A Planning Commission meeting about a controversial North Raleigh rezoning on Tuesday ended with acrimony and a call for Chairman Steve Schuster to apologize for “ejecting” a resident. Schuster said he politely asked Tim Niles to leave after a disruption.
The appointed board was weighing a proposal that would clear the way for a 29,000-square-foot grocery store and several smaller businesses between Dunn Road and Whittington Drive, on the east side of Falls of Neuse Road.
The audience of scores of North Raleigh neighbors murmured, then grew louder as the Planning Commission prepared for an 8-1 vote in favor of Morgan Property Group’s proposal, which once was meant to accommodate a Publix grocery store.
In more than a year of contention, the 13-acre plan has become a flashpoint for concerns about development in North Raleigh, pitting the developers against well-organized neighborhood groups.
Schuster opened his remarks by praising the community for reshaping the project, but the chamber came to a boil when he started talking about traffic, long a point of contention.
“Short of no development, what has been posed in front of us has less traffic considerations than what could have been here under its current zoning and less impact –” Schuster said as the crowd groaned and shouted. ( His comments begin at 1:46:08 in the meeting’s video recording.)
“Ask your own staff!” “It’s double the traffic!” the homeowners cried.
“Please, please, the public hearing is closed. Please be respectful,” Schuster said.
But Tim Niles, a vocal critic and neighborhood organizer, pressed his point.
“(City staffers) misquoted us, and you’re giving us invalid information now,” he said from the front row.
Schuster responded: “You may leave now, sir.” Niles stood and left, joining several others.
Afterward, Niles wrote in a group email that he had been “admonished and ejected from the meeting by Mr. Schuster for pointing out the inaccuracy he was placing into the record. He suggested I needed to respect the meeting while at the same time he was busy disrespecting the facts.”
Schuster stands by his statements.
“I did not eject him. I asked him first to please not speak out after we had closed the public hearing. When he refused, I asked him to please kindly leave,” Schuster said, stressing that the commission only compares proposals to city policies and makes recommendations, not decisions.
“Obviously, we had more on their agenda,” he said.
Who was right?
Like many zoning matters, this argument comes down to the interpretation of figures in a report.
The city staff report on the proposed rezoning estimated that the proposed new retail-centric zoning would allow the construction of a shopping center that would draw about 4,800 vehicles per day. That’s about double the potential under the current office-focused zoning, even with new restrictions on the plan according to staff. ( See page 40.)
To Niles and other neighbors, that means the traffic to the site could double. An estimated 2,500 extra vehicles could be coming and going daily, making their neighborhood streets more dangerous, they argue.
Schuster said he sees it differently.Offices create mass influxes and exoduses in the morning and evening, while retail customers arrive more evenly throughout the day, he said.
So while the daily numbers would double, “peak hours” traffic wouldn’t change so much. The evening peak at the site would be 15 percent busier, compared to the potential under the current zoning. The morning peak might even be slightly calmer, staff reported.
“You tend to have surge-loads during rush hour, and from my experience those surge-loads have a greater impact on the traffic patterns in the intersections than does the total quantity,” Schuster said.
“ ... Traffic is not an exact science.”
Neither is politics. The controversial proposal is likely headed to the Raleigh City Council early in March, where at last it could be decided.