Developers more assertive on panel to rewrite ordinance

by Jordan Green

Since November 2005, a dwindling panel of 18 Greensboro citizens has been poring over the city’s development ordinance to bring a code last revised in 1992 into the 21 st century. What was supposed to be an 18-month process will have stretched over three and a half years by the time the citizen advisory team presents its work to the city council for approval this fall and disbands.

At its completion the new Land Development Ordinance is supposed to be a more user-friendly code, complete with illustrations and hyperlinks to definitions intended to provide ready references to technical phrasing. It adds new multi-use districts and provides flexibility to encourage developers to undertake more infill and pedestrian-scale projects. For example, an amendment added in June to encourage alternative transportation stipulates that developers that provide bicycle parking spaces may reduce automobile parking spaces commensurately. Members of the citizen advisory team were appointed by then City Manager Ed Kitchen in 2005 with the aim of striking a balance between developers and members representing neighborhoods and other interests, but those in the building and real estate industry have gradually acquired more clout as others dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. And while participants have reported a collegial atmosphere, on one significant matter the two sides have clashed with developers prevailing. A consultant report from 2005 noted a sentiment expressed by neighborhood groups: “Citizens are at a disadvantage during a rezoning case. They find out about it too late. Require neighborhood workshop early on for any rezoning in a neighborhood.” “It got washed away; it got shot dead in the water,” said Todd Rotruck, a Westerwood resident who remodels and resells houses for a living and who represents the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress on the re-write team. “The developers don’t want it. Developers on the committee said, ‘Good developers are going to do this anyway.’ Good developers do, but the problem is you’ve got a lot of mom-and-pop developers that don’t go the neighbors with their plans.” When the advisory committee was formed, representatives of real estate and development interests comprised a significant minority, taking seven out of 18 seats. The committee was rounded out by three lawyers, a banker, four neighborhood representatives, a professor of architecture, a designated environmental advocate and a council member. Over the past three years the developers and one realtor — who represent such local heavy hitters as the Starmount Co., Koury Corp., Brown Investment Properties and Samet Corp., alongside the Maryland based redevelopment company Mid-City Urban LLC, Charlotte-based McAlpine Co. and realtor Yost & Little — have held fast, as have the lawyers and SunTrust Bank’s Todd Rangel. Palmer McIntyre, a former executive director at the Piedmont Land Trust, dropped out because the group met at an inconvenient time. One neighborhood representative stopped coming. Another, Goldie Wells, got elected to council, and replaced the former council liaison, Tom Phillips. Holding out as the three non corporate committee members were Rotruck; David Wharton, a professor of the classics at UNCG and neighborhood representative; and Bob Powell, who teaches architecture at NC A&T University. More than half of the remaining members are employed by companies with membership in the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, also known as TREBIC. Brown Investment Properties, Koury Corp., Samet Corp. and Starmount Co. are Gold Members, while McAlpine Co., Tuggle Duggins law firm, Sparrow Wolf & Dennis law firm and Brooks Pierce law firm hold Silver memberships, and Yost & Little ranks in the coalition’s Bronze category. The developers have showed up for meetings more consistently than their non-industry counterparts. This year, only one member has achieved perfect attendance: Gary Hill, head of the McAlpine Co.’s Greensboro and Raleigh divisions. The representatives of Brown Investment Properties, Koury Corp. and Samet Corp. have made six out of seven meetings. Wharton has attended four and Rotruck, two. Wells, the council liaison, has attended only one, as has Powell. Wells, who received six $100 contributions from employees of Koury Corp. in her last election, joined the committee as a leader of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro. As a council member with roots in neighborhood activism, she has long advocated adding a requirement to the city code to make it mandatory for developers to meet with neighbors before applying for zoning amendments, Comprehensive Plan amendments or special use permits. “I don’t know what we finally decided,” Wells said recently. “I don’t know whether that stayed that way or not. That should be required. People who are really concerned will get involved, but you have people that are not that involved and they’ll show up at a council meeting at the last minute and complain that they haven’t been consulted when a developer wants to do something.” That the decision has been lost in the haze of memory comes as little surprise to those who have been involved in the rewrite. “It’s like going through War and Peace pageby page,” Rotruck said. Also, those without direct expertise indevelopment and real estate have not participated as actively as theirindustry peers. “The neighborhood congress was concerned thatyour ordinary people haven’t been represented well enough,” Wells said.