News

Planning commission member resigns, citing Durham’s deep dysfunction

Environmental, Neuse River Watershed, Sound Rivers, Stormwater Runoff, Water Quality

Posted on June 13th, 2024

Where Martin Branch and Lick Creek meet in Durham.

A member of the Durham City-County Planning Commission has resigned, citing concerns that the commission’s work is “dismissed,” “denigrated” and “at times ignored” by Durham’s City Council.

Tony Sease sent a letter of resignation via email to councilmembers on Wednesday. In his email, he specifically refers to the council’s recent vote to rezone 202 acres of forested land in the Lick Creek watershed for the construction of the Virgil Road Assemblage housing development — a decision, and the justifications for the decision, Neuse Riverkeeper Samantha Krop called alarming.

Read Samantha’s response to the Council’s vote on the Virgil Road Assemblage rezoning here.

“Mr. Sease’s resignation highlights a deep dysfunction within Durham’s leadership, in which some City Council members are systematically disregarding the expert opinions of Durham’s Planning Commission Members, who are appointed to advise Council on rezoning decisions, as well as the carefully outlined vision of Durham’s Comprehensive Plan,” Samantha said. “We appreciate that Mr. Sease specifically calls out Council’s approval of the irresponsible 200-acre Virgil Road Assemblage rezoning in his letter, which Sound Rivers and many community members spoke out against because of harmful impacts to the Lick Creek watershed. Despite unanimous opposition from experts on the Planning Commission, Council approved the proposal in a split vote, ushering in the buildout of 500 units in a suburban subdivision.”

She continued, “Mr. Sease’s words should be a warning to Durham’s leaders — the ongoing failure of some City Councilmembers to heed the guidance of Durham’s Planning Commission and Comprehensive Plan will only lead to further degradation of the environment, pollution of downstream water resources, and continued reckless buildout of short-sighted suburban sprawl.”

The full text of Tony Sease’s resignation letter to the Durham City Council:

Dear Council Members and Planning Commissioners,

In comments at our June 11th Planning Commission meeting, I addressed some concerns I and others have about the frequently changing membership of the Commission. Members clearly resign before the end of their terms for a host of reasons, yet many of those are influenced by the degree to which their volunteer work is valued or deemed impactful, or in how it is received or characterized especially by those in elected office.   

A set of comments arose in a recent Council meeting that raised the question of ‘experts.’ What followed were Council member comments that were dismissive at best, intentionally misguided at worst, negating any notion of any expertise sitting on the Planning Commission. Expertise is not required to serve, yet everyone on the Planning Commission is an expert at something. As indicated in our respective applications to serve the community as volunteers, much of the expertise currently on the Commission aligns with many of the challenges, tasks, and development issues that arise in the discussions and consideration of cases that come before us. Here is some of that expertise, referenced in my June 11th meeting comments:

 – residential real estate sales, with deep experience across Durham

 – commercial real estate brokerage 

 – commercial real estate development and investment 

 – corporate finance and corporate sustainability

 – law, and listening to community members to understand their most pressing needs

 – engineering project management of complex, public private partnerships

 – civil engineering, including extensive site development experience in Durham

 – civil engineering and site planning, including helping implement thousands of housing units across a dozen states, and hundreds of affordable units in North Carolina

– executive leadership managing hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate and development for one of our state’s public institutions

– a doctorate in city and regional planning, whose dissertation research was planning and development practices in Durham

– And last but not least, our commission also includes a recently named Aspen Institute Fellow in Wealth Innovation. This cohort is selected for their “demonstrated track record of expanding access to real estate ownership in their respective communities and a commitment to radically expanding ownership opportunities for low-wealth and communities of color across the country.”

Durham indeed has relevant expertise on the all-volunteer Planning Commission. Yet, in part because of the ways in which our work is dismissed, at times ignored, and, by some on Council, even denigrated, I am resigning my position after 3+ years although my term does not expire until 2025.

By ‘our work’, I refer not only to carefully considered decisions on cases, but to the recently adopted Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is a guiding document influenced by the Planning Commission, but it is the work of hundreds of individuals – city staff, community members, other volunteers, and elected officials. That work played out over many months of meetings, formal hearings, public sessions, iterative drafts, and working groups focused on key components. Included is a Place Types Map, a way of guiding future development of our city and county in a manner consistent with the intentions and aspirations articulated in the Comprehensive Plan as a whole. By no means is the Place Types Map intended to be fixed and unyielding, but the frequency and ease with which changes to the Place Types Map have been approved by Council undermines the potential, the power, and the utility of the Comprehensive Plan as a guiding document for our community.

Possibly the most egregious example is the Virgil Road case, approved in May by Council as a 200-acre, single-use suburban sprawl development on previously undeveloped land in the eastern part of our county. It’s the area carrying the heaviest burden at present in terms of rampant suburban-style, disaggregated, environmentally degrading, almost exclusively residential, auto-dependent development. Those words are not jargon; they are qualitative and technical descriptors – choices – choices being endorsed favorably by Council. Choices in my view that are in too many ways inconsistent, as interpreted by the Planning Commission, with the adopted Comprehensive Plan. And unlike the frequent narrative, the case did not substantially change from the one opposed unanimously by the Planning Commission: approximately an additional $110 per home was proffered for Durham Public Schools – equivalent of an extra light fixture or two, per home.

It takes courage and leadership to discern from competing interests and complexity the best option in a rezoning case. And the challenges cities face extend well beyond planning. With utmost respect, Council’s obligations are far beyond land use decisions. Yet, it is in those decisions that clarity of conviction, of courage, and of priorities can be most visible. 

(Fear is also visible, as noted in Council comments about fear of state legislative intervention. Yet of the multiple clients I have had who’ve had projects move forward only through state legislative intervention, in no case was the project a single-use, suburban subdivision; fear of the legislature in this regard seems overstated.)

Thank you for the opportunity to serve Durham, and best wishes in your efforts going forward. Our community needs your leadership.

Sincerely,

Tony Sease

Anthony M. Sease, PhD, PE, NCARB

Related News

Lick Creek lawsuit moves forward July 11th 2024
Tarboro approves trash trap No. 6 July 11th 2024
Severe erosion fix in the works for Vance-Granville July 11th 2024
Southeast Durham creeks look ‘as bad as they ever have’ July 11th 2024
Action Alert: Say 'No!' to Moriah Energy Center permit July 10th 2024
Sound Rivers intervention leads to Mine Creek cleanup July 3rd 2024