At the October 6 Raleigh City Council afternoon meeting, District E Councilor David Knight led a spurious, yet successful effort to destroy Azalea Falls, one of Raleigh’s designated National Historic sites. As usual, the development-driven Council majority voted 7 to 1 (David Cox being the lone dissenter) to perpetrate another environmental disaster in our community.
During the evening session, longtime Raleigh resident Richard Johnson delivered the following remarks to Council:
During your late August meeting, at-large councilor Nicole Stewart called herself and David Knight “professional environmentalists.” I thought she was being sarcastic, but then I realized she was serious. Like Donald Trump, who she campaigns, governs, and votes like, she must be using “alternative facts.”
Tonight I was planning to mention previous issues where these environmentalists dropped the ball – issues like the RDU Quarry, reappointments to the RDU Airport Authority, Shelly Lake, advocating for density everywhere without taking into consideration any negative impacts from not following the comp plan that outlines the best places for density.
But this afternoon with Knight’s leadership in the destruction of Azalea Falls, you really outdid yourselves. And Councilor Knight should be ashamed for how he mischaracterized the letter from The Umstead Coalition. He made it sound like they supported the rezoning, yet the very first thing the Umstead Coalition recommended in their letter was a “special study per the 2030 Comp Plan.”
Council votes for the end of Azalea Falls
Wait for the bulldozers and the heavy rains
But we’re not going to get a special study. So the jury is out as to whether clear cutting and mass grading the hillside overlooking Azalea Falls can be done and still preserve the state-designated natural heritage area. Council has offered no expert environmental data or assurances, so we’ll have to wait until the bulldozers and the heavy rains arrive.
Very bad location for Density
But the jury is NOT out about this being a terrible location for density. All of the data says this location will always be car dependent – miles away from transit and walkable destinations. All data says that when you put density in car-dependent locations like this, you create long-term negative impacts to our environment, and our quality of life.
Council votes contradict promises and plans
Many of you ran on promises of more equitable and environmentally sustainable growth, driven by solid data. But over and over again, your actions speak more loudly: in the real world of profit-driven development politics, your votes promote density anywhere developers ask for it, regardless of the threats of more air pollution, more toxic parking lot runoff, more road congestion, or more expensive and self- perpetuating road construction. Of course this is nice for Barnhill, Hanson Aggregates, Wake Stone, and the builders that support and bankroll your campaigns. Setting aside the risks you are taking with Azalea Falls, car-dependent upzonings like this one make our city worse, not better.
If the City would follow its Comp Plan and develop increased residential density in the urban core, on transit lines and in city-defined walkable growth centers, Raleigh would be able to meet its housing needs without adding new sprawl and more automobile dependency. And, in this specific location, you would, at the same time protect this local ecological wonder.
previous blogs: https://livableraleigh.com/tag/azalea-falls/
Hillside Overlooking Azalea Falls
Azalea Falls was the subject of a prior post on this site. In it, we called on City Council to reject a developer’s application to up-zone a major portion of the property — allowing a high-density apartment project that would destroy not just that portion but the whole shebang.
Twice, Council has postponed a decision, at its meetings on Sept. 1 and Sept. 15. But the discussion Sept. 15 indicated that approval is imminent and likely to come in October.
Unless public opinion stops them.
Azalea Falls is an environmental jewel, designated officially by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as a Natural Heritage site of statewide ecological significance.
Part of the property — the portion along Crabtree Creek — is owned already by the nonprofit City of Oaks Foundation, whose mission is to preserve important environmental assets for the people of Raleigh.
If the up-zoning is rejected, the rest of the property — a steep hillside above the City of Oaks holding — could be acquired and preserved as well.
As it should be. (See below for the how.)
Here’s a link to the City of Oaks Foundation’s website, which shows Azalea Falls to be, as we say, a jewel.
