Politics & Government

Playing field may tilt as N.C. legislature moves to ban zoning protest petitions

Protest petitions such as the one Dilworth residents used to successfully fight a proposed Walgreens store at the corner of Kenilworth and Morehead could be abolished under a bill in the legislature.
Dilworth resident Janet Hall holds up a sign in protest against the proposed Walgreens at the corner of Kenilworth and East Morehead Street during Monday night's Charlotte City council meeting.
Protest petitions such as the one Dilworth residents used to successfully fight a proposed Walgreens store at the corner of Kenilworth and Morehead could be abolished under a bill in the legislature. Dilworth resident Janet Hall holds up a sign in protest against the proposed Walgreens at the corner of Kenilworth and East Morehead Street during Monday night's Charlotte City council meeting. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The playing field on which Charlotte developers and property owners often spar appears poised to tilt, following an N.C. Senate vote this week to end the use of zoning protest petitions.

Many legislators say that tilt would level a field that now unfairly favors a minority of property owners. But neighborhood advocates predict a big tilt the other way – toward developers.

“I’d hate to see the governor sign this,” District 5 Charlotte City Council member John Autry said Friday. “It just seems to be another gift to the building industry.”

For years, N.C. landowners have been able to file a protest petition when they oppose a proposed zoning change adjacent to their property. In Charlotte, the petition requires three-quarters of the City Council, instead of a simple majority, to approve the rezoning.

The N.C. Senate’s vote this week to ban protest petitions follows approval of a similar bill in the N.C. House. Once the bodies reconcile the bills, Gov. Pat McCrory has said he’ll sign it.

Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, was among the 39 N.C. senators who voted to end the petitions. Ten senators opposed the bill. Ford says the petitions may have been useful when they began in the 1920s, but they’re no longer necessary.

They developed, he said, “before we had the type of communications to allow neighbors to know what type of rezoning is taking place.” But today, “if there is a problem with a rezoning, then there are ample opportunities for citizen input to be heard and be dealt with. No other process, including raising taxes, requires a super majority.”

Many neighborhood leaders disagree.

Property owners who file protest petitions often don’t stop zoning changes. But the petitions give average homeowners some leverage, they say, ensuring that developers listen to their concerns.

In 2014, for instance, some Elizabeth property owners filed a petition protesting an apartment development on Seventh Street. The development was ultimately approved, but the petition “was actually a catalyst for valuable conversation between the property owners and developers,” Elizabeth Community Association President Eric Davis said Friday. “I’m extremely disappointed in our state legislature.”

The legislature’s petition ban could go into effect as soon as Aug. 1. As the Senate version is now written, existing petitions would be unaffected.

There are now several protest-petition rezonings before the Charlotte City Council, including projects in Plaza-Midwood, Cherry and SouthPark. The SouthPark rezoning, for a project that features a hotel, 1,100 apartments, for-sale units, office and retail, has drawn opposition from an unusual source. Names on the protest petition include two of Charlotte’s best-known developers: Cameron and Dee-Dee Harris.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271

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