Yet a mid-level Durham employee knew about the proposal in 2018 but never informed city leaders.
The state Department of Transportation apologized to Triangle government officials today for failing to inform them of a proposal to build a natural gas pipeline along part of the American Tobacco Trail, one of the premier recreational destinations in the region.
“We value our partnership,” DOT Chief Deputy Secretary David Howard  told members of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro  Metropolitan Planning Organization. “We will do a better job of informing you in the future.”
Dominion had proposed installing a 12-inch diameter natural gas pipeline beneath six miles of DOT-owned right-of-way that is also under the trail. The pipeline route would have run from Scott King Road, near Herndon Park in Durham, through parts of Chatham and Wake counties, to Morrisville Parkway in Cary.
On May 7, the DOT board voted to convey the right-of-way to Dominion for $3 million, although a formal agreement had not be signed.
Nonetheless, as Policy Watch reported earlier this month, many local government officials, in Durham, in particular, were unaware DOT had even entertained the pipeline project. DOT had been discussing the proposal with the utility since 2018.
Dominion rescinded its request  after The News & Observer and Policy Watch reported on the proposal  and local residents began petitioning against the pipeline. The utility is expected to announce alternative routes this summer.
DOT Board Chairman Michael Fox  also acknowledged that key people were not looped into the conversation. Even some DOT board members didn’t know about the plan until the May meeting, Fox said.
“Clearly in this situation we had a dropped ball,” Fox told the MPO. “Ideally not only would have Valerie Jordan” — who represents Division 5, including Durham — “had been given a heads up, but certainly [Vice Chairwoman] Nina [Szlosberg-Landis], given her past involvement. “And our current environmental representative should have gotten a heads up this was coming to the board. We didn’t do that and we should have.”
While high-level Durham officials were surprised by the pipeline announcement, two middle managers did know about the plan, but apparently didn’t inform their bosses.
Emails provided by the Town of Cary under the Public Records Act showed that in August 2018, two City of Durham employees were invited to a DOT stakeholder meeting with Wake and Chatham officials about the pipeline: Dana Hornkohl, who is with the Stormwater Services Division in the Public Works Department and Tom Dawson, assistant director of Durham Parks and Recreation. Dawson’s department maintains the Durham portion of the trail.
Neither Durham employee attended the stakeholder meeting where Dominion (then PSNC) and DOT unveiled the proposal.
Durham spokeswoman Amy Blalock said that since the pipeline didn’t involve stormwater, Hornkohl didn’t attend the meeting.
As for Dawson, he recalled the project and the pipeline encroachment, as “described to him and his team … as a fairly common occurrence and allowable since both pipelines and trails are public infrastructure,” Blalock told Policy Watch.
“From his recollection, their discussions with NCDOT indicated that the encroachment would have minimal-to-no impact to the physical structure of the American Tobacco Trail and would not restrict pedestrian traffic. Therefore it did not stand out to them as a threat to the trail experience or physical trail asset. Therefore, they did not attend the meeting two years ago since they understood it as being a routine project with minimal impacts.”
With that understanding, Dawson didn’t attend the stakeholder meeting.
As Dominion updated the project in 2019, and DOT continued its discussions with the utility, Durham officials did not receive updates, because they did not attend the original stakeholder meeting. But the project would have had major impacts on the ATT. Maps and illustrations in a 2019 Dominion presentation show one side of the trail would keep its existing 10-foot buffer, and beyond that a 30-foot wide clearing for the pipeline.
DOT Chief Deputy Secretary Howard characterized the procedure for the project as “standard.”
“It’s common for utilities to share right-of-ways with recreational trails,” Howard said, “adding there are 120 encroachments along the 22-mile American Tobacco Trail. “We have multiple uses for the greater public good.”
If Dominion had pursued the route, the utility would have been required to submit plans to DOT and the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ approval would have been necessary because the pipeline would have crossed Northeast Creek, a tributary of Jordan Lake.
Howard said there would have been a public engagement process before the project could break ground.
“Over that two-year period had this become the route Dominion wanted to pursue, we insisted it must protect the trail,” Howard said.
However, it’s often more difficult for members of the public to successfully oppose a project the later they become involved. As project sponsors spend money on surveys, mapping and other preliminary studies, they gain momentum in their favor.
The NC Department of Environmental Quality, for example, often tells concerned residents that they should voice their opinions about a project at the county or city level, long before it reaches the state’s permitting office.
“I appreciate the sincerity that there was a failure in this situation, but that there’s also a sincere desire to do better,” said MPO Board Vice Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, who is also a Durham County commissioner. “We know how much people in our region love our American Tobacco Trail. During COVID, it’s been a resource for people to deal with the stress of what everybody’s going through.”