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County pushes DSS investigation forward

From correspondent Virginia Bridges

The Durham County Commissioners agreed today to ask an attorney, possibly who represents another county, to investigate the firing of the former social services director.

At their meeting today, the commissioners voted to have an attorney investigate the first three questions on a list of 24 questions sent to the attorney general’s office, which declined to investigate. They did not pick an attorney, but Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler said the attorney representing Craven, Pamlico and Jones counties has expressed interest.

Those first three questions center on the county commissioners’ appointment of Gail Perry to the Department of Social Services board in June; whether DSS board members Stan Holt, Joe Bowser and Perry held an illegal meeting before the July vote to fire director Gerri Robinson, and whether it was a conflict of interest for Perry to vote to fire Robinson and then be appointed to her position on an interim basis. Bowser is a county commissioner and the liaison to the DSS board.

The commissioners also voted to ask the county’s internal auditor to review the entire 24 points in the original letter.

Commissioner Chairman Michael Page stressed that the investigation isn't centered on Robinson or Perry. “This is about the way we do business in Durham County, and how this was handled,” he said.

One last opinion on NCDOT and 751 South

Continuing from the post below, here is one more opinion on the state Department of Transportation's revocation of acceptance of a right-of-way from Southern Durham Development.


Some other opinions II

Continuing from the post below, here are three more legal opinions on the state Department of Transportation revocation of acceptance of a right-of-way from Southern Durham Development.

Some other opinions on NCDOT and 751 South

Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler solicited others' legal opinions before stating his own in the matter of NCDOT's revocation of acceptance of a right-of-way easement from Southern Durham Development Inc.

Siler concluded that DOT had not followed statutory procedure and had no statutory authority to revoke its acceptance. "You cannot point back to a General Statute that gives them that authority,” he said during Monday night's county commissioners' meeting when Commissioner Ellen Reckhow questioned his ruling.

His ruling, in turn, invalidated a protest petition that would have required four yes votes from the five county commissioners to approve the rezoning. Without the petition in force, the rezoning passed 3-2 and some of the petitioners say they're going to take Siler's ruling to court.

Here are the opinions Siler said he solicited during his decision-making process. The file named Blue1 lacks a signature, but Raleigh attorney Dhamian A. Blue affirmed that he is the author, as he is of the other two letters from his firm. Three opinions are attached below; the rest follow on separate posts thanks to technical limitations.

NCDOT stands by its revocation

Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler may have concluded that the state Department of Transportation had no authority to un-accept a land donation from a Durham, but NCDOT is sticking by its guns, so to speak.

Even if the business goes to court, DOT spokeswoman Greer Beaty said this afternoon.

"We stand behind our actions," she said. "We took legal action we had the authority to take."

Acting on Siler's opinion, City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin declared a protest petition invalid, clearing an obstacle from the 751 South rezoning to win approval by the county commissioners Monday night. After learning that its accepting Southern Durham Development's donation of a right-of-way easement along N.C. 751 had implications for a local zoning issue, DOT issued a formal revocation drawn up by department lawyers in consultation with the state Attorney General's office.

Siler, though, concluded the revocation was not legal. NCDOT begs to differ, and rezoning opponents said today they intend to take legal action to challenge Siler's opinion.

"We consulted with the Attorney General's staff before we drafted the letter of revocation and we believe in the Attorney General's staff's knowledge and understanding of the law," Beaty said.

"We have said that we are revoking our acceptance of that land and we have."

NCDOT upheld in 751 South dealing

Answering a request by Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler, the state
Attorney General's staff appears to affirm that the state DOT acted legally
in revoking its own acceptance of property from the 751 South developers.

Special Deputy Attorney General Richard Moore sent his response to Siler
this afternoon. (See link below.) Siler could not be reached for comment.

Siler had asked, in a July 28 letter to Moore, for an opinion "clarifying
the legal authority for NCDOT to execute the Declaration of Revocation,
Rejection and Termination" returning the property to Southern Durham

Moore's letter cites state law to the effect that the state Board of
Transportation has authority to "change, alter, add to, or abandon" parts of
the state highway system, that the board and specific employees of DOT have
power to delegate authority and that such authority includes "release of
interests in land acquired for right-of-way, but not used nor needed for

However, Moore adds, "This letter has not been reviewed as would be required
for a formal Attorney General's Opinion."

If DOT's recision stands, it re-validates a protest petition that requires
four of the five county commissioners to vote in favor for the developers to
win a rezoning critical to building their project.

In July, prior to the county commissioners' hearing on the rezoning,
Southern Durham Development, donated a strip of land along N.C. 751 to DOT
for right-of-way if the road is widened. DOT accepted the land, though it
has no plan to widen the road in the near future.

After DOT authorities learned that, by accepting the land, they had
invalidated a petition against the 751 rezoning, the department revoked its
acceptance to avoid affecting a local zoning matter. That happened on the
afternoon of July 26, just prior to the commissioners' rezoning hearing.

During the hearing, Siler said he was not certain that DOT had authority to
revoke its acceptance and asked for time to research it, and its effect on
the protest petition's validity.

The commissioners' hearing resumes during their meeting Monday night.

751 decision put off again

Posted by correspondent Virginia Bridges

Just after midnight Tuesday morning, Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler stood in the county commissioners’ chambers bewildered by the rezoning case that just won’t end.

“I’ve worked in land use for 25 years,” Siler said. “I have never seen a land use case like this, with so many twists and turns.”

A crowd packed the chambers over the controversial 751 South, a proposed mixed-use development with up to 1,300 residences and 600,000 square feet of office and commercial space on a 167 acre near the Chatham County line and Jordan Lake.

Many left frustrated after a more than three-hour public hearing that ended with commissioners voting to postpone the vote on the development until Aug. 9 to allow Siler to research the latest twists since Southern Durham Development Inc. revealed its plans in early 2008.

Jordan Lake petition must go to court, Siler says

The next step for the Jordan Lake watershed saga must be into court, County Attorney Lowell Siler said this morning.

But it will be up to those opposing the watershed relocation, which county commissioners approved Oct. 12, whether that step is taken, Siler said.

Jordan petition valid, Medlin says

City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin has ruled that the Haw River Assembly's protest petition regarding the Jordan Lake watershed case is valid.

Medlin's finding, included in a memo released tonight by County Manager Mike Ruffin, reverses an earlier decision made in advance of the county commissioners' Oct. 12 vote to change the critical watershed boundary in southwestern Durham County.

Commissioners approved the change 3 votes to 2. A valid protest petition, however, requires at least a 4 to 1 "super majority" to approve.

Durham County has not announced its position on the move in light of Medlin's ruling. Commissioners had scheduled a closed meeting on the petition, and on the related lawsuit against the county by Southern Durham Development, at 10 a.m. Thursday.

The Haw River Assembly, an environmental-protection group, filed the petition on behalf of 24 property owners affected by the change.

Ruffin released the memo upon the advice of County Attorney Lowell Siler in response to several public-records requests. The county has not released Medlin's earlier report, sent to Ruffin Nov. 13, which Siler has said contains information privileged under the law.

Environmental lawyers undecided on suing Durham County

The Southern Environmental Law Center hasn't decided what to do next about its twice-denied petition on the Jordan Lake watershed, SELC attorney Kay Bond said today.

 During Monday's meeting of the Durham County commissioners, County Attorney Lowell Siler said he expected a lawsuit to come over the City/County Planning Department's ruling that the petition is invalid.

"We have not given any indication to Mr. Siler that we would do that," Bond said.

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