Both sides in rezoning fight have politically connected allies

by Jordan Green

Both sides in rezoning fight have politically connected allies

About 20 residents of College Hill opposed to the rezoning of the Newman Machine Co. property picketed an informational meeting hosted by the Ohio-based Edwards Companies at the Blandwood Mansion and served hot chocolate on Dec. 1.

Inside, political consultant Bill Burckley sat in the audience with about 30 other residents who crossed the picket line and who generally responded favorably to the developer’s presentation. Burckley had just left the organizational meeting of the new Greensboro City Council, where he sat next to the parents of District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. Before the meeting was over he had received a call from the new mayor pro tem, Nancy Vaughan, informing him of a curious vote that took place to revisit a financing plan approved by the previous council hours earlier.

The Greensboro Zoning Commission will hear a request to rezone the property for multi-family residential to allow the Edwards Companies to build a complex of student apartments to accommodate about 725 residents on the southern edge of the College Hill Historical District, a neighborhood wedged between UNCG and downtown that boasts a sizeable population of college students and renters.

College Hill resident Brian Crean said he holds reservations about the increased traffic burden posed by the proposed Province apartments, but views development in the neighborhood as inevitable.

“If someone’s going to develop the land it’s nice to see it’s a company that’s going to do it well,” he said. “Compared to some of the other student developments, this one seems good.”

Clara Murphy, whose 83-year-old mother lives a few doors down from the proposed apartments, was more enthusiastic. She told of how the man she calls her “spousal equivalent” rousted some drunks off a brick retaining wall on Spring Garden Street, and how she views a well-lit, gated apartment complex with police presence as a vast improvement over an abandoned industrial site that attracts vagrants. Murphy and her partner, Danny Sexton, live in Kernersville.

“It’s called College Hill for a reason,” Murphy added. “They’re college students. We were all young once. I have a daughter at Appalachian State in Boone. Give them a chance.”

Meanwhile, the opponents have forsaken negotiation to pursue all-out war against the proposed apartments.

Two days after the informational meeting, as planned, opponents filed a protest petition at Melvin Municipal Building. Resident Melanie Bassett said she was confident the city’s legal department would validate the petition, considering that the signatories own a 22-percent portion of the buffer area surrounding the subject property, easily exceeding the 5 percent threshold.

Bassett said the rezoning opponents have hired lawyer Don Vaughan to argue their case before the zoning commission and, if necessary, city council. Vaughan is a state senator and the husband of the city’s new mayor pro tem. Vaughan was a cosponsor of legislation to restore the protest petition as tool to help residents fight rezoning to Greensboro earlier this year.

“Don Vaughan advised us to file now,” Bassett said. “I think it was to make a statement as to how serious we are about this.”

Steve Simonetti, vice president of land acquisition and development for the Edwards Communities Development Corp., said the company has made significant concessions on building elevations, setbacks and buffers.

“We have submitted plans,” he said.

“Everyone can see what we are doing…. We will be held to those plans and elevations. We are comfortable being held to those plans and elevations.”

Bassett said she and her neighbors remain unimpressed by the modifications.

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan said last week that she hadn’t confirmed that her husband was representing the opponents, but if he was she understood that she would have to recuse herself from any votes on the matter. State ethics law prohibits any elected official who has a financial stake or whose spouse has a financial stake to recuse herself.

Meanwhile, all but one member of the new council received consulting services from Burckley, who is also a paid consultant for the Edwards Companies. State law not only allows but also requires them to vote in any matters in which they do not have a financial stake.

“It’s not illegal, but it is immoral,” Bassett said.

Simonetti indicated that he was aware that Burckley helped several candidates, including Mayor Bill Knight, get elected.

“The only reason we chose to hire Bill Burckley as a consultant is we were informed that he could assist us in the approval process for the rezoning,” Simonetti said. “That’s number one. Number two: He’s a previous city council member. Number three: He’s the previous president of the neighborhood association. Number four: He’s a longtime resident, and he’s invested significantly in the College Hill neighborhood.”

The company has also hired Henry Isaacson, a local lawyer with a record of winning rezoning cases, to handle its request.

“Henry Isaacson is our quarterback, if you will,” Simonetti said. “He’s managing our approval process. We’re simply using Bill Burckley as a sounding board behind the scenes.”

Asked if Burckley will be lobbying members of the zoning commission and city council, Simonetti responded that he would not.

Burckley indicated otherwise. “I’m within a thousand feet of the damn project,” he said. “Of course I’m going to talk to them. If I wasn’t getting paid, I would be talking to them anyway. I’m not a fool.”

Burckley said he received direct payment for his services during the campaign from Mayor Knight, Mayor Pro Tem Vaughan, District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade, and was paid by an undisclosed political action committee to assist the campaigns of at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, atlarge Councilman Danny Thompson and District 2 Councilman Jim Kee.

“If you took all the people I worked for away, only Dianne Bellamy-Small would be able to vote,” Burckley said, referring to the representative of District 1.

MaryRakestraw celebrated her primary election victory with politicalconsultant Bill Burckley in October. Burckley has been retained as aconsultant for rezoning applicant the Edwards Companies. (photo byJordan Green)