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Bill Would Eliminate A Tool Neighbors Have To Fight Zoning Changes

Updated 7/26/13: The regulatory bill that lawmakers ended up passing, left out eliminating protest petitions. 

In North Carolina neighbors can oppose development projects that require rezonings by filing something called a protest petition.  That means the rezoning requires a three-fourths vote on the city council, not just a simple majority.  A bill that would eliminate those kinds of petitions has passed the state house. 

Every year the city of Charlotte gets a few protest petitions.  They’re not your regular objections to projects.  They require the signature of neighbors owning together at least twenty percent of the property up for rezoning or together own at least five percent of land right next to it. 

In 2005 some Dilworth residents filed one against a rezoning to make way for a Lowe’s on South Boulevard. 

“That was a protest petition that resulted in enormous improvements on that project,” says Jill Walker with the Dilworth Community Development Association. 

She says it forced developers to add more sidewalks, reduce the size of the parking lot, and adjust entrances and exits so traffic wouldn’t overwhelm neighborhood streets.  It upsets her that lawmakers want to take that bargaining chip away from communities. 

“Developers will be able to work through the planning process and have projects approved and neighbors will try to work with the developer,” says Walker.  “But without the added pressure that we can sometimes have with an egregious project, we won’t be able to get a seat at the table.  It’s plain and simple.” 

The City of Charlotte also opposes doing away with protest petitions.  City planner Laura Harmon says the petitions give neighbors an important tool to negotiate compromises with developers. 

Protest petitions have been around since the 1920s.  Land-use attorney Tom Terrell says they may have had a use then when there weren’t zoning protections.  But now he says there’s a deliberate process which includes input from neighbors. 

The bigger problem he has with them is that often times a protest petition can be filed by one person and then that person has the power to control city council votes.  He says that’s a unique power.

“That one person triggers a vote threshold on city council that is higher than the percentage needed by the United States Congress to emend the U.S. Constitution.  It’s ridiculous,” says Terrell.    

The Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition or REBIC call protest petitions “burdensome” and “costly.” 

The measure to repeal the petitions is part of a larger regulatory reform bill. 

In a blog post, REBIC points out another measure in that bill could make for a challenge to Charlotte’s tree ordinance, since it would prohibit cities and counties from enacting environmental regulations that are more stringent than state or federal regulations. 

The bill passed the House 84-28, mostly along party lines, but a few Mecklenburg Democrats also voted for it.  The bill is now in the Senate.   

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.