Jewel or not, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin signaled her intention to press ahead with the up-zoning at the Sept. 15 meeting, calling on District A Councilor Patrick Buffkin to make the case for it.
Buffkin, an attorney, promptly took the developer’s side, trying to argue that a provision of the up-zoning request — in legal terms, a condition offered by the developer — would somehow protect the Falls even as the stripping and mass grading of the wooded hillsides that are integral to it proceeded. But it was not immediately apparent that this made any sense, so Buffkin resorted to cross-examining a citizen who disagreed with him.
That citizen happened to be Chris Heagarty, executive director of the City of Oaks Foundation.
Buffkin was insistent that stripping the trees from the hillside would not damage the site. Did Heagarty agree?
Heagarty did not agree, and he said so quietly, which caused Buffkin to push harder.
Buffkin (leaning in): Do you see any undue environmental harm resulting from this project going forward?
Heagarty (calmly): Councilor Buffkin, I honestly don’t have the answer you want to hear. But yes, I do think the project causes environmental harm. Any time you go in and take down rare native species, and destroy native habitats, it is going to have environmental impact.
Heagarty was simply stating what should be obvious to everyone on Council:
The steeply wooded hillsides above Azalea Falls are CRITICAL to Azalea Falls’ unique and exceptional forest ecology and aquatic habitat. The hillsides and the Falls, in other words, are one and the same!
[Think whether you’d still have a car if someone destroyed the engine and the transmission.]
Again, this is spelled out in the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources designation of the Falls’ ecological significance.
No wooded hillsides, no Azalea Falls.
Buffkin Plays Hardball
Finally, Buffkin resorted to the classic up-zoning threat, which goes like this: “If the developers don’t get their way, things could get much worse for you!”
We recall a now-retired Raleigh Planning Director who called this kind of development threat ‘the Darth Vader scenario.’
The threat here: If not allowed to strip the hillside for high-density development, the developer could choose to strip it anyway out of sheer destructiveness, dumping mud on the City of Oaks property below.
Which meant, to Buffkin, that the high-density development would have no “environmental impact.”
Once again, though, Heagarty wasn’t buying Buffkin’s premise.
“I have to be honest,” he said. “I can’t tell you that [the project] won’t have an environmental impact.”
Heagarty, in short, wasn’t giving cover to Buffkin, Baldwin and the rest of the Council majority, which seems determined nonetheless to allow this senseless destruction of a rare woodland oasis.
And what of the other Council members who brand themselves as environmentalists (we’re looking at you, Nicole Stewart and David Knight). They sat through the meetings in stony silence, unwilling even to utter the name ‘Azalea Falls,’ for fear of drawing Baldwin’s wrath.
A Better Way Forward
Azalea Falls and the steeply wooded slopes cradling it represent a special forest and aquatic habitat of statewide environmental importance to future Raleigh generations.
In 2052 more than 200 acres of land connecting Azalea Falls to Umstead State Park will be donated to the City of Raleigh for parkland — it’s now a quarry — and it will complete the Crabtree Creek Greenway across the entire city of Raleigh.
This is not the time for Council to be motivated by the insignificant short-term profits of the Z-47-19 parcel owner, which happens to be one of the largest construction conglomerates in North America. Instead, Council should look to protect one of Raleigh’s most precious environmental assets.
How? Simply buy the Z-47 parcel, tax valued at $1.7M, and add it to the 200 acres that will ultimately be given to the City. Better still, work with land owner Leigh Hanson to secure a tax-benefited charitable donation of the Z-47-19 parcel to an organization such as the Conservation Trust For North Carolina. At Council’s October 6 meeting: Save Azalea Falls.
Azalea Falls – On the Verge of Destruction by City Council
Tuesday afternoon, September 15, Council will likely decide the fate of one of Raleigh’s most environmentally significant sites – Azalea Falls, a secluded nine acre site owned by The City of Oaks Foundation and recognized by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as possessing “natural values justifying its recognition by the State as an outstanding part of the natural heritage of North Carolina”.
