Lawmakers push to eliminate tool used to fight new developments

Posted March 19, 2015

— The House Local Government Committee approved a bill Thursday that would do away with a tool activists used to slow down large, new developments in neighborhoods throughout the state.

"We used the valid statutory protest petition because we did not find that the council or the planning commission would listen to us without some sort of clout," said Michi Vojta, a property owner and landlord who lives in Raleigh.

When property owners want to change the types of activities allowed on their land, they file for rezoning. In Vojta's example, Sheetz wanted to build a gas station on land that had been used for single-family homes.

A protest petition allows neighbors of the property to slow down that process. Such a petition requires either 20 percent of the individual owners surrounding the property or owners of 5 percent of the overall surrounding property. When such a petition is filed, it takes three-quarters of a city council to approve the change rather than a simple majority.

"I cannot think of a real reason why it should take more of a majority to pass a zoning change than for us to approve a constitutional amendment," Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, told the committee Thursday.

If his bill were to pass, land use decisions would require a simple majority to pass, the same as tax increases and most other council decisions.

Protest petitions can come into play for projects both large and small. In Raleigh, they can affect a number of high-profile cases, such as the recent showdown over a retail center on Falls of Neuse Road or larger residential developments.

Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, said that he had encountered protest petitions when he served on the Burlington City Council and had seen people lose development deals because of how slow the process became. Developers and land owners, he said, should not have otherwise legal projects derailed just because neighbors objected.

"It was almost like a nuisance," Ross said.

But Vojta said there were more interests at stake than just the developers.

"I don't own that big (plot) of land, but I do own land next to it that would be damaged dramatically but insensitive development," she said.

The protest petition, she said, helped prod developers in the same area to engage the neighborhood earlier in the process.

Real estate interests support the measure

Richard Beard, a developer with Simpson Schulman & Beard and a representative of NAIOP, which represents commercial real estate developers, told the committee that developers back the legislation.

Stam's bill was needed, Beard said, "due to the unfair governmental power (state law) bestows to a very small minority, persons neither elected to a governmental body or appointed by a governmental body."

Protest petitions, he said, allow private individuals to have too much say over how a private landowner uses his or her property.

"Such power in the hands of unelected citizens is without precedent," he said.

Representatives of the North Carolina Home Builders Association and the North Carolina Apartments Association said they also backed the bill.

Rose Vaughn Williams, a lobbyist for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, said city officials throughout the state were split on the measure and urged lawmakers to adopt a compromise.

Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, offered an amendment to change Stam's bill so that more neighbors would have to sign a protest petition in order for it to take effect and lower the super-majority needed to pass a controversial rezoning to two-thirds of the council members.

"This feature, the protest petition, helps the neighborhoods," Luebke said, urging colleagues not to do away with it entirely.

Committee Chairman Rep. Carl Ford called for a voice vote on the amendment. To many observers in the room, it sounded like the amendment had passed, but Ford said the amendment had been rejected. He made that call final before Luebke could call for a show of hands.

"I must need to get my hearing checked," quipped one Republican member on the way out of the room, implying that Ford had made the wrong call.

After the meeting, Ford, R-Rowan, said he would have let Luebke call for division if he had done so before a result was announced.

After that amendment failed, the bill passed the committee easily and is headed to the House floor.

That result disappoints Vojta and others who say ordinary citizens will lose clout when big developments are proposed for their neighborhoods.

"I just want the NC Legislature, and by extension the City Councils, to protect the rights and livelihoods of people who live in North Carolina, not just those who develop and entice folks to move here," she wrote in an email after committee ended.


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  • Dusty Corvette Mar 22, 2015
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    Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, said: "Developers and land owners should not have otherwise legal projects derailed just because neighbors objected." Are those the words from an elected official who serves the People? Where do you think his campaign funds came from?

    Years back, when I ran for Town Council in Cary, it took only a week from the time I filed, to when local developers where calling me, offering financial support!

  • Christopher Rose Mar 20, 2015
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    More of the same. A legislature that protects the interests of people with money.Keep voting for these clowns. You get the government you deserve.

  • Phil Larson Mar 20, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Spot on, they're trying to micromanage every aspect of us citizens life and behavior. From making every town/community to allow guns on playgrounds to redrawing Wake county voting districts. They can't stand any obstacles in remaining in power to allowing their corporate cronies to make money no matter the impact to our environment. They do not care about NC's citiizens, they care only about staying in power and enriching their buddies.

  • Mary Zulch Mar 19, 2015
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    When is it time to vote these clowns out of office? Not soon enough, my opinion only. And, really, a GAS STATION near housing? does anyone know the percentage of leaks in those good 'ole underground tanks is? it's about 20% (yes, even the new improved ones, welded fittings DO leak).. I would not want that one anywhere near me either.

  • Nathaniel Grubbs Mar 19, 2015
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    'I cannot think of a real reason why it should take more of a majority to pass a zoning change than for us to approve a constitutional amendment,' Rep. Paul 'Skip' Stam, R-Wake, told the committee Thursday."

    Of course, given that a recent amendment was struck down in federal court, maybe NC needs to update it's amending process to be a little more stringent.

    But, I also can't say I am surprised the GA is making this move. Since the recent political shift, the GA has slowly been taking power out of the hands of voters and local governments - brought to you by the "Small Government" Party. Up next, selling the state to the company willing to pay the most to enslave its citizens.

  • Arch Maker Mar 19, 2015
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    the pendulum must be swinging back against those people who project their property rights onto other people's property.

    at least the process will be more predictable.

  • John McCray Mar 19, 2015
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    All fine and dandy until someone wants to put a strip club next to an affluent neighborhood. Heck, they have a hissy fit when they put in a grocery store too close to fancy neighborhoods. But then again, reading the article, it appears that it's mostly developers pushing this legislation.

  • John McCray Mar 19, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    No doubt. I can't believe that in a democracy, people are worried about citizens trying to affect the decision of a governmental body.

  • Jay Tanenbaum Mar 19, 2015
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    You are right on Chris. For example, they just started constructing a road behind my house on an old farm . This is the start of a new housing subdivision. However, there is still one that was started 5 years ago that you can see from my backyard in which 85-90% is undeveloped. So, let's keep building, despite what current home owners and market will bear. Thanks GA!!!

  • Chris Holder Mar 19, 2015
    user avatar

    God forbid private-citizen neighbors of big development projects carry some clout with zoning commissions...