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Bill would weaken neighbors’ ability to fight zoning changes

By Steve Harrison and Sarah Ellis
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The N.C. General Assembly is considering a bill that would remove the ability of neighbors to file what’s known as a “protest petition” in controversial city rezonings, a change the city opposes.

When a protest petition is filed, a rezoning needs the approval of a supermajority of the City Council and mayor — nine votes total. Without a protest petition, a rezoning only needs a council majority of six votes to be approved.

Protest petitions have often been used by residents to either thwart development they don’t want, or to get more leverage in negotiating with developers about how a project would be built.

One of the most recent protest petitions came in Dilworth, when a number of residents opposed a Lincoln Harris rezoning request for a Walgreens and an office building at East Morehead Street and Kenilworth Avenue. In that rezoning, from November 2012, nine council members voted against the project.

City lobbyist Dana Fenton has asked members of the Mecklenburg legislative delegation to remove the ban on protest petitions. The item is part of a larger regulatory bill, and was introduced into the bill last week.

“(Protest petitions) help the process out,” Fenton said. “Developers will work with neighbors, and try and come up with something amenable. The residents are trying to protect their property values.”

Melanie Sizemore of the Elizabeth Community Association said losing the ability to file a protest petition will hurt residents.

“It takes away the ability of neighbors to ask City Council to take a long, hard look at this,” she said. “I think it’s a by-product of certain people in the building industry.”

The legislation — known as the regulatory reform bill — has passed the N.C. House. Fenton said he expects the measure to be approved by the Senate, which could happen early this week. It covers areas such as the environment and agriculture, and its sponsors say it will increase jobs.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory could veto the bill or sign it into law. It would also become law without his signature.

In a blog post, the Real Estate & Building Coalition said removing protest petitions would be a good thing. It said the petitions are “burdensome” and a “costly process.”

It allows “a small minority of citizens to hold a rezoning case hostage by forcing a supermajority vote,” REBIC said.

Tom Terrell, a Greensboro land-use attorney, said he’s in favor of the change.

“This is not the same as people putting their names on a petition asking council to do something,” Terrell said. “This is a unique power. There is no similar or comparable power in our state government where a single citizen is allowed to control City Council votes. We don’t do it on municipal budgets, … we don’t do it on decisions affecting our schools.”

Rep. Tim Moffitt, a Buncombe County Republican, called protest petitions “antiquated.”

“So many protections have been built into the system at the state and local level its time has come … to be repealed,” Moffitt said.

The protest petition can be triggered either when the owners of 20 percent of the area inside the zoning change oppose it, or when more than 5 percent of owners in a 100-foot-wide buffer oppose the rezoning.

Tammie Keplinger of the city’s zoning department said the city usually receives about 10 protest petitions a year. In addition to the Lincoln Harris Dilworth protest petition, another controversial rezoning was a 2011 request by Crosland to add a fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru window at the Quail Corners shopping center on Park Road. Residents filed a protest petition, but council members voted for the project anyway.

The House approved the bill 84-28. The vote mostly came along party lines, though some Democrats voted for the bill. Local Democrats who voted for the bill include Becky Carney, Tricia Cotham and Rodney Moore.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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