Unfortunately, Council is considering an intense apartment project on the steep hills above Azalea Falls – upzoning Z-47-19, at 4800 Duraleigh Rd. These steep hills are part of a larger City-designated “Special Study Area” (one of five in the city) containing a quarry, which will be given to the City in 2052 for park land – unless this Council approves the upzoning for development ahead of time.
According to Raleigh’s Comprehensive Plan, the Special Study Area designation specifies “land use planning studies incorporating focused community outreach are necessary … before approval of development proposals or rezonings“
Any normal Council would heed the citywide significance of the Special Study Area, the ongoing citywide problems with Crabtree Creek’s impaired water quality and stormwater flooding, the citywide significance of protecting the Crabtree Creek Greenway, and the statewide environmental designation of the Azalea Falls property. But this is not a normal Council. This is an anti-environmental Council.
This is not a normal Council. This is an anti-environmental Council.
At the September 1st public hearing on Z-47-19, self-proclaimed environmentalist Nicole Stewart responded to the long list of comprehensive planning and environmental concerns with stony silence. MaryAnn Baldwin was mum as well, hoping no one would mention her looming conflict of interest vote, since her boss Barnhill buys trainloads of aggregate from Z-47-19 landowner, Hanson Aggregates. Patrick Buffkin managed a one liner: “its a very special property”. The remainder of the work – carving up the property like a Thanksgiving Turkey – was handled by David Knight.
Knight acknowledged that the project calls for 4+ story apartments and parking lots packed onto the steep slopes overlooking Azalea Falls and abutting homes to the south. Knight sought to shift the multi-story retaining walls back a bit, in the vain hope that the new development won’t somehow be looking down on the roofs of the neighbors.
To environmental observers, the Azalea Falls property looked like the Titanic going down, with Knight in charge of rearranging the deck chairs. Nowhere in his comments did Knight acknowledge that the steep wooded slopes will be mass graded and cleared and that rain events during the grading and construction will almost surely lead to uncontrollable stormwater runoff pouring off the site, eliminating all aquatic habitats in its path and turning Azalea Falls stream into a sludge pit.
According to Raleigh’s Comprehensive Plan, this Special Study Area is one of the most important places in Raleigh to carefully and holistically consider our vision for sustainable citywide growth. Likewise, designation by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources of this area’s statewide environmental value, and the need to protect the wooded slopes overlooking it, adds immeasurable weight to the need for Council to preserve this land, not strip it bare.
But despite overwhelming evidence that this upzoning should not go forward, this Council seems determined to approve the destruction of our most precious environmental assets for the insignificant benefit of the quarry landowner – one of the largest construction conglomerates in North America.
As a candidate for City Council, David Knight campaigned on opposition to the RDU Quarry. He made his position clear in statements to both INDYWeek and the News & Observer.
To INDYWeek he said: INDYWeek Candidate Questionnaire – David Knight
INDYWeek’s Quarry Question and Candidate Knight’s Answer
To the News & Observer he said: N&O Candidate Questions – District E
N&O’s Quarry Question and Candidate Knight’s Answer
Note that in both position statements he says:
“given the chance on council I would vote for a park and against the quarry”.
Unfortunately he has been given at least two chances to make good on his campaign promises and has failed his constituents and his own convictions both times.
1 First Chance: On Tuesday evening, May 5th, during the Council’s public comment session, three citizens called in (it was a virtual meeting) to ask that the Council take a position in opposition to the Wake Stone mining permit and request that the state Department of Environmental Quality conduct a public hearing to take testimony pro and con. Councilman David Cox made a motion that Council do what the citizens asked: Oppose the permit, and request a hearing. Cox, of course, is an outspoken opponent of the quarry. Councilor Knight refused to support this motion. City Council Finds New and Novel Ways to Do Nothing About the RDU Quarry
2 Second Chance: On June 16, after the NCDEQ had already decided to conduct a public hearing, Councilor Stewart brought forth a formal statement for consideration by the council. Nowhere in this statement was there any mention of opposition to the quarry by the council. It simply asked the DEQ to do what they were already scheduled to do.
