People sometimes assume developers in Charlotte hold all the cards and can win approval for anything they want. But a fight over new townhouses shows how neighborhoods can still flex plenty of muscle when they oppose a development.
Neighbors around the planned development on Sharon Lane just south of Providence Road have shown that it’s possible to force some changes. Residents in Foxcroft and other nearby neighborhoods turned out in force for almost a year to oppose the plan.
So far, they’ve pushed the developer to reduce the size of its plan by 14 townhouses in an attempt to win support.
Christa Lineberger, who has helped lead the fight, called the original plan to build 38 houses on the 6.3-acre site “shocking.” She started organizing neighbors, with the help of digital tools – Facebook, Nextdoor and Change.org, where a petition against the rezoning has garnered more than 1,200 supporters.
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“I think it was really a matter of spreading the word via email,” said Lineberger. “Nextdoor was a powerful tool; setting up a Facebook page was a powerful tool.”
Simonini Homes and Saratoga Asset Management filed their redevelopment plans last April. Despite concessions by the developers, many area residents would still like to see Charlotte City Council reject the plan outright.
However, a 2015 move by the state legislature that ended protest petitions – a powerful tool neighbors had to force concessions from a developer – makes that unlikely. It also shows how developers have more clout now than they did a few years ago.
Charlotte City Council is set to vote on the plans next month. In the end, neither side might be happy. Even if the developers prevail, they will have spent 11 months on the process, stirred up hostile neighborhood sentiment and paid to redesign the project at least twice.
“This has been an incredibly challenging petition,” said Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith. “Passions have been high on both sides.”
Both the developers and neighbors are taken aback at how much controversy the relatively small project has generated, and at how hard the other side is fighting.
“We remain surprised at the intensity around what is before you tonight,” said Jeff Brown, an attorney representing the developers, at a Charlotte City Council hearing on Monday. “I think, to say the least, (this) has been an interesting rezoning...It has been a challenge.”
They contend the development – reduced to 24 townhouses in an attempt to win more support and placate the neighbors – would be tucked behind trees, fit in with the area and not lead to denser development. The homes, averaging 3,400 square feet and costing around $1 million, would target empty-nesters and older, more affluent buyers.
Here are three things the fight in Foxcroft shows about what it takes for neighbors to change a development:
1. It’s harder than it was even two years ago.
In years past, neighbors who were against a new development could use a protest petition. Adjoining property owners could sign on to a document requiring a supermajority of nine City Council votes to approve a new rezoning request, instead of the six votes usually required. Protest petitions played a key role in some high-profile fights over new developments, such as a Walgreens proposed for the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Morehead Street that was ultimately voted down.
The real estate industry sought for years to get the N.C. General Assembly to eliminate protest petitions, which it said were burdensome, costly and unfair and gave “a small minority of citizens (the power) to hold a rezoning case hostage,” as the Charlotte-based Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition put it. In 2015, legislators eliminated protest petitions moving forward.
Lineberger said the protest petition would have given the neighborhood more leverage.
“That just takes more power and more voice away from everyday citizens to defend their property,” Lineberger said of the protest petition’s elimination. “Then when this came up, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Oh my gosh, we don’t have that anymore. In this case I think it would have made all the difference in this world.
“It has made us have to work extra-hard and spend a lot more effort and time on this. The everyday citizen just has no voice anymore.”
2. Online organizing is good, but showing up in person makes a difference.
Apart from the online organizing, neighbors turned out in person for community meetings that the developers were required to hold.
That doesn’t always happen – sometimes, nobody shows up. Sign-up sheets show that about three dozen people came to the first meeting in July, and about 70 came to the second meeting earlier this month. Residents also showed up at City Council meetings to speak, hold signs and make their positions heard.
Lineberger said the area’s existing cohesion made it easier to pull people together.
“We know each other,” she said. “We have a really socially active community.”
At Monday’s hearing, dozens of people held signs urging City Council to vote no, including “Keep Sharon Lane R-3” (a residential designation that allows three houses per acre).
The developers have pushed back, countering what they say is misinformation neighbors have spread about how the project will open up the area to denser projects. They had signs of their own, distributed to supporters, encouraging City Council to vote yes. And they launched a website of their own, sharonlanerezoning.com, to try to clarify the project’s scope and build support.
3. It takes a major time commitment.
The almost-year-long battle shows how much organizing, effort and time it can take to fight a new development. Lineberger said it’s become a part-time job for her.
“It's enormous, totally enormous,” she said. Along with other volunteers, she’s poured dozens of hours into the effort.
And Lineberger said she knows not every neighborhood has people with that kind of time, resources and political organizing skills.
Said Lineberger: “I know that everyone can’t put in the effort we put in.”