Local & State Voices

Many stories change; this one doesn't

She told a story I'd heard before.

“We just didn't have a chance,” she said.

Last week I had a long conversation with a Charlotte resident about a proposed development next to her neighborhood. Some of the details are, of course, unique to the case. But the plotline she described is one I've heard for years from other people in other neighborhoods. I believe what she described is common in Charlotte.

And it doesn't matter, for what I'm trying to convey today, whether the proposed development was “good” or “bad” for the city or the neighborhood. What matters is whether the process by which development rezoning decisions are made is equitable, principled and balanced.

It isn't.

“They pretty much have determined what the outcome is before they apply for rezoning,” she said. “They know who on City Council they can count on.”

In the case she spoke of the development and development plans have been ongoing for a number of years. The project is phased, and neighboring homeowners earlier had protested some details and were promised by the developers that certain things would happen.

But those promised things did not show up when plans for the next phase came out.The city now requires developers wanting a rezoning to hold a meeting with neighbors. At the meeting, said the neighbor I spoke with, she asked the developer about the promise. “He said, ‘I don't recall.'”

He said he knew nothing about any promise. He wasn't there when it had been made, to be sure, she said. “But I know I'm not crazy.”

It's good to require developers to hold those meetings. But, she said, “Nobody says they can't exaggerate or make misstatements or lies.”

Timeline favors developers

One stark inequity is that by the time neighbors learn a rezoning is in the works, sometimes as little as a month before a City Council vote, the developer has been working on the project for months.

Developers visit city planners and transportation officials early on, get officials' reactions, tinker with the plans, get more reactions, etc. By the time the project goes public, months are invested and city officials – often including elected ones – have heard developers pitching the project.

Yet any opponents have only a few short weeks to learn a confusing city bureaucracy, research complicated land use regulations and try to get elected officials to listen to their views. Developers get face-to-face meetings. Neighbors are lucky if their calls are returned.

If the neighbors decide to hire an attorney they find most real estate lawyers in town won't take the case, citing conflict of interest.

Sometimes they discover relationships which make them suspicious: business ties, somebody married to someone's kin, maybe decades of friendship from church or college.

In one case I recall, a neighbor fighting a proposed project learned that a relative of the developer was working in a city office. The relative “goofed” and gave a key permission that let the developer build something that violated city policies. Maybe it was an honest mistake. Regardless, the project got built.

Who is kin to whom?

In the current case, the neighbor I spoke with learned that officers of a nearby neighborhood association – which she hoped would join her in opposition – were almost all working in real estate or development. They'd decided to take no positions on proposed rezonings. She also learned an elected official's relative owned property that gave the relative reason to be interested in the outcome.

“There's too many interrelationships here,” she said. “It's creepy.”

I've heard these complaints for years: Some developers lie. It's hard to get politicians' attention if you're opposing a big-time developer. The rezoning timeline works against development opponents.

These things have been said for years. Not much has changed. And they won't, unless the public demands it from their elected officials.