Politics & Government

NC lawmakers may ban protest petitions in zoning fights

In 2012, landowners near Morehead Street and Kenilworth Avenue filed a protest petition against rezoning the corner for a Walgreens and an office building. The city council ultimately voted against the rezoning.
In 2012, landowners near Morehead Street and Kenilworth Avenue filed a protest petition against rezoning the corner for a Walgreens and an office building. The city council ultimately voted against the rezoning. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

When Cecil Krimminger learned a new townhouse development was planned across the street in his neighborhood, he did what North Carolina property owners have done for decades – launch a protest petition.

He and 21 of his Plaza Midwood neighbors signed the petition against a rezoning of the Vanlandingham Estate. By requiring a supermajority of the City Council – not a simple majority – to approve the rezoning, it gave him and his neighbors substantial leverage.

But protest petitions would cease to exist under a bill that has passed the N.C. House and is now in a Senate committee.

Advocates say the petitions give average homeowners a stronger voice against large, well-financed developers.

“It’s critical,” says Phillip Gussman, president of the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association. “Without it, communities surrounding the rezoning project will lose the only brakes they have to the rezoning process.”

Developers say protest petitions don’t level the playing field – they skew it.

“Unfortunately, what it’s devolved into is a tool that allows a very small minority of property owners to usurp what would benefit the larger community,” says Joe Padilla, executive director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, or REBIC. “(It) gives a small minority of adjacent property owners … unfair leverage over a property owner or developer.”

Protest petitions common

Protest petitions have been around ever since zoning began in North Carolina in the 1920s. Since then, they have been widely used in Mecklenburg County and across the state.

In 2012, landowners near Morehead Street and Kenilworth Avenue filed a protest petition against rezoning the corner for a Walgreens and an office building. City Council ultimately voted against the rezoning.

Protest petitions also have helped stymie efforts to build low-income housing in Charlotte.

In the past six months, Charlotte-Mecklenburg planners have received 16 protest petitions. Though a quarter were withdrawn or deemed ineligible, many of the rest have brought property owners and developers to the table.

When Vanlandingham owner Bill Maddalon proposed selling 1.5 acres of his property to build townhouses, Krimminger and his neighbors didn’t like the idea of higher-density housing in their neighborhood of single-family homes, even when Maddalon reduced the number of townhomes from 30 to 19.

“It didn’t fit with the rhythm of the neighborhood,” Krimminger says. “We’re opposed to the townhomes being built.”

Maddalon says he always intended to work with neighbors of his century-old estate.

“We always expected to have a protest petition,” he says. “But we always were very prepared to do what we needed to do to make our project as friendly and functional with the Plaza Midwood community and the neighbors as we could.”

City Council is scheduled to hear the Plaza Midwood case April 29.

Raising costs or preserving balance

House Bill 201, which would end protest petitions, is in the Senate Rules Committee, which often serves as a final resting place for legislation. Another bill in the committee is a Democratic-sponsored measure that would change the rules for protest petitions while preserving them.

Senate Bill 285, whose sponsors include Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte, would require two-thirds of council members – not three-fourths – to approve a rezoning for which a protest petition has been filed. Efforts to amend the House bill to that effect failed.

REBIC’s Padilla says any form of supermajority puts developers at a disadvantage and raises their cost by dragging out the process.

But writing this month in the Durham Herald-Sun, Durham attorney and neighborhood activist Tom Miller said that with no access to protest petitions, “The whole system of land use regulation in North Carolina will be out of balance. … Developers will have no incentive to be good neighbors.”

Maddalon, the Vanlandingham owner, says a protest petition makes a developer “sharpen your pencil. You can’t take for granted that it’s just going to pass.”

“If it was a simple majority (vote by council), I think in basketball terminology that’s a slam dunk. If there’s a protest petition, (it’s) a jump shot from the baseline.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

Protest petitions

What they are: Petitions signed by a designated number of property owners adjacent to a proposed rezoning.

What they do: Require three-quarters vote by City Council to approve the rezoning, rather than a simple majority.

What would change: Protest petitions would no longer exist under House Bill 201.

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