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Rail crossing fixes could help Durham with the Beltline

Closing and rebuilding some of Durham’s grade crossings might give the city some leverage to get Norfolk Southern Railroad to drop its price for the Duke Beltline.

The Traffic Separation Study, which recommends some closings and reconstructions along the rail line through Durham County, came up at the City Council work session Thursday afternoon. Wes Parham with the city transportation office mentioned that Norfolk Southern would really prefer there being no grade crossings left at all.

“We as a community also have desires,” said Councilman Steve Schewel. “Norfolk Southern has control of the Duke Beltline. …

“So, I would be reluctant to approve some of these things without some discussion with Norfolk Southern about our community’s desires as well as their desires,” Schewel said. “This needs to be a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Railroad wants $7.1 million for Durham Beltline

Hopes for turning the Duke Beltline into a greenway have met another rebuff.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said Monday that the Norfolk Southern Railroad, which owns the abandoned line, has reappraised the property and raised its asking price to $7.1 million.

In an email to Beltline trail supporters, Bonfield said the railroad might be willing to lease the 2.25-mile right-of-way to the city for up to 10 years, at a price the railroad would determine.

“It does not appear that the City has much leverage at this point to persuade Norfolk Southern to a different conclusion,” Bonfield said.

City officials and members of the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission had hoped to persuade Norfolk Southern to donate the property, or sell it at a reduced price.

Wagstaff remains out as Durham Committee meets for endorsements

Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People Chairman Randal M. Rogers has affirmed that Jackie Wagstaff remains suspended as head of the Committee’s political committee.

In an email to Committee members this week, Rogers wrote that Wagstaff’s suspension stands despite a move during an Aug. 1 general meeting to have her reinstated. A motion to that effect was tabled indefinitely, he wrote.

The group’s executive committee voted on July 27 to censure and suspend Wagstaff for behavior “insubordinate, uncollaborative, extremely impolite and inappropriate” as political chairwoman, according to a statement Rogers issued at the time.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick led the political committee’s interviews for candidates in this fall’s municipal elections. The Committee holds its endorsement meeting Saturday.

“We will proceed prayerfully with unity, strength, peacefully, constructively, and optimistically, to serve the community of Durham,” Rogers wrote in his email.

Nasty old bathrooms have Durham parks staff in a bind

City Council members have heard complaints about the state of the restrooms in the city parks – complaints that they are unclean, disrepaired, vandalized and/or just don’t work at all.

So, the matter came up this afternoon when Parks and Recreation officials presented the council with their updated Master Plan.

"I don't want to beat on this, but I want an answer," said Mayor Bill Bell.

“I hear you, “ said Assistant Director Beth Timson. “We do have a problem and we know it.”

A lot of the bathrooms are old, and a lot of them are in floodplains, she said, and that leaves Parks and Rec in a bind due to federal water-quality laws about what you and and cannot do in a floodplain.

“If we taken them out and renovate them at more than their (current) value, they’re gone,” Timson said. “If we take out the old ones, try to renovate them … we can’t do that because of floodplain regulations.”

That leaves the parks department to keep the bathrooms functioning as best it can, without improving them – even when the feds say to.

Councilman Eugene Brown pointed out the irony in that the old bathrooms are far from meeting standards of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, but bringing them up to ADA compliance would violate the federal floodplain rules.

“I’ve broached that same problem to the inspections department,” Timson said. “They laughed and said, ‘You’ve got a problem, don’t you?’ ”

Durham candidates reply to People's Alliance questions

The Durham People’s Alliance has posted on its web site (http://bit.ly/16y7Rqk) the questionnaire responses from candidates in this fall’s city elections.

According to the PA, questionnaires were sent to all candidates in the mayor and City Council ward races. Replies were in from all except Ward 2 candidate Franklin Hanes as of Thursday afternoon.

The PA is holding a meet-the-candidates mixer Aug. 21 (see http://bit.ly/19QKSvu) prior to its Aug. 27 endorsements meeting at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Hillandale Road. Anyone who wants to join PA may do so at the door, but, according to PA bylaws (http://bit.ly/13RH4mw) only those who have been members for 30 days or more are eligible to vote on the endorsements.

Durham campaign season is open today

Durham has city elections coming up this fall, and today is opening day for the campaign season – 45 days in advance of the early-voting start in the Oct. 8 municipal primary.

