Under the Dome

Effort to keep ‘protest petitions’ fails in committee voice vote

A Democratic representative believes he had enough votes Thursday at the state legislature to change a controversial bill dealing with local land-use rezonings, but the Republican committee chairman ruled otherwise after a voice vote.

The disagreement came during a meeting Thursday of the N.C. House’s committee on local government. The 23-member committee was considering House Bill 201, which would reduce landowners’ influence over the development of neighboring property.

Most city council decisions are decided by a majority vote. But some rezonings can require approval of three-fourths of the governing body – if they’re the subject of a “protest petition.” The extra requirement is triggered when people owning 5 percent of the 100-foot buffer around the land make a formal protest.

The proposed legislation would eliminate that process, which has shaped a wide range of land-use projects statewide.

Apex Republican Rep. Paul Stam, a House leader and bill sponsor, said that the petitions are an “assault” on property owners’ rights.

“What happens more typically is that the opponents use the leverage from the protest petition to extract things they never would have been able to get otherwise,” he said in an interview.

Rep. Paul Luebke, a Democrat from Durham, put forward a “compromise” amendment in the committee on Thursday. It would require more neighbors to protest – 15 percent of the buffer – and would lower the current threshold of a governing board’s approval to two-thirds of the body.

The committee chairman, Rep. Carl Ford, a Republican from China Grove, called a voice vote of the committee. Ford asked for ayes, then nays.

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The ayes seemed louder than the nays to Luebke.

But Ford announced that the amendment was rejected.

“That sure sounded like it passed,” Luebke said. Ford said that the vote was over. In voice votes, the chairman can determine how the committee voted but doesn’t record individual votes.

“We’ve taken the vote,” he said. Ultimately, the committee sent forward Stam’s version of the bill, which would repeal the protest petition process.

After the meeting, Ford said that it had been a close call.

“I heard an almost equal sound,” he said. He noted that Luebke could have called before the vote for “division,” or a more-specific count of the votes.

Luebke said that Ford could have reconsidered the vote. Ford denied that he could have called for another vote.

This won’t be Luebke’s last chance to modify the bill. He also can push his amendment before the House as a whole. If approved, it would preserve the “protest petition” power.

The committee’s vote was to decide which version of the bill the committee would “recommend” to the full body.

“It does matter,” Ford said. “It’s important to get as much work here as you can, so you have, so you don’t take up so much time on the House floor. When you have to, you have to. But it is best if you can get the work done in committee.”

Stam expects his bill to pass the House. Beyond that, he wasn’t sure. And he didn’t have any comment on how he thought the Thursday vote really split – except to say it was “closer than it should have been.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870;

Twitter: @KenneyNC

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