by Jordan Green

Protest petition proponents prepare

Proponents of the protest petition in Greensboro enjoy a broad platform of grassroots support with formal resolutions of support from the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad as the city council considers a proposal to request legislative action to restore the provision, but economic storm clouds and professional interests may prompt some elected officials to buck public opinion and vote against it. The Greensboro City Council voted on Dec. 2 to put off deciding whether to include a request to restore the protest petition in its legislative agenda until Jan. 21, after Mayor Yvonne Johnson was deluged by phone calls from constituents concerned that the council would take a vote without hearing public input. A North Carolina statute, the protest petition provides that if owners of 5 percent of the adjacent property register opposition to a rezoning request, a city council is required to muster a 75-percent supermajority to approve the change. The NC General Assembly voted to exempt Greensboro from the statute in 1971, at the request of the city council. “They’ve been stalling this for over a year now,” said Keith Brown, a High Point activist who launched the effort to restore the protest petition. “We brought this back up in February, and I reckon they thought this was going to die. Our coalition said, ‘We’re not going to let this thing die.’ We’re going to keep this going until we see a resolution for the people of Greensboro.” The initiative to restore the protest petition has gained widespread support since Brown began prodding journalists and bloggers to look into it almost a year ago. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, which represents about 45 neighborhoods and 16,000 residences, voted unanimously last year to support reinstatement. “Our position is that this is a right and recourse that has been taken from the residents of Greensboro,” said Donna Newton, advisor to the congress, “while the whole rest of the state continues to have the right. And we want it reinstated.” Newton said the congress plans to launch a letter-writing campaign and mobilize members to speak before city council on Jan. 21. She added that she was concerned about whether supporters of the protest petition will be able to muster the required five-vote majority to pass the resolution. Should the council vote down the protest petition, the NC General Assembly can still pass legislation to restore it without a formal request from council. NC Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, has promised to introduce such legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes later this month. The protest petition has also received formal support from the 112-member League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad. The league has scheduled a lunchtime forum on the protest petition featuring UNC-Chapel Hill professor David Owens, an expert on land use and local government, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Jan. 13. League President Whitney Vanderwerff said the purpose of the purpose of the forum is to “rally support and increase understanding of the protest petition.” Mayor Yvonne Johnson and at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw said they have recently heard from the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, which supports maintaining Greensboro’s exemption from the protest petition. President Marlene Sanford, whose organization provides government advocacy to Guilford County trade associations and businesses, said members feel “very strongly” about preventing the restoration of the protest petition. “It’s an antiquated policy and it needs to be done away with statewide,” she said, “especially in this day and age with a push for smart-growth development and infill that everybody says they support until it’s right next to them.” Sanford said she members of council know TREBIC’s position on the issue, but gave no specifics about how her organization’s members, many of whom are faithful contributors to sitting council members and other elected officials, would mobilize to oppose it.

“We’re against it because it’s really poor public policy,” Sanford said. “The notion that only five percent of your neighbors could throw you intosuch a major requirement is so absured. You can change the Constitutionof the United Stateswith a smaller majority than that.”

Echoing TREBIC’s argument, at-largeCouncilman Robbie Perkins predicted the protest petition will fail togain the council’s support. “After looking at what’s on thebooks at the state, if I were voting on that particular piece oflegislation today, I couldn’t support it,” said Perkins, who ispresident of NAI Piedmont Triad, which advertises itself as the largest full-service, privately owned realestate services firm in the Triad. The company holds a “silver”membership in TREBIC. “The five-percent threshold forneighborhood opposition, that’s not a good standard,” Perkinscontinued. “The seventy-five percent voting requirement without anyinterpretation of the people who are going to be voting on the case ifpeople are absent or sick, that’s not a good standard. It’s anantiquated statute that’s been out of date for some time, so weshouldn’t jump on the bandwagon just because everyone else has.”

Perkins also alluded to the possibility that empowering citizens toblock zoning changes might scare away economic development — and byextension, job creation and tax revenue. “It’s not like Greensboro’sin a state of a boomtown,” he said, “and we don’t want folks to pass usby because we’re perceived as being antidevelopment.” Rakestraw,like Mayor Johnson and Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, said sheplans to listen carefully to both sides in the debate, but suggestedconstituents hold legitimate concerns about elected officials showingfavor to developers because of their professional vested interests. “Ido think it’s important that we let people know that we’re not justsitting out there because we’re all part of the real estate anddevelopment industry,” Rakestraw said. “Sandra was a builder. Iwas a broker and agent of Prudential. Robbie’s involved with realestate. [District 3 Councilman] Zack [Matheny] is now, I guess,employed by a property management company. “The public doesfeel there has been a conflict of interest in some of the votes thathave been taken,” she added. “I try to be very thoughtful in how I makemy votes and make decisions that are in the best interest of thecitizens. That’s all the citizens, whether it’s my friends in thebuilding and real estate industry or regular people.” Rakestrawsaid she decided to retire from selling real estate when she ran forcouncil in 2007 to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, andshe suggested that her colleagues might also consider choosing one orthe other. “I think they’re going to have to look long andhard at this,” she said. “After I saw how involved the city council wasgoing to be in zoning issues and I found out that I knew people on bothsides of the issue, I thought it was time for me to retire from realestate until I chose to get off the city council because I didn’t wantthere to be even the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Brown characterized the upcoming vote as a clear-cut choice between siding with ordinary constituents and special interests. “Ifthey want to be for the citizens, that’s fine,” he said. “If they wantto be for special interests, take your pick. Why is TREBIC fighting ustooth and nail on this? It’s because they’ve had the upper hand onrezoning matters.” Brown suggested that Greensboro votersmight remember council members who vote against restoring the protestpetition in the November municipal election. “This could be a wedge issue, if they don’t,” he said.