666 houses and townhomes proposed for sensitive land near Falls Lake, major drinking water supply

By: - July 12, 2022 11:15 am
A map showing the location of a proposed 280-acre development. It is just south of Highway 98 in Durham County along Kemp Road, and near Falls Lake, a major drinking water supply for the City of Raleigh.
This map shows the location of a proposed 280-acre development in Durham. Falls Lake is north of the site. Lick Creek, which runs through the property, feeds the lake, a major drinking water supply for the City of Raleigh. (Map: Durham City-County Planning)

Update: The Durham Planning Commission voted 11-0 to send an unfavorable recommendation to City Council, which has the final say.

A Cary-based developer is proposing to build up to 666 houses and townhomes on land in Durham and near Falls Lake, a major drinking water supply for the City of Raleigh.

The 280 acres along Kemp Road and Southview Road off Highway 98 is also home to rare plants, wetlands, wildlife corridors and Lick Creek, which flows into Falls Lake. The lake then flows into the Neuse River, which travels through eastern North Carolina to New Bern, the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Durham Planning Commission will discuss the rezoning proposal at its virtual meeting tonight at 5:30. The developer is Bethesda Associates.

Samantha Krop, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper, told Policy Watch she is concerned that runoff of dirt, fertilizers and pesticides from the development could jeopardize the health of Lick Creek. More than seven miles of the creek have been on the federal impaired waters list — some segments for as long as 14 years — because aquatic habitats are severely degraded.

The magnitude of the sediment problem has prompted the North Carolina Land & Water Fund and the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation District to repair 3,550 feet of stream banks to prevent erosion and keep about 1,500 tons of dirt per year out of Lick Creek.

Parts of Falls Lake itself are impaired in part because of sediment and fertilizer runoff.

(Sedimentation and erosion from illegal dumping has routinely occurred in this part of the county, Policy Watch previously reported, adding to the pollutant load. County regulators were slow to penalize the dumper, Russell Stout, and did so only at the prodding of neighbors. Stout was later fined more than $100,000 by the state and county.)

Bethesda Associates has stated that impervious surface — asphalt and concrete — will compose only 24% of the neighborhood, well below the 70% allowed in this overlay zone. However, compacted clay, common in this part of North Carolina, does not absorb water well, and tends to contribute to runoff.

This map shows the outline of the proposed development overlaid by a cross-hatched section showing an environmentally sensitive area of Middle Lick Creek Bottomlands, an important wildlife area.
Wetlands, streams, wildlife corridors and a threatened plant species have been found in the proposed development area. (Map: Natural Heritage Program/ Durham City-County Planning)

The developer has committed to a 36.66% tree preservation, above the minimum required by Durham ordinances. However, the area has largely a mature forest, according to a Natural Heritage survey, including sycamore, sweetgum, American elm, maple and sugarberry trees. More than 2,000 Douglass’ Bittercress plants, a threatened species, were found on the property by Natural Heritage program staff. North Carolina is the southeastern edge of the plant’s range.

The area is not connected to public sewer, although it lies within a proposed service area. In general, the clay soils in this part of Durham County are ill-suited for septic systems. A planning staff report noted that extending sewer service to the development would help the city recoup $3.8 million of the city’s $35 million investment in the Southeast Regional Lift Station and Pipeline Project.

To sweeten the deal, Bethesda Associates has proposed maintaining buffers and easements along the streams and creeks, as well as installing asphalt bike trails and improving roads that connect with the busy Highway 98. A DOT analysis indicated the additional traffic — up to 4,990 vehicle trips per day — would not overly burden the thoroughfare.

However, there is no public transit in this part of the county, and the area is car-dependent. That is key because transportation is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, the drivers of climate change.

In addition to environmental concerns, there are no plans to include affordable housing within the development, according to a city/county staff report.


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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.