Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mark Zimmerman: What the state giveth, it can take away

Now that the state legislature is back in session, what might they have in store for us?

There are several significant local issues which will impact Chapel Hill in 2015: The Edge development in the north, Obey Creek in the south, and downtown right smack in the middle.

The Town Council controls the fate of these projects. The Edge was approved last week; the others are working their way through the system.

But the Town Council is not completely in control of our development process. As the North Carolina Supreme Court explains, the state legislature is the ultimate authority: “It is a well-established principle that municipalities, as creatures of statute, can exercise only that power which the legislature has conferred upon them.”

Of course, what the legislature grants it can also take away. There are a couple of bills pending in Raleigh, and others in the works, that would moderate local authority.

First among them are House Bill 36 and Senate Bill 25, called Zoning/Design and Aesthetic Controls. As the name implies, this legislation would better define what local governments can oversee through zoning. It prohibits restrictions on exterior building design elements such as color, materials, garages, porches, roofs, windows and interior design elements such as number and types of rooms, except in Historic Districts or private covenants. Building size and setback rules will continue to be permitted.

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 51, the Justice for Rural Citizens Act, would confine zoning and approval authority to a municipality’s corporate limits. That would effectively eliminate all Extraterritorial Jurisdictions (ETJ’s), or zoning ordinances that extend into counties from cities and towns.

A third area of interest is potential legislation eliminating protest petitions, in which a group of neighbors can force a supermajority vote to approve a development application. No bill has been filed yet on this, but one was introduced in the last session.

Any of these measures, if passed, will have significant impact in our rather highly regulated neck of the woods. So naturally, these restrictions invoke a lot of local opposition. Many object to politicians who don’t live here controlling how we should live here. That complaint is not only constitutionally futile, it is missing the point. The legislature’s intent is not to dictate how a community should look, it is to keep local governments from too much dictatorship of the same.

There are two opposing world views about property at work here. In Chapel Hill, community rights tend to trump individual rights: government conveys rights to property owners. The current legislative majority in Raleigh starts from the other perspective: private property owners have rights which need protection from government.

Whatever your view, these bills’ common theme is to allow owners to use their property more as they see fit. If the bills pass, government will still have a big role to play, just less big than before.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at