Point of View

Repealing protest petition would remove rights from North Carolina's little guys

July 2, 2014 

Last week, members of the N.C. State House of Representatives introduced language in a bill that, if signed into law, would repeal North Carolina’s “Valid Statutory Protest Petition.” This is a glaring overreach by the legislature and should alarm all North Carolina residents.

According to the UNC School of Government, the VSPP was enacted in 1923 “to provide a degree of certainty and stability in zoning while allowing the governing body sufficient flexibility to amend the ordinance to reflect changing needs and circumstances.” So the VSPP offers a balance between commercial interests and the rights of adjacent property owners in rezoning cases.

The VSPP process enables a group of at least 20 percent of all property owners within 100 feet of a proposed rezoning site to file a protest. Once certified by a municipality that the petition complies with law, it slightly changes the vote required for that municipality’s governing body to pass the rezoning request from a simple majority to three-quarters.

In a city like Raleigh, for example, this means a rezoning proposal must receive six out of eight city council votes instead of a simple majority of five to pass – or one additional vote.

Some elected officials and the N.C. Homebuilders Association – whose ultimate end-user customers are homeowners – have led the charge to repeal protest petitions. When the legislation was discussed on the House floor last week, a representative who works in the commercial real estate industry reportedly said the protest petition amounts to “extortion.” A lobbyist for the home builders tweeted concurrence and also posted that protest petitions are “ much abused.” Neither of these claims is backed by the facts.

The VSPP is the only means by which an adjacent property owner potentially affected by a zoning change can request more attention than is provided by a simple majority of a local municipal board or council, between three and six votes.

In Raleigh over the past 15 years, there have been 797 rezoning requests; only 135 (17 percent) had a certified VSPP. Of the 662 requests without a VSPP, 67 percent were approved. Combined, there were 513 approvals (64 percent). Therefore, a VSPP reduces the likelihood for approval by only 3 percent. Of the 22 rezoning requests in Raleigh so far this year, only one has a VSPP.

In Charlotte, 1,453 out of 1,763 rezoning requests were approved over the same time period. The City of Charlotte doesn’t publish whether there was a VSPP, but assuming one was certified for all of those requests, the city still approved rezoning requests 85 percent of the time and denied them 3.2 percent of the time – with the remaining requests withdrawn or pending.

This information indicates that the VSPP process isn’t hampering development in any appreciable manner in Raleigh and Charlotte. Requiring an additional municipality council member to vote for a rezoning request is the core of a representative democracy and it allows “the little guy” to ensure that his voice is heard when fighting large commercial interests.

VSPPs aren’t extortion, and clearly the inflammatory descriptions of the VSPP are neither fair nor accurate. The VSPP allows affected citizens, “the little guy,” to voice concerns appropriately with measured and reasonable consideration in the form of a slightly increased bar.

I am the little guy. The great majority of North Carolina homeowners are, too. My neighborhood is currently facing a rezoning issue, and, yes, we have a VSPP. The bill being considered by the Senate, as written, not only would kill future VSPPs but also would prevent municipalities from acting on currently certified VSPPs.

North Carolina has enough challenges that we need to address. Special interest efforts to interfere in local government matters and strip a basic right from North Carolinians must not be allowed.

Jeff Gordon, a professional negotiator, lives in North Raleigh.

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