Know

To date, the Durham City Council has approved seven housing developments in southeast Durham over the objections of the planning commission

All of the approvals were in the area around Leesville Road and Olive Branch Road

Homeowners there say the roads won’t be able to handle the traffic volume

NCDOT has no plans to expand those roads before at least 2035


About four years ago, Herman Sperling moved to Durham from New Jersey, settling in the city’s southeast side, just off Leesville Road. Sperling said he loves the area, but he’s worried the city isn’t planning adequately for the growth there.

The area around Leesville Road and Olive Branch Road is home to a number of recently-built neighborhoods, with still more on the way. The closest major traffic artery is U.S. Highway 70, which Leesville Road connects with.

Developers have built multiple new neighborhoods in southeast Durham over the past few years. Planning commission members say those developers include road improvements at intersections but they don’t cover the costs of entire road projects.

“When traffic backs up, let’s say, at the intersection of Highway 70, how are fire engines and EMS people supposed to get out when the traffic’s blocked?” he said.

Any time an issue involving zoning or development ordinances comes up, it first goes to the Durham Planning Commission. This panel of 14 residents then votes whether to recommend for or against a given development, with final authority resting with either the city council or the county board of commissioners, depending on where the property in question is located.

Over the past two years, the Durham City Council has approved at least eight housing developments in the southeast part of town. In seven of those cases, the council did so over the objections of the planning commission.

Dave Morgan serves on the commission. He said in each case, the commission voted not to recommend rezoning because of concerns over the ability of area roads, especially Leesville Road, to handle the traffic. Morgan said there’s enough space along the entire corridor to expand the road, but NCDOT has no plans to do so before at least 2035.

“It’s concerning,” he said of the council’s votes. “I can’t really speak for my colleagues, but I would think they would want to sync up with what the city wants to do.”

Leesville Road is a two-lane road for at least four miles from its terminus with U.S. Highway 70. Neighbors say they expect the traffic volume to double before the end of the decade based on current growth rates.

In a letter to Sperling, Mayor Steve Schewel said city planners have noted Leesville Road currently carries less traffic than other comparable roads elsewhere in the city. Moreover, he said city officials estimate it would cost as much as $32 million to dig up and rebuild the four-mile stretch of road in question.

“I don’t think that expenditure for Leesville Road would be a responsible one for the city taxpayers to undertake in light of all our other transportation needs,” he wrote.

Neither Schewel nor council members who voted in favor of the housing developments responded to multiple requests from Spectrum News 1 for comment.

Based on DOT data and population growth statistics, Sperling and a group of homeowners in the Leesville Road area estimate the road will carry more than double its present-day traffic by the end of the decade. Sperling said the city could pay for road expansion through a bond issue or by requiring developers to foot the bill. He said developers already include road improvements immediately surrounding any neighborhoods they build.

The city council is scheduled to vote on another annexation at its Tuesday meeting. That development, at 1051 Olive Branch Road, got a near-unanimous thumbs down from the planning commission.

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