In the midst of efforts to radically restrict access to abortion that have drawn unfavorable national attention, the Republican-controlled NC General Assembly is considering a legislation to repeal a tool currently held by property to curb unwanted developments that threaten to destabilize neighborhoods and erode values.
The protest petition provides that if a certain percentage of property owners adjacent to a parcel subject to rezoning sign a petition, then approval of the rezoning by a city council requires a super-majority vote of 75 percent. The supermajority requirement allows approval of rezoning requests that are considered critical for economic growth, but prevents changes that have caused significant concerns from being rubber-stamped by council comprised of members that receive substantial campaign contributions from developers. Use of the protest petition often results in concessions from developers to soften the impact of development considered intrusive by neighbors.
Property owners in municipalities across the state have been able to use the protest petition since the early 20th century, but in 1971 Greensboro was mysteriously exempted by the General Assembly. Citizens and responsive members of the Guilford County delegation restored the provision in 2009.
Now, the General Assembly is considering abolishing the protest petition across the state. The measure is tucked into S 112, an omnibus regulatory reform bill whose primary sponsor is Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson).
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), who led the fight to restore the protest petition in Greensboro, said she plans to run an amendment. She said Rep. Jon Hardister, her Republican colleague from Greensboro, has pledged to speak in favor of the amendment.
Check back at this space frequently for updates.
UPDATE, 4:25 p.m.
Legislation approving sweeping restrictions on access to abortion has passed its third reading in the House. When the session resumes at 4:30 p.m., Speaker Thom Tillis said the House will debate S 112, which includes the measure to repeal the protest petition. Tillis said he intends "to move the bill out before the end of this week."
UPDATE, 4:41 p.m.
Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe), chair of the Regulatory Reform Committee, is discussing the legislation. The long title of the bill is "an act to improve and streamline the regulatory process in order to stimulate job creation, to eliminate unnecessary regulation, and to make various other statutory changes."
UPDATE, 4:45 p.m.
Moffitt passes right over Section 13.3 regarding the repeal of protest petitions, moving on to a measure to allow bed and breakfasts to provide three meals a day.
UPDATE, 4:55 p.m.
Rep. Tom Murry (R-Wake) and Rep. William Brawley (R-Mecklenburg) are reviewing some other sections. Now I understand why Moffitt didn't address the protest petition. Apparently, that one was assigned to another lawmaker.
UPDATE, 5:02 p.m.
Brawley explains the rationale behind repealing the protest petition: "This is a part of zoning that dates to the 1920s. At that time, zoning laws were very slight. And because of the wide latitude within a permission, neighbors were given the opportunity to create a need for a supermajority. That is less necessary now because with the granularity of our current zoning ordinances — CDs and so many other things that — that regulation is probably not needed. It's frequently used as a tool to get lots of concessions and run up costs, but I don't know that it any longer contributes to the health and safety of the people."
Brawley notes that the supermajority requirement sets a higher threshold than is required to override a veto by a governor, and restores zoning decisions to a simple majority vote. He adds that local elected officials can run for reelection on their records.
UPDATE, 5:08 p.m.
Moffitt reads an amendment to clarify that pending protest petitions will be honored if the legislation is approved.
UPDATE, 5:14 p.m.
Keith Brown of High Point: "It will be a sad day for any neighborhood or property owner in North Carolina who is involved in a rezoning case to not have the power of the protest petition and to see that they slipped this repeal of the protest petition without any discussion in a local government committee or any discussion at all is ridiculous."
From Doug Clark at the News & Record: "Is this the kind of regulatory reform legislators promised?"
UPDATE, 5:39 p.m.
Extensive debate taking place right now on employment protections for deputies on the NC Industrial Commission. Lawmakers have also discussed a section to regulate hotel emissions of carbon monoxide, no doubt prompted by a recent tragedy in Boone.
UPDATE, 5:44 p.m.
Tillis says there are seven additional amendments to work through before voting on the bill. "Sadly."
UPDATE, 6:09 p.m.
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) introduces an amendment to strike the section repealing the protest petition. Harrison argues that many zoning boards are stacked with developers and "this just evens the playing field."
Rep. William Brawley (R-Mecklenburg) opposes the amendment. "There is ample opportunity for citizens input."
Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) agrees with Brawley, arguing it's not fair to allow 5 percent of property owner who are neighbors to require a 75-percent supermajority vote.
Rep. Jonathan C. Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga) clarifies that the ordinance gives whoever owns 5 percent of the adjacent property line rather than 5 percent of adjacent property owners the ability to invoke the protest petition. "Five percent! You can now change your vote from not a super-majority, but an ultra-majority.... We've all heard how the ultra-conservatives are taking over. This is an ultra-majority vote."
Rep. Charles Jeter (R-Mecklenburg), a former member of the Huntersville Town Council, said in his experience the protest petition has worked well. "It was not an onerous obstacle," he says, "because typically they were 5-0 anyway unless they were controversial. It was effectively used in Huntersville."
Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) speaks in support of preserving the protest petition. "It gives citizens an opportunity to have a voice," she says. "We have a voice here; they should have a voice back home."
UPDATE, 6:10 p.m.
Harrison's amendment seeking to strike language repealing the protest petition fails by a vote of 35 to 76.
UPDATE, 7:47 p.m.
The House has voted 84-28 to repeal the protest petition across the state of North Carolina, as part of an omnibus regulatory reform bill.
Harrison, via e-mail: "I was disappointed that Hardister did not speak in favor of the amendment as he said he would. (Hardister was getting worked outside the chamber by homebuilder lobbyists.) He said he did vote for the amendment."