by Jordan Green

Representativesof the real-estate and development industry sat in Greensboro CityCouncil chambers listening as an advocate of restoring the protestpetition assailed their influence over municipal politics. (photo byJordan Green)

TheGreensboro city council voted unanimously on Jan. 21 to request therestoration of the protest petition to Greensboro, albeit with a riderasking the NC General Assembly to give the city a unique statuteallowing for higher thresholds for neighborhood opposition before thethree-quarters supermajority requirement kicks in. Supporters of theprotest petition brought a wide array of constituents to the meeting,and faced down a disorganized consortium of real-estate industryrepresentatives. Led by Greensboro Neighborhood Congress advisor DonnaNewton, the supporter displayed nervy brinksmanship by refusing toagree to any compromise on the thresholds before council approvedrestoration. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, a developer, put up avaliant defense of the status quo, but with a clear majority favoringrestoration, Perkins and other holdouts folded, allowing the measure topass unanimously. Supporters of the protest petition, a toolenjoyed by residents of every other city in North Carolina, argue thatit forces developers to consult with neighbors and make compromises. Earlierin the meeting the council had voted to continue a rezoning request toaccommodate a self-storage facility, after neighbors complained that itwould be intrusive, and that the applicant did not consult adequatelywith them. Rezoning opponents frequently complain that continuanceshave the effect of wearing down resistance, while neighbors are rarelysatisfied with the outcome. “The process did not worktonight,” said Mary Burrett, a northwest Greensboro resident who joinedthe chorus of neighbors denouncing the self-storage facility. “Parents,children and old people have to come back a second time. We have jobs,ailing parents, children, homework, houses, where it’s a hard contestbetween a slick lawyer whose full time job is lunch with you guys,contribute to political campaigns, and study zoning laws and prettymuch have their way. I’m sorry that’s the way it looks…. People want alevel playing field. That’s what your constituents are asking for.” Thecomment drew a rebuke from Mayor Yvonne Johnson. “I reallytake offense at that because one of the things that this council triesto do so often is to have people talk and try to work out anagreement,” she said. Protest petition supporters directly challengedthe legitimacy of the inordinate political influence of the real-estateand development industry, led by theTriad Real Estate and BusinessIndustries Coalition, to neutralize its effectiveness. Theircase was made by David Wharton, a UNCG professor and member of thecity’s Land Development Ordinance Citizen Advisory Team, who made aPowerPoint presentation to council. “The real estate andbuilding industries account for about five percent of gross receipts inNorth Carolina, but they have a disproportionate representation on ourland-use boards and commissions,” he said. “For instance, the LDO team,of which I was a member, had 11 members in the real estate or buildingindustry and four in other occupations…. On the RUCO board it’s sevento three and on the board of adjustments it’s four to three. “Somehowthe five-percent minority have managed to get majority representationon these key boards,” he continued. “The industry also has exceptionalpolitical access and clout through its lobbying organization, TREBIC,which sponsors events such as these like ‘Pork, Poultry and Politics.’TREBIC also has legal clout. Some of TREBIC’s members areinfluential law firms, so the industry has access to the area’s toplegal talent. TREBIC is very well funded. Nearly a third of TREBIC’smembers are regional or national firms, some worth billions of dollars.Their funding allows TREBIC to pay a staff of talented and hardworkinglobbyists, who busily monitor and intervene in land use matters on afull time basis. “To sum up, the real-estate business hasdeep-pocketed funding from major businesses,” he concluded. “It haseffective lobbyists. It has the best political connections in town. Ithas a majority on boards and commissions. It has access to top legalhelp. Now let’s consider what the resources are of a typical neighborare facing an unwanted rezoning.” At that, he turned to aslide showing a pair of clasped hands praying. Prior to the vote,TREBIC Chairman Ron Guerra had tried to lobby District 1 CouncilwomanDianne Bellamy-Small in the hallway outside council chambers,complimenting her on remarks in support of the city manager. Thecouncilwoman was agitated about a proposal to create a police reviewboard with subpoena power, and walked away without giving the TREBICrepresentative a hearing. The industry representatives lookednervous pleading their case. “We are probably the most heavilyregulated industry that there is,” Guerra said. “We have to answer tothe federal government, the state government and the local government.We meet with our neighbors…. Everyone knows that if you want to be agood developer, you have to meet with your neighbors and take theirinput.” Perkins outlined his concerns about the protestpetition, garnering applause from the industry representatives. “Youmake it harder to do the infill development and infill developmentdoesn’t get done, and you have a deterioration along the majorcorridors, and the deterioration creeps into the neighborhoods weretrying to preserve,” he said. Three council members — Mayor Johnson,at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and District 4 Councilman MikeBarber — prodded the neighborhood congress to negotiate new thresholdsfor the protest petition before council sends a recommendation to theGuilford County legislative delegation for restoration, but supportersheld the line. They decried the fact that council had requested thatthe General Assembly exempt Greensboro from the protestpetition in 1970 without any recorded discussion. “We, the congress,are certainly willing to discuss the particulars after the councilvotes to send the approval to the state,” Newtonsaid. “Our whole position is one of principle. This was taken away fromthe citizens and we want it back.” The neighborhood congress and theLeague of Women Voters had met with the TREBIC earlier in the day atthe industry group’s request, and Newton indicated that they would bewilling to negotiate in good faith, but only after council approvedrestoration.

Someprotest petition supporters indicated that they would readily agree toraise the threshold for neighborhood opposition required to trigger the75percent supermajority. “We’re fine with compromising, saidRobert Kirnard of Hillside Homes, who lost a battle to block MegaBuilders from erecting three-story apartments next to his property inthe Hillside Homes area in February 2008. “Forty percent would be fine,even fifty. We had one-hundred percent of the adjacent neighbors onrecord as opposing that development. The main point is that it willforce developers to negotiate with us. We could have used the protestpetition to get Mega Builders to reduce the apartments to two stories.”