Senators give tentative approval to limiting zoning appeals, increased penalties for amusement ride violations

Posted July 1, 2015

Protest petition

— Senators voted Wednesday to do away with protest petitions, a tool that neighbors use to slow down new developments or business construction near existing homes and businesses.

House Bill 201 passed the Senate 39-9 Wednesday but must be heard again Thursday before returning to the House due to a procedural objection raised by Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

"This bill does move toward a majority rule on zoning changes," Sen. Andrew Wells, R-Catawba, told his colleagues.

Right now, Wells said, it is too easy for a lone landowner or small group of landowners to block progress on a project. Opponents of the bill say existing residents should have more of a say in how their neighborhood develops.

Specifically, the measure deals with changes to zoning, the system by which cities designate what kind of buildings can be built where. In general, cities set aside some areas for houses, some for manufacturing and industry, other places for retail and others still for a mix of uses. If a developer wants to build in a way that runs counter to a property's zoning, he has to ask the local government to change that property's designation.

Neighbors who oppose the changes, such as those who think a new townhouse complex might be out of character with a neighborhood of single-family homes or think a new grocery store will create too much traffic, currently can gather signatures on a protest petition to try and block the project.

To be successful, a petition needs to have signatures from owners representing 5 percent of the property bordering the project. If filed in time, the petition forces a city council to pass the rezoning by a three-quarters super-majority.

"It levels the playing field between neighborhoods and oftentimes big Wall Street companies that come to North Carolina," said Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, urging her colleagues to reject he bill.

But Wells argued that the three-quarter threshold was unreasonable, requiring some smaller councils to hold virtually unanimous votes. The bill contains a provision that would require clerks to relay written objections to new developments to council members.

In other business, the Senate:

  • Passed a House Bill 39, which increases the fines and other penalties associated with bypassing safety features on amusements rides. The measure is a reaction to a 2013 accident at the North Carolina State Fair that injured five people. Operators of a ride called The Vortex intentionally disabled a key safety feature. The bill, which also calls for a study of whether the state Department of Labor should regulate zip lines, passed the Senate 48-0 and now returns to the House for final legislative approval.
  • Passed House Bill 823, which creates a council on rare diseases to advise the governor and lawmakers. The group is designed to collect data and make recommendations on how to help people with uncommon ailments. The bill now heads back to the House for final legislative approval.
  • Passed House Bill 766, which makes it easier for neurologists to prescribe hemp extract oil, sometimes called cannabidiol oil or CBD oil. The oil is made from a special strain of marijuana, but it does not contain high concentrations of the chemicals that get people high. It is seen by many as useful in treating children with epileptic symptoms.
    A bill passed last year was designed to allow for wider use of the CBD oil, but many families say they still face obstacles because its use was supposed to be linked to academic studies. This year's measure would allow for a less convoluted path for doctors to prescribe the treatment.
    However, its connection to marijuana makes some members nervous, and Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, amended the bill so that use of CBD oil would become illegal again in 2021 if studies of the substance don't show therapeutic benefit.
    The measure now returns to the House for final legislative approval.

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