We, as a Council, therefore urge the Department of Environmental Quality and the Division of Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources to hear and seriously consider the comments and concerns of these residents.
Note that Stewart’s statement only mentions the concerns of residents and not any concerns of the City Council. Councilor Knight, who now says he is actually opposed to the quarry, seconded Stewart’s motion noting that to him, it was important for the council to speak “as a body”. Of course, that meant speaking with no conviction and simply asking NCDEQ, NC Department of Environmental Quality, to do what they had already committed to doing. Councilor Cox stated he would NOT support the statement because of its lack of actual opposition to the quarry and voted against it. Knight could have also voted, like Cox, with the courage of his convictions. He declined to do so. The council speaks “as a body” not only with a unanimous vote, which they didn’t get here anyway, but with a majority vote. Speaking “as a body” should not mean watering your policies and resolutions down to a point where they say nothing of consequence so that everyone can feel comfortable getting on board.
When Knight ran out of chances to take official action as a City Councilor and thought it looked like he was going to be on the wrong side of history, he decided to be bold. He wrote a “sternly worded” letter in his capacity as a citizen. Of course this carries none of the weight that a resolution in opposition from the City Of Raleigh would carry since Raleigh is one of the four named owners on the deed to the land. The other three being Wake County, the City of Durham and Durham County.
On July 17, 2020, David Knight submitted that letter to NCDEQ, NC Department of Environmental Quality, voicing his opposition, as a citizen and not as a member of Raleigh City Council, to the RDU Quarry. In this letter he notes that he shares:
“the concern of thousands of Triangle citizens who have publicly voiced their opposition to the project”. Knight’s letter to NCDEQ
David Knight should be ashamed of himself. If this letter reflects his actual convictions on the quarry, then why did he vote against his own convictions and in favor of the “weak tea” statement approved by the Raleigh City Council? A statement that NEVER once mentioned opposition to the quarry by the council.
Is Knight’s job as the District E representative on City Council to vote to represent the desires of his constituents? Especially when he now claims in this letter that he agrees with his constituents?
Or, does he believe his job on City Council is to provide cover for Mayor Baldwin and Councilor Melton?
Six of the eight members of council (while Saige Martin was still a councilor) campaigned on their opposition to the quarry. The City Council had enough votes, based on those published campaign positions, to approve a strong statement in opposition to the quarry. As Knight says, to speak “as a body”. But, it would not have been a unanimous position and would have forced both Baldwin and Melton to vote against the statement since both of them favor the quarry.
In order to stop any embarrassment to Baldwin and Melton, Knight set his own convictions and the desires of his constituents aside and voted for the weak, non-opposition statement written by Nicole Stewart as a CYA (cover your ass) gift to Mayor Baldwin and Councilor Melton.
When asked why he was running for City Council, Knight’s response was because he wanted to get into politics. Not that he wanted to represent his constituents. Not that he wanted to help Raleigh move into the future. He just wanted to become a politician. Well, he has certainly attained his goal with this most political of moves, speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Now Knight’s constituents have many questions to ask themselves:
- Just how many of his other votes were taken against his own convictions simply to keep harmony with Baldwin on the council?
- What is Knight’s actual position? The one he cast in his official capacity as a City Councilor? Or, the one he claims in his personal letter?
- And, how much of this is related to the fact that Knight’s campaign was funded almost entirely by the development community? To the tune of 79% of his total.
Click on Chart for Developer Money Details
Weasel Conditions make it easy for Councilors to Speak with Forked Tongues.
Our recent Blog UpZoning 101 describes the basic elements of the zoning process in Raleigh, focusing on how money and politics often tip the zoning process in the developer’s favor. The blog lists 5 political lessons of the Shelley Lake upzoning that neighbors learned the hard way.
