Jan. 21 City Council

by YES! Staff

A state law enacted in 1923 enabled citizens of North Carolina to challenge zoning laws in their neighborhoods by way of a protest petition — if 5 percent of affected neighbors signed on, the governing body would then need a 75-percent supermajority to approve the zoning change.

The city of Greensboro became the only municipality in North Carolina unable to challenge zoning changes with a protest petition in 1971, an exemption enacted by the General Assembly at the behest of Greensboro City Council. Now some citizens of Greensboro want their right to protest back, including the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, and city council will vote on the issue at its Jan. 21 meeting. Of the forces aligned against reinstating the protest petition, the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition stands the tallest, representing real estate, construction, development and finance interests. It has begun a campaign, distributed in a memo to its members and the Guilford Delegation of the NC House of Representatives, with two major talking points: “If we have to allow Protest Petitions because ‘everybody else does,’ then we also have to outlaw… any other unique programs.” And: “Protest petitions were ‘born’ in the early 1900s because getting information to the public was difficult. Now, nearly 100 years later we’re in the ‘information age’ and the problem no longer exists.” The first is a textbook example of a fallacious rhetorical device. But the second assertion actually carries some weight — no, we’re not arguing that protest petitions are unnecessary because we all have computers now and instantly know everything. But this “information age” does allow us to find correlations between many sitting city council members and the real estate industry. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat owned a building company and has been a member of TREBIC. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins owns a real estate company and is a current member of TREBIC. At-large Councilman Mary Rakestraw is a former real estate agent who says she retired before being elected to council. District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny works for a real estate management and acquisitions firm. District 4 Councilman Mike Barber is a Greensboro attorney whose website reads: “Mike offers professional legal services for real estate closings, land zoning and planning, assistance with variances and government affairs.” This leaves three sitting council members and the mayor with no hard connections to the real estate industry in Greensboro. We count Rakestraw among those without conflicts of interest, because she got out of the real estate game upon her election. Groat, too, may not have a current conflict, though as a former member of TREBIC the appearance of one could be there. But Perkins, Matheny and Barber, who rely on the Greensboro real estate industry for part or all of their livelihoods, are clearly conflicted between the wishes of that industry’s most influential professional organization and the interests of Greensboro citizens who want a say in the way their neighborhoods are zoned. As such, they should recuse themselves from the vote.

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