Raleigh, Wake clash over zoning, lake

City: Falls Lake water threatened

Staff WriterMarch 30, 2010 

— In a top-level meeting between Wake and Raleigh officials Monday, Mayor Charles Meeker and other city officials sharply criticized a proposed county ordinance change, claiming the measure could be detrimental to Falls Lake's cleanup and the quality of Raleigh's drinking water.

County officials insist the change, which would allow development of "grand fathered" commercial parcels in the Falls Lake watershed and other sensitive drainage areas in Wake, will actually lessen polluted stormwater runoff. They also blasted Raleigh officials for weighing in at the 11th hour of their deliberations.

"I find it wholly inappropriate for the city of Raleigh to come unprepared at the last minute and challenge the amendment and our code," said Commissioner Paul Coble, who is also a former Raleigh mayor and city council member.

At issue is a text change that would allow commercial development in parcels of Wake County watersheds where such uses had previously been permitted. It stems from a request to transform a lumberyard at N.C. 98 and Old Creedmoor Road into a shopping center.

The proposed change would affect as many as 10 spots in county watershed jurisdictions that have been set aside for "activity centers." The commissioners could approve the amendment at their board meeting Monday afternoon.

But Meeker said the text change would set a bad precedent and undercut the city's efforts to persuade Durham officials to reduce development in their county. Durham County is upstream of the Falls Lake reservoir, which is the source of drinking water for Raleigh and several surrounding communities. Polluted runoff from Durham, Granville and other counties upstream has been blamed for the declining water quality in Falls Lake.

"Durham's city and county are watching us carefully," Meeker said. "They're concerned that if they are changing their regulations, we should not be loosening ours at all. We should be strengthening our standards so we provide a proper framework. This ordinance would be detrimental to our efforts to improve water quality."

Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver argued that the proposed county action would open "a Pandora's Box of new text changes, land use amendments and legal challenges."

Greener uses seen

The county commissioners say the version of the ordinance likely to pass won't allow developers to expand outside the existing parcels or add new locations in the watershed. They argue the new development would be greener than existing commercial operations, including the lumberyard and a cement plant in the Falls Lake watershed, and would lessen polluted stormwater runoff from those parcels.

"We feel very environmentally responsible for that area," said Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, who heads the commissioners' Growth, Land Use and Environment Committee and lives in the Falls Lake watershed. "They are going to be looking at green development, and with all things I understand about green development, I feel strongly it will be improvement of the stormwater runoff that is there now."

The Falls Lake water is considered polluted from high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. Raleigh officials say that Falls Lake water is safe to drink now, but that treating reservoir water will cost millions of dollars if pollution isn't reduced by 2016.

The issue comes on the heels of a recent cleanup plan crafted by the N.C. Division of Water Quality, which will need approval by a state environmental commission before January 2011. In February, officials of 11 Triangle-area governments, including Raleigh and Durham, approved "consensus principles" for cleaning up the reservoir. That approval resolved conflicts between Raleigh and Durham over the speed and scope of Falls' cleanup.

ray.martin@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4952

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