“It started out with a lot of those people, but because people havegotten tired along the way you end up with people with a specialinterest. And they’re going to show up regardless.” Theproposal to require developers to meet with neighbors before applyingfor zoning changes is noted in unrevised minutes from September 2005.Wharton, the meeting notes indicate, “wanted to see neighborhoodconsultation included as part of the development process.” The revisedmeeting notes read: “Consider neighborhood consultation/notification aspart of some development processes.” The committee had amendedthe meeting notes two months later to change the wording from “require”to “consider” neighborhood consultation. The committeeaddressed the controversy head-on in February 2006, when meeting notesindicated that the pros and cons of the proposal were hashed out.Proponents such as Wells, Wharton, Rotruck and neighborhoodrepresentative Spoma Jovanovic faced off against the full complement ofdevelopers, but tabled the discussion until the next meeting when theyreached an impasse. The committee reconvened the next monthwith Wells absent. “After much discussion, the group came to aconsensus on allowing for a requirement for a ‘NeighborhoodCommunication,’” the meeting notes read. “The group asked staff todraft the final version of the wording based on the discussion and tobring it to the next meeting.” Nearly half the members wereabsent at the next meeting, including Wells, Jovanovic, Rotruck,McIntyre, Powell and Phillips. With the exception of David Wharton,what was left of the committee tilted heavily towards developmentinterests: Trip Brown of Brown Investment Properties, Dick Franks ofKoury Corp., James Cox of Mid-City Urban LLC, Keith Priceof Samet Corp., Todd Rangel of SunTrust Bank, Gary Rogers of StarmountCo., Mary Skenes of Yost & Little and Gary Wolf of Sparrow Wolf andDennis law firm. The committee approved language in the proposedNeighborhood Meeting Ordinance that merely states that an applicant isencouraged to hold a neighborhood meeting before seeking a zoningchange, amendment to the Comprehensive Plan or special use permit. “Wehad hoped that something substantial would come out of the LandDevelopment Ordinance rewrite,” said Donna Newton, advisor to theGreensboro Neighborhood Congress. “We had known that it waspretty watered down. I just had a discussion with Goldie about this. Ithink you can expect to hear from the congress at the public hearing… Ihaven’t given up. Just because the language is weak in the LandDevelopment Ordinance I don’t think this is the end of the road.”Developers represented on the citizen advisory group and otheremployees at their companies have poured a rather modest $27,333 intothe campaign coffers of Greensboro city council members over the past decade, a YES! Weekly investigationfound. The top recipient was Don Vaughan, who lost his reelection bidto council in 2005. More than half of Vaughan’s cash came fromcontributions made to his campaign committee for a run for state Senatethis year, including a $500 check from committee member Michael S. Foxof Tuggle Duggins law firm, and seven $100 checks from employees ofKoury Corp. Second to Vaughan was District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny,who was elected last year, with $4,100. Behind Matheny came YvonneJohnson, a veteran councilmember elected mayor in 2007, with $2,650. “Weoppose a mandatory meeting requirement although we encourage everybodyto do exactly that,” said Marlene Sanford, executive director ofTREBIC. “We have a written standard of practice that addresses that.When you take that best practice and try to turn it into a regulatoryrequirement the details get devilish. For instance, there’s always aquestion of with whom do you meet. Is it just the people who areadjacent to the project or does it go beyond that?” Sanford and TripBrown of Brown Investment Properties both said the requirement isunneeded because most developers consult with neighbors anyway. Brownsaid he would personally be opposed to any compromise with Wells andthe neighborhood congress on the proposed requirement. “Itadds bureaucracy, and bureaucracy costs money to run,” Brown said.“Bureaucracy, once it’s in place, is difficult to change, if needed. Ithas a way of not only perpetuating itself but growing. From a practicalstandpoint, anyone who is interested in getting their zoning passed isgoing to do it anyway. One of the first questions the councilasks is, ‘How much have you consulted with the neighbors?’ If youranswer is a big fat Zip code, you’re going to be paddling upstream withnot a lot of water.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.