Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina residents will lose a tool neighborhoods use to fight unpopular new developments under a bill the state House gave tentative approval to Tuesday.
After the 81-31 vote, the chamber is scheduled to vote again Wednesday to send the measure to the Senate.
Protest petitions come into play when a landowner asks a city council to change the uses legally allowed on a piece of property. Neighbors who don't like the proposed new use can file a petition that requires a three-quarters majority vote by the council to approve that change.
Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, said such a requirement is "antidemocratic," placing a obstacle in front a rezoning case that is more stringent than what is needed to pass a constitutional amendment or a tax increase.
"That's not democratic government. That's rule by the minority," Stam said.
But opponents of the measure said that nearby residents should be able to protect their neighborhoods from encroachment by new developments that might pose safety hazards or decrease property values. The case of a proposed Publix in north Raleigh was a focus of much of the debate Tuesday.
"These are the sorts of egregious types of subdivision that we have the protest petitions for," said Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake.
She proposed an amendment that would have preserved the protest petition but changed the process to favor developers. Under the amendment, two-thirds of the surrounding property owners would have to sign a petition rather than the current 5 percent, and a city council could vote to pass a rezoning for a property subject to a protest petition by a two-thirds vote, rather than the current three-quarters threshold.
"When neighbors file a protest petition, it is a signal that a proposed rezoning deserves special attention," Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said.
Avila's proposed amendment would present a high barrier to those neighbors, Luebke said.
"It will be extremely difficult for any group of neighbors to reach that threshold," he said.
But House members shot down that amendment at Stam's urging.
In doing so, many lawmakers talked about their experience in local government. Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, for example, talked about neighbors who would file protest petitions and withdraw them once a new fence was built or other accommodation made by the developer.
"This doesn't take away the incentive to file a protest petition from bad actors," Jeter said.
The amendment failed on a 47-67 vote, and debate on the bill itself wrapped up shortly after.
Backers said that protest petitions slowed down growth and hurt economic development.
But opponents of the bill like Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, cited figures that showed such petitions were sparingly used and had not slowed down Raleigh's economic boom.
"We are one of the fastest growing cities in the entire country. Clearly we are getting things done with the protest petition in place," Martin said.
Presuming the measure clears a second House vote on Wednesday, it would next go to the state Senate where a similar bill stalled two years ago.