Popular call to restore protest petition will check area developers

by Jordan Green

Legislation to repeal a 1971 act that exempted Greensboro from the protest petition looks set to sail through the General Assembly this session, with a lone holdout in the NC House side pledging support after hearing a recommendation from the Greensboro City Council.

Rep. Earl Jones, the new chairman of the Guilford County delegation, said earlier this month: “I plan to support the position of the city council, and that’s to reinstate the protest petition.” He added that the conspicuous absence of his signature on the bill was explained by his wish to hear the Greensboro City Council’s recommendation before moving forward. Council members met with the legislative delegation on Feb. 6. The protest petition did not come up as an item of discussion, but lawmakers received a document enumerating the city’s legislative requests, including one noting that the city wished to see the 1971 local act repealed. (City leaders instead discussed the Jordan Lake rules, a matter rating more urgency; they want the General Assembly to weaken proposed rules to reduce the nitrogen load in Jordan Lake, to reduce the cost to the city.) The city council had previously voted to request the restoration of the protest petition but tasked the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, with negotiating new thresholds for the percentage of adjacent property owners needed to trigger the protest petition and for a new supermajority percentage needed to approve a rezoning request. The neighborhood congress recently ended its negotiations with TREBIC, voting on Feb. 12 to support restoration of the protest petition, as it currently exists in state law. Sen. Don Vaughan and Rep. Maggie Jeffus had made it clear before the city council requested that the neighborhood congress and TREBIC negotiate new thresholds that they would not support tailoring a new local law for Greensboro. “When it comes to the floor… I will be standing up, not as a sponsor, but as the head of the delegation, saying, ‘Yes’ — especially if there is a controversy — saying, ‘Yes,’ that we support this legislation,” Jones said. “That’s part of my role, if there’s a controversy. It’s my role to make sure we navigate the system.” Guilford lawmakers have expressed hope that the repeal of the 1971 local law can be completed before the General Assembly gets mired in what are expected to be difficult budget negotiations. Sen. Don Vaughan, a cosponsor of the Senate protest petition bill, said in his Feb. 9 newsletter: “I look forward to swift passage.” Guilford County lawmakers in the House also said they expected the legislation to face no obstacles. “The only problem would be if the developer community launched a big fight, and I haven’t seen that they are,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a sponsor. Some lawmakers said they thought the Triad developer community had been strangely silent on the matter since the General Assembly reconvened in late January. In contrast, they were bombarded with e-mails and face-to-face lobbying visits last spring, after Harrison filed abill to restore the protest petition during the short session. E-mailsto members of the delegation have run almost two to one in favor ofmaintaining Greensboro’s exemption from the protest petition over thepast year. TREBIC led the charge to fend off the protest petition, withmany of its members sending personal e-mails or using a form letterdrawn up by the organization to lobby lawmakers. Employees ofcompanies with membership in TREBIC gave at least $26,838 to thecampaigns of the delegation’s 10 members last year. Some like builderDwight D. Stone and Lee M. Porter of Birch Properties also lobbied thedelegation. One contributor, Michael S. Fox, argued a rezoning case before the Greensboro City Council last year, and urged members of the delegation to not restore the protest petition. Membersof the legislative delegation received e-mails opposing the protestpetition from a number of individuals who requested zoning changes orargued cases on developers’ behalf before the city council last year,including Charles Melvin Jr. of Smith Moore law firm; Michael S. Fox ofTuggle Duggins and Meschan, who chairs the Greensboro Planning Board;Derek Allen of Brooks Pierce law firm; Frank Forde of Mega Builders;and Scott Wallace of the Keystone Group. Richard Beard Jr. ofSimpson Schulman & Beard commercial real estate brokerage, likeother TREBIC members, used alarmist language in an e-mail to lawmakers. “At a time when there is debate on excessive sprawl and ourcities [are] struggling to meet their financial obligations to thetaxpayer, such legislation would be devastating to Greensboro,” hewrote last May. “While I support the process of current rezoning lawsand giving the citizens the right to speak on the matter, giving such asmall number of folks the ability to stalemate the process will leadgood growth and increased tax base to other communities. Having such afew people that are emotionally charged with little fact to back uptheir arguments impact rezoning decisions is not fair to the process.” Despitethe clout of real-estate and development interests, a groundswell ofsupport among citizens represented by the ad hoc Coalition of ConcernedCitizens, the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and the League of WomenVoters of the Piedmont Triad for restoring the protest petition hasmade it politically risky for state lawmakers to do otherwise. Thethreat was summed up in an e-mail to Rep. Maggie Jeffus fromconstituent Mary Eubanks last spring expressing dismay at thedelegation’s decision to not pursue legislation in the short session. “Isthe entire delegation being funded by realestate donations?” Eubanksasked. “Citizens do vote and do outnumber those in real estate. Maybethe funding isn’t as much, but the power is in the hands of the voter.I fervently hope that protest over this recent act of flagrantdisregard for the rights of citizens causes an awakening.” Inlate January, before the city council voted to request the restorationof the protest petition and before lawmakers introduced bills to repealthe 1971 local act without modifying the existing state statute, TREBICwas preparing to mobilize its forces. “Because the members ofour industry are in survival mode right now — expending all ourenergies trying to keep their doors open and the jobs they provideintact — you have not yet begun to hear from them,” TREBIC PresidentMarlene Sanford wrote in a Jan. 21 e-mail to the delegation.

‘Isthe entire delegation being funded by realestate donations? Citizens dovote and do outnumber those in real estate. Maybe the funding isn’t asmuch, but the power is in the hands of the voter. I fervently hope thatprotest over this recent act of flagrant disregard for the rights ofcitizens causes an awakening.’ — Constituent Mary Eubanks, in e-mail toNC Rep. Maggie Jeffus