Following the money: Zack Matheny

by Jordan Green

When the Greensboro Zoning Commission met on Sept. 10, Commissioner Zack Matheny, a financial consultant undertaking a bid for the District 3 city council seat, voted to approve a rezoning request by Alliance Commercial Investments to allow expanded retail in the State Street area.

On the same day, he voted for zoning changes to accommodate an office complex in the Country Park Acres neighborhood, to allow Holliday Apartments to build new student housing on South Chapman Street across from UNCG, to approve the Sebastian Village mixed-use complex near NC A&T University, and to up-zone a tract of land in a predominantly black area near the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and Interstate 85/40 from shopping center to heavy industrial to allow a concrete plant to relocate there.

Matheny had accepted a total of $3,050 from employees of Alliance Commercial Properties and Alliance Management – the business address filed with the NC Corporations Division for the two entities is identical to the one filed for Alliance Commercial Investments – in late June. He accepted a $250 contribution from John H. Stratton III, one of the developers involved in the Country Park Acres project in late July. And Matheny received a $500 check from developer Allen R. Sharpe, who is involved in both the Holliday Apartments and Sebastian Village projects.

Two of the rezoning cases were argued by lawyer Derek Allen, who gave Matheny $250 in June. The candidate also approved a request argued by lawyer Charlie Melvin, another $250 donor.

In three of the cases – the Lake Jeanette project, along with the requests made by Alliance Commercial Investments and Chandler Concrete – Matheny’s vote helped the majority override city staff’s recommendation for denial.

“I have never been swayed by any campaign contribution,” Matheny said, when asked about the zoning decisions. “I have never been swayed by knowing that a person asking for a zoning change is a friend.”

Matheny reported no campaign contributions from either the concrete company or residents opposed to the expansion of heavy industrial zoning in their neighborhood. Matheny said visiting the concrete company’s current location off of Battleground Road persuaded him that residents’ concerns about dust, noise and traffic were unfounded.

“If you go out to eat at Lucky 32 [near the Battleground location] you don’t hear the noise that you think you would,” he said. “The trucks will not go down to the neighborhood. If the neighbors are coming out to complain about traffic, Battleground on a traffic count is probably just as busy as [US Highway] 421 – probably more. It makes sense for the business. I think it won’t affect the neighborhood as much as they think it will.”

Matheny leads the pack for the city council race in campaign contributions, with $31,380 in total receipts for the reporting period that ended on Aug. 28. Matheny’s nearest competitor in District 3, Joe Wilson, reported $8,610. The top fundraiser in the at-large race was Sandra Anderson-Groat, a homebuilder who is completing her first term on council, with $29,548. Joel Landau and Marikay Abuzuaiter placed a distant second and third, respectively, in the at-large money race.

An analysis by YES! Weekly found that 41 percent of contributions valued at more than $100 to the Matheny campaign came from people employed in the real estate and development sectors, or in related fields such as lumber and mortgage lending. And 37 percent of the total cash raised in those large donations has come from individuals or companies that received favorable rezoning votes from Matheny. (The candidate countered that when donations of $100 or less – a total of $3,155 – and donations received after the most recent reporting period were counted, realtors and developers comprise only about a quarter of his roster of support.)

Campaign donors contacted for this story generally proved reluctant to discuss the significance of their support. One of them rejected the suggestion that his donation might have been made with the hope of receiving a favorable decision in a rezoning matter.

“Absolutely and unequivocally not,” said Robin Tyler, a principal with Alliance Commercial Properties, which owns the State Street Station and Lawndale Crossing shopping centers in Greensboro, among holdings from North Carolina down to Florida. “I do not do that. That is not the way I think.”

When reached by phone, Tyler confessed, “You’ve blindsided me.” Then he explained his support by saying, “I think Zack is young; I think he’s experienced. I think it’s good that we have people like him that are willing to step up and serve the community.”

Dwight Stone, a $500 donor whose company D. Stone Builders received a favorable decision in June to build town homes and condominiums on New Garden Road, said, “I don’t comment on anything from a political standpoint.”

Joe McKinney, a principal at Mega Builders – a Greensboro company that specializes in apartments, student housing, condominiums and town homes – seemed similarly taken aback. He ended a brief conversation by referring questions to partner Mike Winstead, who exercises decision-making power of his own over zoning matters as Guilford County commissioner. (State law requires elected officials to recuse themselves from votes on matters in which they have a direct financial stake.)

“I think they do a great job,” McKinney said, when asked to explain his support for Matheny. “Further than that I don’t really have any comment. The best thing to do is get Winstead.”

McKinney and Winstead each made $1,000 contributions to the Matheny campaign in early August. Almost three months earlier, Matheny had voted to approve a rezoning request by Mega Builders that allowed the company to build condominiums in the Lake Brandt area. Staff had recommended denial on the basis that the project would add more density than was appropriate for the area. The measure passed 7 to 2, with the majority overriding staff’s recommendation.

“I’m not closely aligned with anybody,” Matheny said. “Mike is an acquaintance. I voted for the development… because I thought it would be a good development.”

Matheny has also received campaign contributions from individuals whom he has voted against, and on at least one occasion Matheny cast a vote against a lawyer after accepting his campaign contribution.

Matheny voted in April 2006 to deny a rezoning request for a change from single-family homes to offices on New Garden Road. Mike Murray, the developer interested in the property, later wrote a check to the Matheny campaign for $250. The rezoning case came back to the zoning commission a year later with amendments to address some of the neighbors’ concerns and Matheny voted for approval after the proposal received the blessing of staff.

Similarly, Matheny voted against the multi-use project at Country Park Acres when it first came before the commission in May, denying developers Stanhope Johnson, John H. Stratton III and Robbie Perkins – Perkins is also a candidate for city council – permission to build a two-story residential and retail complex at the gateway to the neighborhood. Stratton later wrote a $250 check for Matheny’s campaign, and still later the commissioner cast a vote to approve his project.

“They came back with more conditions and a different layout,” Matheny said, explaining his turnaround. “It’s one story versus two. There’s not as much traffic coming through. It’s a totally different project. If you really go back and get the tape [of the May meeting], look at what I said to the neighbors. It’s just a matter of working together. Neighbors need to work with the developer. The developer needs to work with the neighbors. If we can all communicate, then this communication will help us move together in a very positive way.”

Matheny said his independence as a commissioner – and potentially as a city council member – is not compromised by friendships.

As an example, he noted that he voted against a rezoning at the site of the old Janus Movie Theater to allow a condominium-retail complex.

“At the time it was presented before us, I voted against it,” Matheny said. “I hated it, but it was the right thing to do. The developers of Huntington Place made the necessary changes and came back to us. It was slight. Hopefully, it will get done. It will be a great project. Those are some of my closest friends.”

Scrutinizing his votes on matters affecting campaign contributors risks missing the big picture, the candidate suggested, because developers want economic development and a broadened tax base, not just approval for projects.

“The money is saying that Zack is unbiased,” Matheny said. “It expresses that I am the best candidate that looks at each case on an individual basis. I’m not swayed by money or friends or anything.

“These developers and others who are not developers who have given me money are also wanting our elected officials to bring in jobs and economic development,” he continued, “so there will be people with money to buy houses and condos and spend money on retail.”

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