Coalition fighting for Durham land

Community groups are trying to head off the Preserve at Erwin Trace development

Staff WriterFebruary 23, 2005 

In the decade or so Jim Anderson has worked in the development business, he's grown accustomed to meeting with neighbors concerned about the traffic and lost trees that often accompany new subdivisions.

So when the Crosland Group, the company for which Anderson works, began to toss around the idea of a different type of development -- something small, exclusive and environmentally sensitive -- he expected something different.

He got it.

When Crosland's plans for a 42.8-acre, tree-cloistered site at Erwin and Pickett roads became public last year, a torrent of community protest was unleashed. A coalition of 19 western Durham neighborhood groups concerned about a slate of at least six developments proposed for the area has coordinated what Anderson called the most sophisticated, multilayered opposition campaign that he has ever seen.

The coalition, known as the Erwin Area Neighborhood Group, has put up a series of signs along Pickett, Erwin and Randolph roads drawing attention to the proposed development. Some are simple, homemade jobs that make reference to the site's much-debated role in a long-planned greenway project. Others are professionally printed on forest green placards that include the opposition's Web address, www.erwinneighbor.org.

And another series, planted at the proposed development site, are made up of stark single words stenciled on white cards, "Save," "This," "Land."

"People who would want these homes have a respect for nature," said Anderson, a vice president in Crosland's Raleigh-based Land Division. "I just don't know if people understand that this is a very different type of development. This is a neighborhood suited for people who like to hear the crickets."

But the people behind the signs have found a sympathetic ear in public officials. The Erwin Area Neighborhood Group complained loudly enough about Crosland's plans that in December the Durham County Board of Commissioners placed a 120-day hold on the development.

The county wanted to explore the idea of working with other local governments to create a multijurisdictional park or preserve. To do so, local governments and the Erwin Area Neighborhood Group will have to come up with $1.5 million to buy the land from Duke and pay Crosland $500,000 in lost potential profit.

As of Monday, the Erwin Area Neighborhood Group had received $50,000 in pledges from people who want to see the land preserved. After watching most of the wooded tracts in this area be claimed by developers, people are passionate about this land, said Wendy Jacobs, a campaign coordinator.

"Compared to most development, it's a pretty sensitive plan," Jacobs said. "But that's not the issue. The issue is what is the best use of this land for the public. If this space is developed, there will be virtually no open space left in this part of the county."

Jacobs, a western Durham stay-at-home mom , has become so well-versed in development parlance and procedure that even Anderson, a West Point graduate, said he admires her drive.

But Anderson said last week that he is confused by the intensity and tone of the opposition. Crosland, Anderson said, is planning a development that blends in with the landscape.

The Preserve at Erwin Trace, Crosland's planned community, would plant as many as 49 homes in a bracket-shaped subdivision with custom-built homes that range from $350,000 to $650,000. About 21 acres would be set aside as unfettered open space.

Crosland's plans also call for the community's homes to be laid out with special deference to older trees. And if the Preserve were annexed, it would theoretically bring more than $90,000 to the city's tax rolls, Anderson said.

"When we sat down and really mapped this thing out, we thought this would be a protype of environmentally responsible development, really the best any of us had ever seen," Anderson said.

But neighbors say the land, once home to a historic trading path and site of a watershed-feeding stream, carries too much environmental and historical value to be transformed into a subdivision.

Officials from Durham city and county, Orange County and Chapel Hill will meet again March 9 to discuss the land's price, the notion of paying a developer for potential lost profit and their ability to finance a purchase with public or grant money. The development moratorium on the land will expire in early April.

"Until then, all we can do is wait this thing out," Anderson said.

Staff writer Janell Ross can be reached at 956-2415 or jross@newsobserver.com.

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