Development in Southeast Durham: Sediment runoff from mass grading and buffer variances pose a threat to Falls Lake

Development along Kemp Road. Photo courtesy of Pamela Andrews.

On September 7, The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court against Clayton Properties Group, Inc. for ongoing pollution into the Durham creek, Martin Branch, which connects the Lick Creek watershed to Falls Lake.

Clayton Properties Inc. owns several prominent housing developments in southeast Durham, including the Fendol Farms retirement community along Doc Nichols Road and Sweetbrier Homes on Olive Branch Road, approved by the city of Durham in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

However, mass grading for the construction of various Clayton Properties Inc. homes did not begin until this August — an insurmountable and devastating amount of development in southeast Durham, happening all at once, Pamela Andrews, a long-time southeast Durham resident and founder of the grassroots nonprofit Preserve Rural Durham, said.

“If you can imagine the worst going on out here, I’d say we’re pretty close to that,” Andrews said.

After having a major surgery in 2020, Andrews and her husband drove through the backroads of southeast Durham to reach her doctor. Andrews said she was shocked to see the extent of the development going on in southeast Durham and how many trees had been clear cutted.

Since then, Andrews has built up a network of grassroots organizers which comprise the nonprofit organization, Preserve Rural Durham, which is dedicated to advocating for not only environmental concerns related to development in southeast Durham, but advocating for Durham residents that Andrews and her team have identified as victims of blasting and soil erosion.

Over the past year and a half, Andrews has been visiting these residents’ homes and identifying damage to their property, including cracks in the foundations of their homes, damaged kitchen cabinets, ruined crown molding and sediment-clogged pipes.

All these damages occurred shortly after blasting events, Andrews said.

Some of these residents live on Doc Nichols Road, where Clayton Properties’ grading demolition is in full force.

Samantha Krop is the ‘Neuse Riverkeeper’ for Sound Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the health of the Neuse River basin, and after perceiving what she found to be extreme levels of clear cutting into mandatory forest buffers, she started investigating variances to Unified Development Ordinance buffer requirements, offered to developers by the city of Durham.

The UDO normally requires a 50-foot buffer to waterways for mass grading; however, developers can request variances to this requirement if the “size, shape, or topography” of the property prevents the developer from using it to its full potential under riparian buffer requirements.

A letter to the city of Durham from Clayton Properties, specifically for their Fendol Farms community located at 705 Doc Nichols Rd., reveals that the city of Durham allowed Clayton Properties a riparian buffer decrease of 2.7 acres, with half an acre of destruction approved.

“Durham looks environmentally friendly if you’re just looking at its UDO, but they’re basically giving permission for these developers to cut into these buffers and do serious impacts left and right,” she said.

Tree buffers are necessary for protecting not only drinking water quality, but preserving aquatic life by trapping sediment, she said.

“That sediment not only looks bad, but it totally chokes out the foundations of aquatic life,” she said. “It suffocates little critters living on the bottom of the river column and destroys habitat, makes it hard for fish to hunt their prey, and also raises water temperature, reduces oxygen availability, and co-occurs with increased nutrients and increased bacteria.”

Nutrient runoff is an ongoing problem in Falls Lake. Recently, the Upper Neuse River Basin Association, which is made up of various environmentalists and major point-source polluters of

Falls Lake — with the goal of providing drinking water, fishing and recreational activities — released their new Interim Alternative Implementation Approach. The approach creates new standards for maintaining the lake water quality through ‘good works projects,’ rather than trying to meet the nutrient threshold they established in 2006, Krop said.

Algae blooms have become an ongoing problem in Falls Lake, which are caused from excess nutrients entering the waterways — not to be confused with turbidity, which measures sediment levels.

While the UNRBA addresses point-source contributions, Krop has been investigating the ongoing influence of non-point source contributions, such as agriculture and, most concerning to Krop, development.

The city of Durham tests sites along Rocky Branch creek, which goes through what is deemed the ‘critical watershed,’ before the water reaches Falls Lake. The city of Durham has consistently found healthy turbidity levels and aquatic life.

However, Krop has been testing sites closer to some of the newer developments in southeast Durham, and she found turbidity levels to be drastically higher compared to the city of Durham’s testing sites.

While Sound Rivers’ sites are farther from the critical watershed, eventually that sediment runoff will reach Falls Lake, she said.

“What we’ve been finding again and again is that the sediment runoff from active construction sites is bringing turbidity levels to 10 times, 20 times — we’ve even recorded 30 times — the state standard for healthy surface water.”

For over a year, Krop has been sampling water on Lick Creek. As a result of her concerning findings, Krop samples the creeks every other week.

“I have not seen anything so severe in terms of water sediment pollution, from development in the whole 6,235 square mile Neuse River water, which is saying something,” she said.

Krop has been working with Preserve Rural Durham to influence policy on mass grading, stormwater runoff and buffers. They have been successful in proposing and encouraging two amendments to UDO passed this year, including an ordinance “To Revise Standards for Phasing, Grading and Tree Coverage,” passed in October, and an ordinance “To Amend Sedimentation and Erosion Control Provisions,” passed in May.

While the amendments are a step in the right direction for Preserve Rural Durham, Krop disagrees with some of the requirements in the ordinance for tree coverage. For a phase of development which exceeds 35 acres, a minimum of 30% preserved tree coverage is required for that phase.

However, if that development offers affordable housing, only a 20% preserved tree coverage is required, which, Krop argues, unethically incentivizes developers to build lower-income communities which have fewer trees than in market rate developments.

“The problem is they didn’t require they leave enough [trees], and they created a lot of loopholes,” she said. “So, there’s a lot of community frustration, because the reason they adopted these new amendments was to respond to community frustration about pollution in Lick Creek specifically, and that what they passed is insufficient.”

Sediment runoff is also a consequence of Durham’s unique Triassic basin soil, which is highly erosive.

“It creates a really unique challenge for Durham to regulate, because where their rules might work in other places, they’re really not working with their landscape,” she said.

Krop said for change to happen, Durhamites must show up at city Council meetings and hold their representatives accountable.

For Andrews, the goal of Preserve Rural Durham is not only to influence policy and advocate for rural Durhamites, but to help citizens protect themselves by photographing parts of their homes, since she said she has had some cases where homeowners were denied their pre-inspection reports from the blasting companies.

“To stop these developers from creating their own laws and standards, is for people like Preserve Rural Durham and other people to stand up against it,” she said.