Neighbors take fight against Durham-Orange light-rail yard to court

A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop.
A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop. Contributed

Southwest Durham residents have filed a lawsuit to keep a proposed light-rail maintenance yard out of their neighborhood.

The complaint against the city of Durham and GoTriangle seeks to overturn the City Council’s rezoning for the rail yard site off Farrington Road near Interstate 40.

Brown & Bunch law firm in Chapel Hill filed the complaint on behalf of six neighbors: John Gunter, Patricia Gunter, Virginia Meihaus, Betty Ray Hoffman, Jon Hoffman and Joan Hart.

The lawsuit claims the council’s rezoning was illegal spot zoning, because the 25-acre site’s new light industrial zoning is different from the suburban area around it.

David W. Owens, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said the plaintiffs have a better chance of the court overturning the council decision if it is deemed spot zoning.

“The burden is on the city to show that what they’ve done is reasonable,” Owens said.

Durham City Attorney Patrick Baker said the city has not reviewed the complaint yet.

“At some point in time in the near future we will brief Council on the matter,” he said in a statement. “We will respond on behalf of the City at some point likely through our legal filings.”

Owens said a judge will determine if the council acted reasonably, looking at the size of the site, consistency of the plan, and the benefits and detriments to the landowners.

“It’s like a landfill or something else — nobody wants to live next to trash — but if you have a light-rail system you need a maintenance yard,” Owens said.

19-stop rail line

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, with stops in between.

The council voted to rezone the land for the rail yard for the planned 19-stop, 17.7-mile project in December. Homeowners in nearby Culp Arbor and Prescott Place, as well as parents of Creekside Elementary School students, opposed the rezoning, concerned about potential noise, lights and property values.

Hoffman, one of the plaintiffs, visited Charlotte with council members to see the Charlotte light-rail yard and building.

“We were hoping we’d like the ROMF [rail operations and maintenance facility], but instead we left Charlotte more concerned than when we went,” Hoffman told council members in December.

The Durham Planning Commission did not recommend the rezoning, splitting 4-4. The facility would be open all the time and have space for light-rail administration offices, rail car maintenance and storage.

“This is the best location, even with its problems,” Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said before voting Dec. 3 for the rezoning. “I think this project is really important for our community.”

What’s next

Owens said the the lawsuit could take nine months to a year to wind through the court, longer if there is an appeal.

“The rezoning is presumed valid until the court says otherwise,” Owens said. “It doesn’t put the city’s zoning on hold. The city has rezoned it; it will stay in the zone until the judge says otherwise.”

Meanwhile, GoTriangle’s final application to the Federal Transit Administration for the federal share of light-rail funding is due at the end of April.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer