1987 Newspaper Article

The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, Sunday April 5, 1987

Pressure building to develop parts of Duke Forest

by Nash Herdon, Staff Writer

DURHAM – Tall pines catch the breeze and sway as a yellow gust of pollen swirls just above the thick mat of needles on the forest floor. In a nearby ravine, a leafless sycamore stands apart from the spring dance and the surrounding budding greenery, with motionless, white limbs, like a skeleton’s hand. This is Duke Forest, an 8,300-acre natural sanctuary enjoyed each year by 135,000 bird watchers, hikers and picnickers. Foresters and environmental scientists conduct more than $1 million worth of research yearly amid its stands of rhododendron, hardwood and pine. But as the bustling Triangle grows up around the forest, Duke University officials are weighing other values. A study by the Urban Land Institute, based in Washington, has urged Duke to consider developing portions of Duke Forest for housing and other uses.

The prospect of this vast green preserve being opened for development stirs deeply mixed emotions in one Durham real estate developer. “Given the opportunity, I’m sure I’d be at the head of the line” if Duke offered parts of the forest for sale,” said Nick Tennyson, president of the Home Builders Association of Durham and Chapel Hill and part-owner of Barber & Tennyson Properties, a Durham-based real estate firm. “I can say without hesitation there would be tremendous desire to develop quality, low-density housing in that part of town,” Tennyson, a Duke alumnus, said of the U.S. 15-501 tract. Duke’s well-paid faculty, he said in a telephone interview, would provide a strong market for such housing. “But on a personal level, I would say I’d be disappointed,” Tennyson said. “The forest provides a nice ambiance for the two counties, and I would hate to see that go.”

University officials described the Urban Land Institute study as merely one of several views that would help trustees decide how to manage the forest. “We could see areas around Duke Forest being affected by burgeoning urban development – new roads, new subdivisions- which were having an impact on Duke’s land holdings,” said Eugene J. McDonald, Duke’s senior vice president, who asked the institute to perform the study. “Against this background, it seemed important that we at least look at what these land assets were.”

The Urban Land Institute, which is composed of developers, land planners and scholars, has performed similar studies for the universities of Virginia and Wisconsin and a number of cities, including a 1986 study of Raleigh’s downtown. Duke paid expenses for an 11-member panel from the institute to visit the Triangle and write the report, but the members themselves donated their time. The group was composed mostly of nationally prominent real estate developers. “I suppose the developers’ voice on the panel would speak more loudly than the conservationists’ voice by the end of the day,” McDonald said in a recent interview. “But I think, honestly, that the major message was neither to develop nor not to develop, but merely that… by doing nothing the university was, in effect, making a decision-albeit a passive one.”

Duke trustees in February directed the administration to review the report and come back to them with recommendations in September. McDonald said he expected those recommendations would not include a proposal for developing parts of the forest, which covers more than 10 times as much land as the university’s 800-acre campus. Instead, McDonald said, suggestions are likely for further study or other steps that should be taken before specific proposals evolve. At the request of the Academic Council, a Duke faculty body, the administration also is expected to appoint a faculty panel that would advise the trustees of the forest’s research and educational values.

“The ULI report underscores the development potential of these lands,” said Philip Stewart, chairman of the Academic council and head of Duke’s romance languages department. “But the assumption was not that the ULI was deciding university policy with their report. We know the forest is going to face new kinds of pressure to be developed, with or without the report,: Stewart said. “They (the ULI panel) themselves said the study was to be more of a provocative tool to help raise questions about the future uses of the university’s land holdings.” McDonald said: “What was once a fairly pristine reserve has been buffeted by development around it. We should know what parts of the forest are most highly prized for research and what areas are less highly prized, and even what areas are no longer useful for research.”

George F. Dutrow, dean of the university’s School of Forestry and Environmental studies, said in a separate interview that he could not single out parts of the forest that have little or no research value. “This is the finest outdoor research laboratory in the nation,” he said. “We have 50 years of data in that forest. It’s kind of hard for me to say we can do away with this one parcel or another.” While certain areas have more vital research under way than others, the relative importance of ongoing experiments is likely to shift over the years, he said. And areas where no research is being conducted may be useful later. More than 50,000 trees in the forest have been measured at five-year intervals for nearly 60 years. Current research ranges from exploring the effects of acid rain to testing Radar for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “I would object to the board of trustees reaching any conclusions based solely on the ULI recommendations,” said Dutrow.

The 40-page institute report, which also discussed how the campus itself should grow, said of the Duke Forest: The panel finds it difficult to justify the allocation, on a permanent basis, of all of the undeveloped forest properties solely for the benefit of the departments that use, manage, and occupy portions of them for direct educational research purposes.” The Triangle is undergoing rapid growth, the panel found, and I-40 through Durham and Orange counties will open traditionally rural areas to developers. The forest, the report says, “is thus becoming strategically situated, where the values of commercial, industrial, and residential lands have doubled and, in some cases, tripled in recent times.” The university should consider forming a real estate management team to “capitalize” on its land holdings, it said. “By not having set up a separate, organized real estate function, the university, in the panel’s opinion, missed some good opportunities,” the report said.

“The panel did not advocate doing these things that are in the report,” said James L. Van Zee, senior associate for the institute who worked with the panel during its November visit to Duke. “We identified acreage that probably could be developed in the not-too-distant future –areas with the most direct development potential– if the university should choose to do something along those lines.” Planners for Orange County and the City of Durham said their land-use policies had assumed that Duke intended to preserve the forest indefinitely. “These kind of resources can’t be purchased,” said Barry M. Jacobs, Orange County planning board chairman and Duke alumnus. “They can’t be reconstituted. Once they’re gone, they’ll be lost forever.”

“I would like to believe an administration of a major learning institution like Duke would at least give some equal weight to such values as maintaining quality of life and open space. Duke Forest contains some of the most unusual, sensitive and useful for research property in central North Carolina. To allow this to be developed for something other than education and research would be disappointing.”

In a land-use plan composed last year by Orange County and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, a 38,000-acre rural buffer north and west of the towns was established. Much of the Blackwood and Korstian divisions of the Forest lie within the buffer. The governments have agreed not to provide sewer lines into the buffer area and to require minimum residential lots of at least two acres in an effort to preserve the open space. But the Blackwood and Korstian divisions were targeted in the institute report as prime locations for residential development. Scenic New Hope Creek slices through the heart of the Korstian Division, a popular area for hiking and jogging. “Orange County would like to maintain those lands in their pristine state,” Jacobs said.

Paul Norby, Durham City planning director, said there are already half a dozen shopping centers in a mile and a half of the N.C. 751 – U.S. 15-501 intersection, where the panel suggested a small shopping center serving the university community. Near Duke’s East Campus is Durham’s Ninth Street business district, where restaurants and other shops cater to university tastes. Brightleaf Square, a former cigarette manufacturing plant turned into boutiques, and Northgate Mall are within blocks of the campus. “There are shopping centers in that area, and our comprehensive plan does not encourage commercial development in the area of Duke Forest,” said Norby, “it would depend on a specific proposal, of course. But it’s certainly something we would not say OK to.”

Zoning regulations permit one dwelling unit per half acre in the forests’ Durham Division. The city has targeted specific areas for encouraging residential growth over the next 20 years. It discourages residential development elsewhere, including in Duke Forest, by requiring developers to pay the full cost of water and sewer line installations, Norby said. “Our understanding, to this date, is Duke pretty much wants to keep the forest in its natural state,” said Norby, explaining why areas northwest of Durham were not targeted for commercial or residential growth. Jacobs, the Orange planning chairman, said Duke officials had expressed similar views about the forest in that county.

But McDonald of Duke said no official policy about the forest’s future had yet been outlined. Formulating such a view, he said, was a primary reason for the institute’s study. “We hope our future dealings with our neighbors will be in a positive, fruitful and symbiotic relationship,” McDonald said. “I don’t anticipate any conflict (between Duke the local governments) over the Forest in the years to come. On the other hand, the university would assert its interests if we’re at odds.”