Growing pains

Durham residents unhappy about proposed development

Brenda McLaughlin is opposed to the development of a 139-home senior living complex in this almond orchard east of Durham.

Brenda McLaughlin is opposed to the development of a 139-home senior living complex in this almond orchard east of Durham.

Photo by Ken Smith

Brenda McLaughlin has lived in Durham since her family settled on a ranch on Jones Avenue in the 1960s, when she was in first grade. After graduating from Durham High School, she got married and bought a house near the town’s center, where she and her husband raised a son, Noah.

“My graduating class had 69 students in it, and I’d gone to school since first grade with more than 50 of them,” she said during a recent driving tour of the small community. “When my son graduated years later, his class was about the same size, and the school hasn’t grown much more since.”

McLaughlin was explaining her favorite qualities about Durham, using her experiences with area schools to emphasize the town’s status as a “small, social, tight-knit community where people know each other” and enjoy the slow-moving, agriculture-based lifestyle.

“Not much has changed here at all, really … except the traffic,” she said.

However, McLaughlin and other residents fear that the area’s rural character is threatened by the Durham Villas project, a 139-unit planned senior community proposed on a 118-acre parcel east of town owned by Bud Keeney. The project includes a lot for Keeney’s home, a small park, community center, and some area for commercial activity. It is currently the site of almond orchards, and 67 acres of the existing orchard would remain.

Keeney initially submitted an application to develop the land in 2010, and the project was given a negative recommendation by the Butte County Planning Commission in 2012. The Board of Supervisors asked Keeney in December of that year to prepare an environmental impact report and return when it was ready for review. Some community members expressed opposition to the project then—a petition to rally opponents from 2012 is still online—but there has been little public movement until recently.

Prompted by the groundbreaking of a Dollar General store currently being built at the intersection of Durham-Dayton Highway and the Midway, in November McLaughlin began contacting county planning staff and the area’s county supervisor, Steve Lambert, to find out more about the new construction and the status of Durham Villas. The Dollar General project has likewise provoked concern from residents, and McLaughlin spread word the housing project was again moving forward, with an EIR expected to be completed in the next few weeks.

By phone Tuesday, Lambert said he realized a portion of the town’s population was uninformed about new developments and other issues in the community, so he organized ongoing monthly community meetings at the Durham Memorial Hall. He said concerns about the Durham Villas development dominated the first two gatherings, in February and March, and that he hopes conversation at the next meeting, on Wednesday, April 13, will focus on other issues.

That’s not likely as word of the proposed development continues to spread. In addition to threatening the character of Durham, opponents say there are several other problems with the proposal, including water issues, lack of sewer infrastructure in Durham (all homes use septic tanks), the impact on traffic and schools and that the proposed community lies on a flood plain.

Opponents further say the development doesn’t fit the Durham-Dayton-Nelson Plan (known as the D2N). The D2N is part of the county’s general plan dealing with development and environmental goals in those areas. McLaughlin, who currently serves as a trustee on the county’s board of education, was a member of the committee that developed the D2N in the 1990s.

“A large component of that plan is to protect this area as agricultural land, and this project in no way agrees with that objective,” she said. “The plan prescribes development in Durham’s core area, but not further out into the farmland.”

The site of the proposed project is zoned very low density residential with 1-acre parcels. The development was granted a 20 percent “density bonus” as a senior community. According to state law, developers can obtain up to a 35 percent increase in the density of housing allowed by local zoning regulations if they provide senior or low-income housing.

Gretchen Rabo-Bender, who started an opposition group and Facebook page called STOP the Durham Villas Development in February, said she believes the density boost is being exploited to allow the property owner to develop more units.

“Those rules are meant to prevent urban sprawl in metropolitan areas and give developers the incentive to create housing for people from marginalized groups, like seniors,” she said. “They were never intended to bring high-density developments to rural areas.”

Lambert noted the development is still in the early stages. After the EIR is submitted, it will appear before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, with public hearings at each step.

A spokeswoman for the project, Kendall Flint, said she believes the development will be good for the community and countered some of the opponents’ complaints. For example, she said the housing might have less of an impact on Durham’s water supply than water-intensive almond orchards.

She also said Keeney is merely exercising his rights as a property owner by pursuing his development options, noting that the density bonus and other details opponents have taken exception with are common, legal practices.

“At this point we’re in the middle of the process,” she said. “We don’t have an approved project yet, but Bud certainly has the right to move through the approval process until its end. It is 100 percent within his rights as a property owner to make this application and proceed, and nothing he has done is not allowed by current policies.”