Durham, N.C. — Years ago, developer Alex Mitchell looked at a 167-acre tract of land along N.C. Highway 751 in southern Durham and thought he could turn it into a model for a community where people could park their cars at home and walk to the store, school or, maybe, even work.
More than four years later, however, the vision of 751 South – a development of 1,300 homes and up to 600,000 square feet of commercial and retail space – has yet to be a reality.
Mitchell and his company, Southern Durham Development, have faced years of setbacks, but he says he's not ready to give up on it.
"This plan is the epitome of smart growth," Mitchell said Tuesday. "The merits of the project are what I am fighting for."
Those in favor of 751 South have said the proposed development would bring jobs to the area, expand Durham County's tax base and allow for two new schools to be built.
Opponents, however, are worried about traffic and congestion and fear it would pollute nearby Jordan Lake and harm the rural landscape.
The Durham County Board of Commissioners approved 751 South in August 2010, but residents opposed to it filed a lawsuit, putting the development on hold.
A judge dismissed the complaint in January, allowing the project to move forward. But in February, the Durham City Council voted against extending sewer and water lines to the development.
Mitchell says the 6-0 vote was without explanation.
This summer, state legislators unsuccessfully tried to intervene with a law that would have required cities to provide water and sewer services to all property owners within their urban growth areas.
"It's been hurdle after hurdle after hurdle," Mitchell said. "A lot of folks oppose it. A lot of folks support it. It's really become sort of a poster child for growth versus non-growth."
Now, Mitchell says, Durham County is willing to provide sewer service but can't supply water.
Mitchell says he and his company are considering revising the plan and drilling wells. Ultimately, he says, he would like the city to grant the development access to its water.
"I would love to find a common ground with the city," he said. "We'd love for the city to be an integral part of this."
Durham Mayor Bill Bell says the City Council denied the request to extend utilities because Mitchell and his company were in litigation with neighbors and the county.
"Their attorney came back to us and sort of demanded that the city give them an answer on their request for water and sewer extension," Bell said. "If he insisted on an answer, we would give them an answer, and that answer was no."
Bell says developers could make a request for the city to take another look at providing water.
The city also hasn't ruled yet on a request that the development be annexed into Durham.
Bell says city staff is still researching the possibility but have determined that it would take as many as eight to 10 years for the city to begin to recover any investment for services.
He won't say whether annexation is possible.
Meanwhile, opponents say their stance hasn't changed.
"I'd like to be doing something else. I think everybody who is opposed to this would like to be doing something else, but we will fight this until the end," 21-year resident Steve Bocckino said.
The development would be built about a mile from his home.
"They’ve been very stubborn," he said. "The opponents are just as stubborn as the developers, but who knows when this will end."