Welcome to the newest edition of By The Horns, a newsletter covering the Durham City Council. This series is intended to help guide those attempting to understand the mechanics of Durham city government, stay informed on issues throughout Durham, and learn the tools necessary to be a more engaged citizen.
Happy post-Election day/week/whenever the runoffs become official! No matter your party affiliation, you’re probably feeling like things didn’t go the way you wanted. But you lived to fight another day. Communities don’t stop needing support after the votes have been counted. That’s when the real work begins.
Call to Order
A Brief Summary of the Meeting
- The virtue for this month is thankfulness. That one was easy.
- Two other ceremonial items were recognized: Family Court Awareness Month, and Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
- Numerous shout outs to THE North Carolina Central University who celebrated homecoming this past weekend, capped off by a beatdown of Howard University in football.
- Four annexation requests and a zoning map change. I sound like a broken record talking about Southeast Durham but it continues to be a hotbed for large housing developments. This meeting was no exception.
Power In Numbers
The first item on the General Business Agenda was the proposed annexation of 4.491 acres of land at 1110 Old Oxford Road. The site boarders Bragtown, an historically Black neighborhood with its own recent episode through the development process.
Patrick Byker, attorney at Morningstar Law Group, represented the project on behalf of the developer, M.M Fowler, Inc. M.M. Fowler is a subsidiary of Family Fare, a chain of convenience stores headquartered right here in Durham. Dr. Lee Barnes, the company’s president, is a former sales development representative for Shell Oil Company. According to Byker, the development group had substantial support illustrated by a signed petition from neighbors and speakers at the meeting in favor of the project.
This narrative was juxtaposed against the strongest showing of opposition that I’ve seen at a meeting since starting By The Horns. Two virtual speakers along with 14 in-person speakers shared their disagreements with the proposal, citing issues like traffic safety, living wages, public health, and ecological preservation. One of the highlights of the meeting was Eric Ungberg, a member of the Oxford/Hamlin Community Coalition opposed to the project. After his wife Claire gave an eloquent rejection to the proposal, Ungberg opened his remarks with, “obviously, I agree with everything my wife had to say” to rousing laughter from the chamber. Clearly, he was not the only one who agreed. After deliberation, and a few follow-up questions from council to both Byker and members of Oxford/Hamlin, the council voted 7-0 to send the proposal back to city staff for additional consideration. As far as I can tell, a gas station is unlikely at 1110 Old Oxford Road.
Consider this case without the 16 opposing speakers. Byker on behalf of Family Fare (a seemingly respected local business), three in-person speakers: two Black women and an Hispanic woman, along with dozens of signatures from Bragtown neighbors all in favor of the project. On paper, this is a slam dunk: local business, diverse speakers, community support.
In his closing remarks, Councilperson Williams said, “As many of you all know, I usually vote pro-growth. Very much so.” This is true for the majority of council. What made a significant impact in this case was the visual representation of all the residents in opposition and their personal anecdotes. It’s hard to ignore your own constituents when they’re sitting right in front of you.
According to Byker, the number of signatures they collected far exceeded 16, but only three speakers came to chamber Monday night. Representation matters. If you care about an issue, it’s not enough to just vote or sign a petition. Show up when you can. I recognize there are equity issues that allow certain people to be more politically active but that means if you are able, you have even more responsibility to do so.
Morningstar’s Monopoly on Land Use Law
Patrick Byker represented multiple projects on Monday. Rarely does a meeting go by without someone from Morningstar, usually Byker or Nil Ghosh, speaking on behalf of a developer. The two of are part of a team of land use lawyers at the firm. Morningstar itself is a member of Warwick Legal Network, “an international group of more than 50 commercial law firms that provide legal support to businesses in countries across Europe, Asia and South America,” according to their website.
Morningstar seems to be the only game in town when it comes to land use law, and they must be effective because everyday, new ground is broken in Durham. Byker often touts his long history of working on development and urban planning in Durham, dating back to before his time with Morningstar. He has been on numerous boards, including Durham Area Transit Authority (now GoTriangle), and ran for County Commissioner in 2020.
Ghosh has been with the firm since 2015 and previously served on Planning Commission from 2015-2018. Surely, his skill set was useful, but questions were raised (namely by former council member Charlie Reece) about potential conflicts of interest between his position at Morningstar and his service as a commissioner.
“Reece pointed out that while he doesn’t believe that Ghosh had any improper intent or motive, he is concerned about the public perception of a member of the planning commission representing developers in front of the city council.”
None of this amounts to scandal. But it begs the question: how much influence does Morningstar have over how Durham gets built? Given their positioning in the development process, they seem to have their finger on the pulse of nearly every new project, even before it’s proposed to city staff and certainly before anyone in the community knows. That kind of leverage is powerful. Monopolies are never good, at any level. Even the most altruistic businesses need competition.
On Thursday, Durham opened its third cycle for the Participatory Budgeting process. Here’s how it works:
- Design the Process - A steering committee, appointed by council, creates the rules in partnership with government officials to ensure the process is inclusive and meets local needs.
- Brainstorm Ideas - Through meetings and online tools, residents share and discuss ideas for projects.
- Develop Proposals - Volunteers, usually called budget delegates, develop the ideas into feasible proposals, which are then vetted by experts.
- Vote - Residents vote to divide the available budget between the proposals.
- Project Implementation - The government implements the winning projects, such as bus shelters, Wi-Fi in public parks, or sidewalk improvements. The government and residents track and monitor implementation
About $2.4 million is expected to be available for projects submitted through the participatory budgeting process. Collaborating with your friends and neighbors on a project that benefits your community is a perfect opportunity to take that next step in your political evolution.
To learn more about the process, check out the website here.
- Something I’ve been wondering is why the lawyers always speak at the council meetings? You’ll usually hear, “My client is here to answer any questions.” So why aren’t they up there to speak on behalf of their own project? That shroud of mystery creates bad public perception, especially when the lawyers speaking in their stead are the same people every time.
- Mayor O’Neal mentioned that the council would be sharing more responsibility across the meetings. On Monday, this amounted to Mayor Pro Tempore Middleton doing even more of the talking. This is not a jab at Councilmember Middleton, but I would like to hear more from Mayor O’Neal. She has an interesting voting pattern but we don’t hear as much from her during the meetings.
A special note of gratitude to everyone who reached out the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I was one of the lucky ones who got the flu. It took me completely out of it for more than a week but I’m healthy now and excited to keep pushing this project forward. I’ve had inspiring meetings with a number of folks, including former mayor Steve Schewel, about By The Horns. It continues to be an invigorating assignment. As always, share with your friends and send me questions or comments if you have them.