This discussion of Weasel Conditions is a case study of how the Z-41-19 developer and complicit Councilors weaseled the meaning of Zoning Condition #8 to create a misleading narrative, suggesting the upzoning would offer significant environmental protections, when in fact, it did not.
What are Zoning Conditions?
Past Councils acted as mediators between development interests and community interests, negotiating developer commitments that would mitigate the proposed development’s increased impacts on infrastructure, environment and community quality of life. Those commitments are called conditions of the zoning case and become binding commitments of a parcel’s new zoning. Below is a conditional zoning scenario described by the UNC School of Government:
A developer needs a rezoning to increase permissible densities on a tract in order to build a project that may well be good for the community. The neighbors have legitimate concerns about the impact this more intensive development would have on the quality of their neighborhood and their property values. Discussions between the developer, neighbors, planning board, and town council indicate a workable compromise might be possible.
Weasel Conditions are False Promises
In fact, almost every rezoning case in Raleigh involves the opportunity for workable compromises, offered by the applicant in zoning conditions. The problem arises when the intent of those workable compromises is subverted by weasel conditions. Weasel conditions are promoted by the applicant and supportive Councilors as offering substantial community benefits, when in fact few, if any benefits are intended, much less guaranteed.
Councilors Promote the False Promise
The Shelley Lake upzoning (Z-41-19) contains a classic weasel condition that was promoted falsely as a 215 foot tree buffer. Councilor Melton (an attorney) referenced the weasel condition in his glowing newsletter, citing it as a reason for supporting the density increase:
Melton’s Weasel Promise: “We approved a rezoning to allow 112 residential units near Shelly Lake Park. … Because they were asking for additional density, they offered certain conditions to protect the park, such as a 200+ foot tree buffer”
Below is the exact weasel language of the “certain conditions to protect the park, such as a 200+ foot tree buffer” condition Melton cited:
Condition 8. “For those properties identified as Lot 3E, Lot 3F and Lot 3G, there shall be no principal building located within 215 feet of the Shelly [sic] Lake property (PIN 1706-08-7302).”
In fact, Condition 8 doesn’t commit to protect or preserve ANYTHING within 215 ft of the park. Instead, it permits a wide range of clearing, paving and construction. City officials confirm Condition 8 allows the following within 215 feet of the Park: parking lots, parking structures, dumpster enclosures, leasing offices, club houses, pool houses, maintenance buildings, etc — anything except the principal building could be built within 215 feet of the Park.
Councilor Buffkin (an attorney) praised the condition multiple times, in his Council vote, in his newsletter and in a TV news report:
Buffkin’s Weasel Promises:
• At Council: “The current zoning does not provide nearly the protections [as the Z-41-19 zoning condition] for the lake property”
• In his Newsletter: “There will be a 215 foot setback on the back of the property, next to Shelley Lake.”
• In the Press: “Buffkin says he signed off on the development because it provides transitions and buffers between the lake …”
Mayor and Councilors Ignore Expert Evidence of the False Promise
How could these two attorney-Councilors not know that Condition 8 was a weasel condition, especially after a forestry expert emailed specific concerns to them, the City Attorney and the rest of Council on June 3rd, more than two weeks before the June 16 Council vote?
Instead, Council continued to promote the false narrative that the additional density was justified in return for a “200+ foot tree buffer”. Either they weren’t doing their job: to read constituent emails and zoning conditions, or they had already bought into the applicant’s false narrative and didn’t want to rock the boat by serving as mediators in an authentic, workable compromise.
Council’s Growing Pattern of Silencing Community Voices
Weasel Condition 8 of the Shelley Lake upzoning is another example in the growing list of consistent and coordinated efforts by this Council to promote developer profits by silencing community voices. This Council’s subversion of community voices are documented in a series of blog posts grouped under the following topics: