The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday October 27th

Will this Durham lawsuit stall the plans for the Orange-Durham light rail?

GoTriangle has designed mock-ups for a light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill paralleling 15-501. Graphic courtesy of GoTriangle.
Buy Photos GoTriangle has designed mock-ups for a light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill paralleling 15-501. Graphic courtesy of GoTriangle.

A new complication in the long and contentious planning of the Orange-Durham light rail system emerged in the form of a lawsuit by six Durham residents over the placement of a proposed maintenance facility.

The complaint was filed in state superior court on Jan. 31 by LeAnn Nease Brown of the Brown & Bunch law firm on behalf of the six residents. It alleges that the Durham City Council did not act in accordance with North Carolina law when it approved the rezoning of property owned by GoTriangle to permit the construction of a maintenance facility for the light rail system.

The plaintiffs are seeking to have the rezoning declared void by the court.

On Dec. 3, Durham City Council unanimously approved the rezoning of property owned by GoTriangle in Durham to allow them to eventually build a maintenance facility for light rail cars. The facility is supposed to be built on Farrington Road in southwest Durham.

At the Dec. 3 council meeting, representatives from GoTriangle and 18 other Durham residents spoke in favor of rezoning the site. Fifty-two people spoke against the proposal, including residents of a neighboring residential development and parents of children at nearby Creekside Elementary School.

Now, six residents of that residential development, the Villas at Culp Arbor, are filing a lawsuit against the City of Durham and GoTriangle.

The lawsuit alleges that the Durham City Council did not adequately consider the effects of noise pollution, citing that previous studies into such matters by GoTriangle had been conducted from much farther away than where the plaintiffs actually live.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs would all be living within 500 feet of the proposed maintenance site, with one plaintiff living as close as 110 feet away, but GoTriangle's measurements of noise pollution were taken from more than 2,500 feet away.

Another complaint in the lawsuit was the manner in which the rezoning was approved by the Durham City Council. The lawsuit claims that this is known as “spot zoning.” David Owens, a professor in the UNC School of Government, said spot zoning occurs when a small area within a larger area has a different zoning category than that of the larger zone.

“Literally a spot on a zoning map,” Owens said.

He said that in "general zoning," the normal political process is sufficient to determine the appropriate zoning, but spot zoning presents more legal requirements of the city or county.

“If it is spot zoning — and that is, you’re treating a relatively small area, in this case a single parcel of land owned by a single owner — differently than the surrounding land is zoned, the courts will not presume that the city’s action is valid, but rather will require the city to show that what they have done is reasonable,” Owens explained. “It’s just a higher degree of judicial scrutiny to make sure that the elected officials are not acting in an arbitrary or unreasonable fashion.”

The plaintiffs claim this case constitutes spot zoning, and that the City of Durham has not and cannot show that this spot zoning was reasonable. Owens also said these cases generally take between six and 18 months to be resolved by the courts, depending on court workloads.

Elected officials from Chapel Hill and the Orange County Board of County Commissioners expressed their concern over the lawsuit and echoed prior objections to the light rail system as a whole.

Chapel Hill Town Council Member Nancy Oates said houses are one of the most important investments people make, and this appears to be unfair to some Durham residents. Oates also said she believes the overall light rail system is still far too expensive and that she continues to oppose it.

“It sounds like people bought in a residential area and didn't expect that the property nearby would be rezoned for industrial (purposes)," Oates said. "It’s disappointing that that’s what Durham decided to do."

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee expressed support for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, although the case does not fall under Orange County’s jurisdiction. McKee also reaffirmed his opposition to the light rail as proposed, primarily because of similar concerns with light and noise pollution.

“I think their complaint is well founded," he said. "It causes some fairly significant impositions on their neighborhood."

McKee believes this could affect funding from the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to provide half of the funding for the light rail. He does, however, expect development and planning to continue as the lawsuit is litigated in court.

No members of the Durham City Council could be reached for comment. Brown, the attorney for the plaintiffs, and Jillian Johnson, the Durham mayor pro tempore, both declined to comment on pending litigation.

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