David Cox, PhD, the three-term District B representative on Raleigh’s City Council, submitted the following “Guest Blog” to Livable Raleigh for publication.
The Richland Creek watershed drains into the Neuse River. Why is that important? Because City Council is considering removing the forestation requirements for the watershed. Trees are vital for ensuring the health of the Neuse River. They absorb water and through transpiration help to remove pollutants. Their roots hold the soil in place and prevent sediment from entering our streams that drain into the river.
I am a member of the City Council’s Growth and Natural Resources Committee along with Council Members David Knight and Stormie Forte. The committee is chaired by Council Member Nicole Stewart. We, as a committee, have been discussing inconsistencies between the city’s Richland Creek Watershed forestation requirement and the impervious surface rules brought to our attention by a developer. The forestation rule requires 40% trees in the watershed, allowing up to 60% for development. In contrast the city code also allows up to 70% impervious surface. Clearly, we can’t have both.
We ended our previous meeting with a proposal by Council Member Stewart to retain the forestation rule but to resolve the conflict by either decreasing the amount of required forestation or by decreasing the amount of allowable impervious surface, perhaps compromising at 35% forestation and up to 65% impervious surface.
When I arrived at the most recent committee meeting on 10/27, I expected to continue this conversation to keep the forestation requirement for the Richland Creek Watershed but to tweak it a little and add some exceptions to address the inconsistencies in the regulation.
Instead, City Attorney Robin Tatum pointed out that the preferred legal approach allowed by our local act granted by the State is to create a Resource Management District. This was all new to me so I followed up with Robin to obtain some more details.
For those who don’t know, the NC State Legislature passes “local acts” that are specific to individual communities. One of Raleigh’s local acts allows the City to regulate trees in certain designated areas. Two of those areas are in a “reservoir” watershed and in something called a Resource Management District. There is a dispute about whether or not the Richland Creek Watershed is or isn’t a “reservoir” watershed. The City Attorney said she is looking into getting that clarified.
In any case, the City Attorney said a cleaner approach legally is to create a Resource Management District. Once the district is established it would be applied like any overlay district through a rezoning process. It would be advertised in the paper, it would go to the Planning Commission for review, and eventually come to Council for a public hearing and a vote.
I like this approach and support it. That way we can hear all concerns and develop a Resource Management District that addresses everyone’s concerns.
Council Member Stewart, however, opposes this approach preferring to eliminate the forestation requirement entirely and instead create a city-wide tree ordinance. But there are serious problems with that approach.
Going back to what the City Attorney told me, we don’t have authority from the State to create a city-wide tree ordinance. It would require another local act to do so. However, we do have the authority to regulate trees in Resource Management Districts – which is exactly the mechanism the City Attorney proposed for the Richland Creek watershed. According to the City Attorney, we could create Resource Management Districts elsewhere in the city as needed and can customize them for each area.
Second, creating a city-wide tree ordinance will take at least six months to a year. And who knows what it will look like at the end of the process? In the meantime, if we eliminate the forestation requirement in Richland Creek, then all bets are off. The 17 acres at Raven Ridge and Falls of Neuse that we worked so hard to get rezoned (the property next to Mt Pleasant Baptist Church) will likely be clear cut. We were counting on the forestation requirement to prevent that from happening. All properties up and down Falls of Neuse as well as elsewhere in the watershed would be at risk.
To summarize, we have a few options:
Remove the forestation requirement entirely – I oppose that approach
Keep the forestation requirement and work towards a city-wide tree ordinance – I oppose that approach as well. We don’t currently have that authority and there is too much uncertainty about what the result will look like even if we did have it.
Keep the forestation requirement and create a Resource Management District – I support this approach. It satisfies immediate needs and will result in tree regulations customized for the Richland Creek Watershed that arise from public discussion and consensus.
David Cox, PhD
Raleigh City Council
Click on the images to read more about the importance of the Neuse River
Neuse River Fish Kill is Longest in Decades
Are the Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers Endangered?
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.
The City Council finally did something about the Affordable Housing Bond Issue yesterday, months late and literally as people are about to start casting their election ballots by mail-in vote. Was it enough?
One of LR’s founding members, Bob Geary, spoke last night during the Council’s public comment period. Here’s what he said, in the 2 minutes available.
I’m Bob Geary. I’m a member of the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition. I’ve spoken to you before about your proposed 2020 Affordable Housing Bond Issue, and about the absence of any commitment from you that the $80 million, if authorized by the voters, would be used to help the low-income families and individuals in Raleigh who are in the greatest need of safe, affordable housing.
I watched earlier today as you received some recommendations from your Housing and Neighborhoods Department director on this subject, and you endorsed them without much discussion and, in my opinion, NO useful analysis. Thank you, Councilor Cox, for dissenting from that action.
My quick analysis is that the recommendations are better than nothing, but they fall far short of what’s needed to help those in the greatest need.
But what I really want to say is that these recommendations should have come to you months ago, when our Coalition pleaded with you to step up and define the bond.
We came to you in February, we came to you in March, we came to you with detailed recommendations on June 2 – no response.
Your public engagement process on this has been, in a word, atrocious.
Public engagement is something you don’t care about – that’s clear. And really sad.
Had you acted on the bond in March, or even in June, there would have been time for reflection about what you did and whether it was good enough.
But you waited, and waited and waited until today – September 1, when we are literally on the brink of having our mail-in ballots received and cast, and there is no time for public reflection, no time for public discussion, and no time, certainly, for public engagement by you.
Three things are missing from your action today.
- 1) You failed to create any sort of oversight process for tracking the spending of this bond money
- 2) You endorsed the “targets” suggested by your staff, but you made no commitments to them. And in the absence of an oversight committee, we won’t know whether the targets are being hit.
- 3) The targets are weak.
Your staff made the targets sound better than they are by mixing up city spending with county-funded housing vouchers. But the plain fact is that as things stand, the city will continue to subsidize housing for moderate-income families, and the poor will be left to fend for themselves.
Or left to the county.
Raleigh, we STILL have a problem.
p.s. Adding insult to injury, Councilors Jonathan Melton and Nicole Stewart said the bond should strongly address gentrification, dislocation and evictions. But when the time came for them to somehow beef up the “targets,” they offered nothing. They were all talk, but no action to protect low-wealth communities of color.