Incumbent Mayor Bill Bell and his two challengers, Michael Valentine and Sylvester Williams; and the four candidates for the Ward 2 seat – Omar Beasley, Eddie Davis, Franklin Hanes and Del Mattioli – are on the primary ballot. The two remaining candidates in each race face off in the Nov. 5 general election.

Don Moffitt and Pam Karriker are the only candidates in Ward 3 and won’t be on a ballot until the general election; their signs can’t go up until Sept. 2. Mayor Pro Tem and Ward 1 incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden is unopposed for re-election.

Campaign-sign dates caused some confusion in 2012, when some campaigners – notably state Senate candidate Kerry Sutton – thought their opponents were jumping the gun.

Much of Durham’s political community assumed the 45-day rule meant 45 days before election day. When early voting was instituted, though, City-County Planning Director Steve Medlin, whose department is in charge of Durham sign rules, decided that the opening of early voting is when an election starts.

Nothing requires Medlin or anyone else to make announcements about sign restrictions; it’s the candidates’ responsibility to ask if they don’t know the rules. The planning department’s contact information comes in the information packet every candidate gets when she or he files to run for office.

This year, though, the planning department is sending candidates a formal notice – just in case they didn’t read the information they were given.

Viv Taylor, Chapel Hill News/Durham News columnist, named exec director of Integrity

Integrity USA, a nonprofit working for full LGBT inclusion in the Episcopal Church, has named Viv Taylor, an Iraq war veteran and columnist for The Chapel Hill News, its new executive director.

Taylor is among the first transgender women to enter the Episcopal ordination process and will be the first openly trans woman to lead a major mainline Protestant denominational organization in the U.S., according to an Integrity news release. Integrity has been the leading grassroots voice for LGBT persons in the Episcopal Church and for equal access to its rites since its founding in rural Georgia in 1974.

"I am thrilled to have this opportunity to serve both Integrity USA and the wider Church," Taylor says. "Working together in the love of Jesus Christ, there is nothing that can prevent us from opening the full Love of God to all people regardless of their orientation or identity."

Taylor started writing My View columns for The Chapel Hill News as Sam Taylor while stationed in Basra, Iraq as a chaplain's assistant. Upon her return, the UNC-CH grad began living openly as a transgender woman and continued writing occasional columns describing her transgender journey as Viv Taylor. Those columns are available on our website at www.chapelhillnews.com

Durham auditors frown on city use of travel agents

City auditors don’t want city personnel using travel agents any more.

A report on “Training and Related Travel Expenses” presented to the City Council this week notes that six offices, including the mayor and council, used agents to make travel arrangements between May 2012 and May 2013.

City policy doesn’t specifically prohibit that, but, the report says, it shouldn’t be done because travel agencies charge for services. In the city’s cases, the cost averaged $35 per transaction.

Generally, auditors found everybody had been toeing the line, but they recommended a revision to make the policy on travel agencies clear.

Bid raised again for Durham parking lot

The price has gone up again on the city parking lot at 1111 W. Chapel Hill St.

Neighboring property owner David Anthony offered $63,050 for the .23-acre lot on Monday. Self-Help, which wants the lot for its Kent Corner office-retail development, had offiered $60,000.

Self-Help now has until July 8 to upset Anthony’s bid with an offer of at least $66,252.50, according to David Fleischer, manager of the city's real-estate division.

Project Manager Micah Kordsmeier said Self-Help intends to re-bid. Securing the parking lot is necessary for planned open space, including preservation of several speciment trees, he said.

"We’re still studying both how much time we can allow for (bidding) to go on and how much we can spend,” Kordsmeier said.

In April, the City Council declared the lot surplus property and agreed to sell it to Self-Help, the Durham financial and community-uplift institution, for $37,000. However, surplus-property sales are subject to "upset bids" for a set period before a deal may be closed.

Anthony, and some other nearby residents, are not satisfied with commitments Self-Help has made for its project. Anthony has said he has several uses in mind for the parking lot, and has had talks with Self-Help about cooperation in its development.

Still, he topped Self-Help's original price with an offer of $38,500. Self-Help offered $50,000. Anthony offered $52,550. Self-Help offered $60,000, which Anthony has now raised.

Upset bidding may continue indefinitely.