Raleigh councilman lashes out at city planners over Walgreen’s development

ccampbell@newsobserver.comAugust 7, 2013 

— City Councilman Russ Stephenson had a heated exchange with top city planners Tuesday, saying they failed to respond to a developer’s questions. He then shifted oversight of the matter to a council committee.

Stephenson said he was concerned that developers weren’t getting answers on the next steps for a proposed northwest Raleigh Walgreen’s drug store. He called for the council’s comprehensive planning committee, which he chairs, to hold a special meeting on the matter. The council unanimously approved the request.

“The applicant is not getting a predictable process,” Stephenson told Planning Director Mitchell Silver at Tuesday’s council meeting. “You haven’t responded to their attempts to find the middle ground that you asked them to look for. Now they’re not getting a timely response to their attempts to work it out.”

The developer, Tom Erwin of Saintsing Properties, doesn’t have a pending application for the Walgreen’s at Strickland and Leesville roads. It’s rare for council committees to take on a development proposal at that stage, since there’s nothing for them to vote on.

“In my six years on council, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “It definitely didn’t follow protocol.”

Stephenson’s action feeds into concerns that the city council might be micromanaging department heads and taking a hands-on role in daily operations. Last month’s issue of Governing magazine criticized Raleigh for “overdoing hands-on government.” Because the magazine is read by city government leaders nationwide, some council members worried the bad press might turn off applicants for the Raleigh city manager’s job. The city is seeking a new leader to replace Russell Allen, who was fired in April.

“I asked and challenged members of our council to demonstrate by words and actions that we’re not micromanaging staff,” Baldwin said. “I think that this request was too in the weeds.”

On several other occasions in recent weeks, council members have bypassed the interim city manager and made requests to lower-level staffers. Stephenson sought a meeting with transportation staff to discuss a recent streetscape study on Oberlin Road. Councilman Thomas Crowder emailed a public works manager Aug. 1 to request a new crosswalk on Smallwood Drive.

The issue is already surfacing in the fall council campaign. District B council candidate Brian Fitzsimmons took to Twitter on Tuesday to criticize Stephenson’s move. “If people aren’t responding, that’s a problem. But one applicant shouldn’t be given preferential treatment. ...” Fitzsimmons wrote.

Erwin, an attorney, lives a few blocks from Stephenson and donated $250 to his re-election campaign in May. His Walgreen’s development got rezoning approvals earlier this year, but he’s debating whether to file construction plans before or after the city’s new zoning code goes into effect next month.

According to Stephenson, Erwin contacted planning staff with questions and never got a response.

Silver says he’s not sure what happened, but that planners need to meet with the N.C. Department of Transportation to discuss Erwin’s proposed changes to state-maintained Strickland Road. Silver offered to meet with Erwin himself instead of holding a council committee meeting.

But Stephenson said he’d rather take the issue to committee. “The question is whether council has to be involved to move this along or not,” he said.

With nothing to vote on, Deputy Planning Director Ken Bowers says he isn’t sure what will happen at the meeting next Wednesday.

“The only thing I can think of is to take a facilitating role,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say that this is very unusual.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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