Fighting a development in your neighborhood? Here are five tips from pros in the trenches

Proponents and opponents of a rezoning petition that would allow subsidized low-income apartments at Weddington Road in south Charlotte display their views during the Charlotte City Council zoning meeting on January 21, 2014. The city council passed the rezoning petition.
Proponents and opponents of a rezoning petition that would allow subsidized low-income apartments at Weddington Road in south Charlotte display their views during the Charlotte City Council zoning meeting on January 21, 2014. The city council passed the rezoning petition.

If you’ve seen it happen in your neighborhood, you know how the backlash against a new development can grow into a powerful storm that ultimately blows over without seeming to make much of a difference.

A yellow rezoning sign goes up on that vacant lot or dilapidated building that’s sat empty for years. People learn that a drive-thru restaurant, apartment building, or convenience store is coming. Frantic emails fly on the neighborhood list, angry posts go up on Nextdoor and Facebook and a petition is launched. Dozens of neighbors show up to Charlotte City Council with “Vote No” and “Save Our Neighborhood” signs and speak out against the plans.

And then, more often than not, the plans get approved anyway. The development process is loaded with jargon and larded with legalese, and it can leave neighborhoods feeling bitter and ignored.

“When a rezoning sign goes up in your neighborhood or an article goes in the newspaper, everyone’s in a frenzy,” said land use attorney Collin Brown, who represents developers throughout the city. “We’re in a growing city, and there’s going to be change.”

Brown was speaking at a forum Tuesday night sponsored by City Council member Julie Eiselt. The gathering was meant to show neighborhood leaders how they can influence new developments earlier in the process and – just maybe – work more collaboratively with developers and city leaders.

Although developments are sometimes turned down entirely because of opposition from neighbors – like the 18 townhouses proposed for Sharon Lane that City Council voted down in March – that’s the exception rather than the norm. Much more often, neighborhood opposition leads to changes around the margins, such as requiring a developer to install more sidewalks or reduce the height of a planned building. And with an estimated 15,656 people moving to Charlotte last year alone, stopping development in its tracks is unlikely.

Pat Mumford, director of neighborhood and business services for the city, said it’s not realistic for neighbors to think they can “just raise the drawbridge and stop growth.”

Here are some experts’ tips and warnings, as well as practical ways to make a difference in your neighborhood:

Forge connections among neighbors

Theresa Rosa of the Prosperity Village Area Association said one problem with influencing development in her fast-growing area was that neighbors didn’t know where to get information, or who to ask.

“People really weren’t aware of what was going on,” she said. So the association launched an effort to get people involved, putting out information on Nextdoor and Facebook. “We really started communicating with people.”

Hilary Greenberg, who lives in Barclay Downs, said a new effort to unite the dozens of neighborhoods, condominium associations and apartment communities in SouthPark is paying off, helping to disseminate more relevant information and getting the right people involved.

Before, a smattering of people with non-specific complaints would show up, instead of people directly impacted or those with concrete ideas about what to change.

“Random people would show up at a community meeting and be against traffic,” she said. “Well, everyone’s against traffic.”

Get to know the players

Urban planning can seem like a wonky exercise full of traffic counts, inscrutable blueprints and a mishmash of acronyms. But Brown, the lawyer for developers, emphasized that with six votes needed from City Council to approve every rezoning, the process is, at its heart, politics.

“It’s a political process, so it’s about people,” said Brown. “As much as planning staff tries to deal with objective standards, I often deal with emotion.”

To that end, Rosa, of the Prosperity Village association, said she often does something many people would consider something akin to mild torture.

“I will show up to zoning meetings even if I don’t have anything on the agenda,” she said. “I’m going to run into the developers I need to talk to. I start building those relationships with those people. When they are thinking about doing something in my area, I get a phone call.”

Those relationships mean developers are more likely to run potential plans by Rosa and her neighbors to see if they’ll object, and if there are any ways to mitigate those objections, before officially starting the process.

“They trust I’m not going to yell and smack them upside the head every time they say ‘apartments’ to me,” said Rosa.

Enlist people with expertise

If you have any lawyers, architects, planners, real estate professionals in your neighborhood, they can help bolster your case against a development and provide expertise to level the playing field with developers.

“If you’re really upset about something, you have to know what you’re talking about,” said Greenberg.

Kathy Hill of MoRA, representing a rapidly changing stretch along Monroe Road, said getting help from people with planning experience has been key to their group.

“Reach out to people...who know more than you do,” she said. “You’ve just got to get yourself informed. Bring lots of different voices to the table.”

Of course, that raises another problem: Not every neighborhood has a rich supply or lawyers, architects and real estate professionals who can volunteer their time to help residents navigate the development bureaucracy. Mumford said residents can seek help from the city’s Neighborhood and Business Services Department. But there’s still likely to be a major gap in resources between affluent and non-affluent areas.

“We need advocates,” said Greenberg. “There are a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have that resource.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for more

Developers often agree to improve intersections, add more turn lanes, build sidewalks or install other features to help mitigate the impact of more traffic and density on neighbors. Greenberg said neighborhood groups should push for more, as in a recent rezoning for more apartments near SouthPark mall. The developer there agreed to build $250,000 worth of sidewalks on Barclay Downs Drive, even though it’s not directly adjacent to the development, as a condition of the rezoning.

“If you’re going to add to the problem, you’ve got to be part of the solution,” said Greenberg.

Brown said developers know they’ll be required to make some improvements to get a plan approved. But if neighbors would rather see more sidewalks than a new turn lane, or a small park instead of a bike lane, he said they should speak up.

“This is money the developers are going to have to spend one way or another,” he said. “If someone doesn’t speak up, we’ll do what the city tells us.”

Protests do have an effect

“You can’t be against everything,” said Greenberg. But, “There are times when a project really is not right.”

In that case, the signs, shirts and protests at City Council meetings might have an effect. If nothing else, they ratchet up the public pressure, and might give City Council members pause before casting their votes.

“City Council doesn’t like (people) to show up to an ugly zoning with a lot of ‘no’ signs,” said Brown. He said City Council prefers that neighborhoods and developers work out their differences beforehand, if at all possible.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo