Cary leaders oppose a state bill that would end protest petitions, a process North Carolina residents can use to fight development on nearby land.
When a landowner seeks to rezone his or her property, neighbors can sign a protest petition. If enough neighbors sign the petition, state law mandates that a city council needs a super-majority to approve the rezoning request, rather than a simple majority.
House Bill 201, which the state House passed March 25, would end protest petitions altogether. It’s now under review by a state Senate committee.
State Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, who sponsored the bill, has said protest petitions give neighbors too much say over what an individual property owner can do with his land.
Cary Town Council members, meanwhile, say protest petitions allow neighbors to protect their property values while encouraging developers to craft their projects in a way that blends in with the community.
The bill takes away a citizen’s voice, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said.
“We’ve had a lot of positive results from citizens and developers working together to come up with better solutions,” he said.
Property owners can develop their land without seeking the Town Council’s approval if they do so in a way that complies with the area’s zoning, Councilman Jack Smith noted. Some areas are zoned for dense development. Some are zoned for rural development. Some are zoned for commercial development.
A rezoning request is the community’s concern, not just the individual property owner’s, Smith said, because it seeks to bring a new use to the area and could decrease the local quality of life.
Smith said Stam’s bill “is probably in my 26 years on council the most outrageous and dumb idea I’ve ever seen.”
“It boggles my mind that a reasoned person would want to get rid of this,” he said.
Not always an obstacle
For developers in Cary, the petitions have acted more as a message than an obstacle.
Cary residents frequently seek protest petitions. But the petitions are rarely the reason a rezoning request is denied.
For example, residents attempted to submit protest petitions with 16 of the 37 rezoning requests in Cary last year, according to town staff. But only four of those petitions had the appropriate number of signatures to trigger the rule that requires the super-majority for approval.
Two of those four protested rezoning cases haven’t been voted on yet, one request was withdrawn, and the other was denied – but not because of a protest petition.
That denied rezoning request failed on a 3-3 council vote because council members felt the proposed project would exacerbate existing traffic issues on local roads. The council has been down one member since Gale Adcock assumed a seat in the state House earlier this year.
The council commonly approves projects, thus overriding the protest petition, if a developer adjusts his project in an attempt to appease protesters.
The council last spring voted 6-1 to approve a protested case submitted in 2013 after the developer cut his plan for eight homes per acre to six homes per acre. The council voted the same way last summer with another case that developers first submitted in 2013.
In that case, residents of a neighborhood dominated by 1-acre lots protested a proposal for 120 homes on 52 acres at the intersection of Holly Springs Road and Cary Parkway. With the petition still standing, the council voted 6-1 to approve the rezoning request after developers spoke with neighbors and cut the density of their project to 93 homes.
The protest petition didn’t stop anything, said Ken Raber, a neighbor who opposed the project.
“But it gave us a chance to get involved in the process,” Raber said.
Some Apex leaders look at the issue differently.
Apex Mayor Bill Sutton said he doesn’t see the need for protest petitions when residents can voice their opinions at council meetings. He described protest petitions and the associated super-majority rule as superfluous.
“It seems to me that a simple majority ought to be enough,” said Sutton, who was town manager before he became mayor. The super-majority rule “seems kind of stringent to me.”
Apex councilwoman Denise Wilkie agreed, saying elected officials should have the community’s best interest at heart without needing the fail-safe of a protest petition.
“Eliminating (protest petitions) is still not gonna take away property owners’ ability to speak,” Wilkie said. “People have a right to speak, and the council should be listening.”
But sometimes money speaks louder than words, said Apex councilman Bill Jensen. If members of the development industry contribute campaign cash to elected officials, they might not vote in the community’s best interests, Jensen said.
“The best thing about the protest petition is that it makes the developer install their development in a more civil way so that it fits better with the neighborhood,” he said. “It keeps the developers in line a bit.”
Staff writer Will Doran contributed
About protest petitions
A rezoning is a change to the rules that govern a particular piece of land, often requested by developers in order to allow the construction of more homes or bigger buildings on the lot.
State law gives a special power to anyone who owns land within 100 feet of a site proposed for rezoning. If enough neighbors within that radius sign a protest petition, state law mandates that the rezoning needs 75 percent approval of the governing board, instead of a simple majority.
The Cary Town Council has six members, down from its normal seven. A seat is vacant because its last representative, Gale Adcock, was elected to the state House of Representatives last fall. A rezoning request with an associated protest petition would need five out of six council members to support it in order to win approval. When the council has its usual seven members, six of them need to support a protested rezoning request in order for the request to win approval.
By Andrew Kenney and Paul A. Specht