Durham County

As Durham grows, City Council grants neighborhood zoning protection

In this 2017 Herald-Sun file photo, John Schelp leads a three-mile walk through Old West Durham.
In this 2017 Herald-Sun file photo, John Schelp leads a three-mile walk through Old West Durham. The Herald-Sun

As Durham grows and faces affordability issues, the city voted for its second neighborhood protection overlay to preserve the character of a neighborhood.

Two months after a contentious Durham Planning Commission meeting and years after the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association requested a neighborhood protection overlay, the Durham City Council unanimously approved the zoning tool at its meeting Monday night. Old West Durham is a neighborhood of former mill houses near Duke University East Campus.

What's a neighborhood protection overlay?

The Old West Durham neighborhood protection overlay, or NPO, is the second of its kind in Durham. The city approved an overlay for Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood in 2008. Tuscaloosa-Lakewood's neighborhood board passed a resolution supporting Old West Durham Neighborhood Association's request for a neighborhood protection overlay. Preservation Durham also supported the Old West Durham overlay.

Raleigh has 18 neighborhood conservation overlay districts, and Chapel Hill has 10 neighborhood conservation districts.

Overlays must be requested by a neighborhood and seek to "create context sensitive zoning regulations for a particular geography," according to the Durham Planning Department. It was implemented when the city and county adopted the Unified Development Ordinance in 2006. The overlay needed an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance and a zoning map change.

The Old West Durham Neighborhood Association said the NPO ensures "that new residential development is compatible with the established urban form, modest scale, and mill village character of the neighborhood. Preservation of green space and tree canopy are primary motivations for the formulation of a number of these standards.”

However, they did make a change after the Durham Planning Commission voted against recommending the overlay in March. The working group for the neighborhood agreed to an accessory dwelling unit size of 800 square feet. Accessory dwelling units, known as ADUs, are smaller buildings next to the primary home.

For the past year of meetings and many emails from residents, some contentious, the Durham City-County Planning Department has given technical support to the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association, which proposed the NPO in 2014.

The Old West Durham overlay covers 93.6 acres, which is 428 parcels owned by 295 people. The average house is a one-story house of about 1,500 square feet built in 1930.

What the overlay does:

Establish floor area ratio to limit bulk;

Lower primary and accessory structure heights;

Standardize lot dimensions to reflect the predominant subdivision pattern;

Require a backyard tree;

Reduce parking requirements and prevent “over-paving” of driveways.

The opponents

Old West Durham resident John Temple said NPO supporters had a "control everything attitude." He doesn't think it protects the neighborhood.

"I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 54 years. It’s always been a great place," Temple said.

Jeff Monsein, who owns 53 properties in Old West Durham, said he has invested in the neighborhood since 1985. He did not want the Council to approve the overlay, claiming it would make an ADU near impossible to build.

Joyce Sykes has lived there for 23 years and also opposed the NPO.

"It’s not just old mill houses, it’s a huge variety of houses in that district," she said.

Council member Charlie Reece said he understood the concerns raised by opponents. However, he said the overlay is a "reasonable regulatory authority to preserve the character of Old West Durham."

John Schelp, longtime Old West Durham leader who leads neighborhood tours and a NPO supporter, said the NPO is "not a radical, preservationist proposal" and they're not trying to stop new development, just that it be in scale.

"The NPO will allow the neighborhood to have more density by allowed ADUs, or granny flats," Schelp said.

Mayor Steve Schewel said that ADUs will be a critical tool for affordability in Durham.

What it means for other neighborhoods

Neighborhood protect overlays are resident-initiated, so the planning department will work with neighborhoods who submit them.

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said the overlay issue "crystallizes what we’re facing in Durham" around development and the market.

"I’m concerned about the citizens that this issue is coming to that won’t be as organized," Middleton said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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