When a private developer for the Rivers Edge apartment complex in Knightdale asked to rezone the property in February, upset residents filed a formal protest petition, the first that the town has seen in more than eight years.
Two months ago, the N.C. House approved a bill to end protest petitions, a process that helps property owners fight development on neighboring land. The bill is co-sponored by Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat from Knightdale. The proposal now sits in a Senate committee waiting for members there to take up the matter.
Under the current law, residents can submit protest petitions against a rezoning request, requiring 75 percent of a town’s board to approve a developer’s rezoning request instead of a simple majority.
In Knightdale, a properly submitted protest petition requires four out of five of the council members to approve the request, instead of the usual three. The council passed the Rivers Edge swap, one of two requests so far in 2015, unanimously, despite the petition.
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Proponents of the bill, like Jackson, say protest petitions give neighbors too much say in what property owners can do with their land. The bill’s opponents say residents are losing a voice to push back against unwanted rezoning. This could be a concern especially as eastern Wake expands.
Jackson, one of only a few Democrats who oppose the petitions, said the legislation he sponsored wouldn’t affect eastern Wake in a significant way because protest petitions haven’t been heavily used here.
He said joining up with the other Wake County sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Stam, had nothing to do with factors in eastern Wake County, although he polled leaders in the area.
“I didn’t really get much feedback either way from mayors or local officials,” he said. “I’ll see if we can’t improve the process.”
Jackson emphasized a personal dislike for supermajority voting, saying that it is “generally undemocratic.”
He believes the change will be helpful in allowing developments to move foward. He’s watched his neighbors outside municipal lines fight the county commissioners directly about developments and be “very successful.”
In terms of eastern Wake, Jackson said the bill won’t do any harm.
“We’re all recruiting development, and would like to see more. I think it’s a good compromise and has potential to help,” he said. “I don’t see it having a negative effect.”
Support from town leaders
Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, a land use attorney, agreed, saying that he supported the bill and that it would likely not affect the town, which hasn’t seen many petitions in the past.
In 2014, five rezoning requests came before the Knightdale council and no protest petitions were filed, according to town development services director Chris Hills. Part of the reason the number is low, he said, is because the town “actively rezoned” the community according to the 2027 Town of Knightdale Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2005.
“The town council takes a pro-active approach when it comes to zoning parcels which results in fewer rezoning requests,” he said. “It’s a benefit to residents, council members and property owners to know what the comprehensive plan calls for.”
Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny said that although he can’t predict the future, he does not see the bill negatively affecting his town due to the zoning protections they currently hold – and the fact that he recalls only one petition in his 37 years in office.
“We’re still going to hear the people. Doing away with protest petitions doesn’t mean you take away their voices,” he said.
He admitted that future development could have a need for such petitions, but he was skeptical.
Another bill regarding protest petitions, Senate Bill 300, was introduced earlier in the session to restore “majority rule,” but was killed during crossover.
It was sponsored by Republican senators Andy Wells and Michael Lee and Democratic Senator Jane Smith.
Similar bills appeared in 2013 and 2014, but the protest petition survived those legislative sessions.