Protest petition: Company politics in Greensboro

by Jordan Green

The mysterious disappearance of the protest petition from Greensboro’s legal code in 1971 transpired without political record. Then-City Attorney Jesse “Skip” Warren drew up the city’s legislative agenda in 1970, and took responsibility for the action in a Jan. 21 memo to the current council. “As former city attorney with the city of Greensboro for approximately forty one years, I have always felt that NCGS 160A-385 et seq (Protest Petition Law) is arbitrary, capricious, impulsive, whimsical and unfair and should either be repealed, or else leave the city of Greensboro out from under it,” he wrote. “I own no property here except for my residence and have no business relationship with any developer or real estate firm. In other words, I have no conflict of interest.” More than three decades later, the political dynamic has shifted decisively. In the space of one year, a lone activist from High Point launched the cause of restoring the protest petition in Greensboro, and enlisted the support of the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, who in turn compelled the city council to request restoration of the provision. Guilford County’s legislative delegation has pledged swift passage of the legislation, ignoring vocal objections from the politically powerful real estate and development industry. Warren concluded his memo with a curt swipe at protest petition activist Keith Brown. “It is also noted that the leader of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens of the Triad has his residence in High Point,” he wrote. Warren said he objected to the threequarters supermajority required to approve any rezoning request subject to a valid protest petition that has been binding for every other municipality in the state since at least 1959. “In essence, this gave the veto power to any two members of the city council and places a higher standard of justification than it does on any other matters handled by city government,” Warren wrote. “Even though the present city council has expanded in number from seven to nine members, the same principal applies.” Warren added that the protest petition placed “an undue burden on both the city council and a property owner who desires to prove his case for rezoning,” knocking “the scales of justice… out of kilter.” There is no record of the exemption being discussed during formal city council meetings at the time that the elected body requested that Guilford County’s legislative delegation do away with the protest petition. Warren has said the request likely took place during one of its informal briefings, which are not typically recorded for posterity. The former city attorney and others active in city politics recall no seismic land development conflicts that might have swung sentiments on council against the protest petition. Charles Melvin Jr., a lawyer with Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm who argued rezoning cases before the council in the late 1960s and continues to do so now, said he recalled coming up against the protest petition only a few times. He cited two peculiarities in Greensboro’s code of ordinance as having “the most potential plausibility” for explaining why the city lost the protest petition, but claimed to have no definitive answer. He suggested one possible reason was that Greensboro has an initiative petition that allows for a referendum to change a city ordinance if a petitioner gathers a number of signatures equal to 25 percent of the voters that participated in the last preceding municipal election. Melvin said Greensboro’s charter also requires that rezoning requests receive a two-thirds majority vote by council, or come back before council a second time. “For any zoning to be passed now you have to have a two-thirds vote of the council to pass a rezoning at the first time it’s heard,” Melvin said, “and the charter does provide that if you get a majority but not two thirds, it can come back to a second hearing and it will passed by a simple majority on the second hearing.” The protest petition was used frequently and effectively in Greensboro in 1970, the year council requested that it be phased out, but the only mention of legislative changes found in city council minutes references streamlining rezoning requests for property that straddled city and county jurisdictions. When lawyer Forrest Campbell requested a rezoning on Meadowview Road from residential to industrial in March 1970, he noted that concerns that had initially prompted neighbors to file a protest petition had been resolved. Campbell noted that his clients were required to obtain zoning changes from both the city and the county. Minutes state that Mayor Jack Elam “advised Mr. Campbell that an effort’ would be made in 1971 to secure legislation thatwould take care of this dual zoning problem which comes up quitefrequently.”

The city recognized valid protest petitions in 13 rezoning cases in 1970. Neighbors opposed to redevelopment held an effective tool: In 8 out of 13 cases in which sufficient signatures weregathered to force councilto approve rezoning requests with 75-percent supermajority, the, requests were denied, although one case came back for a second hearing and was ultimately approved. In no case did arezoning request go down in defeat becausethe council failed to muster the required supermajority. With seven members on the council in 1971, six affirmative votes were required to meet the 75-percent threshold needed to approve a rezoning request subject to a valid protest petition. With nine members today, seven members must vote affirmatively to meet the supermajority requirement. Greensboro’s social temperature was on low boil in 1970, with the National Guard having put down an insurrection at NC A&T University the previous year, and with citizens outside of the traditional power center of northwest Greensboro agitating for district representation — a goal that would not be achieved until 1982. Greensboro was effectively run by the city’s business interests, and some local officials fretted about its legitimacy. City council minutes reflect that a sanitation strike was underway in the summer of 1970 — yet another cause of tension. The mayor in 1970, Jack Elam, earned his salary as corporate council for Cone Mills Corp., a powerful political force in Greensboro throughout the 20th century and a major landholder. Elam had to abstain twice in 1970 because of Cone Mills’ interest in rezoning matters. One case, denied by the zoning commission and appealed to the city council, saw Cone Mills and Brown Realty Co. prevail in their quest to rezone property on the east side of North Elm Street between Cornwallis Drive and Cone Boulevard to pursue a $5-million development. A protest petition had been filed, but was found insufficient. Had the protest petition come into play, the textile company and its real-estate partner would have needed six votes to get the rezoning. The mayor’s abstention meant one less vote. As it turned out, one council member voted against the rezoning, and it passed with only a simple majority of 5 to 1. Cone Mills’ real estate manager explained during the hearing that the company “would retain financial interest and operational control over this property, that the property will be developed by Brown Realty Company into luxury-type apartments.” Minutes read that “the mayor further advised that a petition in protest to this rezoning had been filed but had been found to be insufficient to require a threefourths vote for passage of the ordinance; that five affirmative votes would adopt the ordinance; and that he, being an officer of Cone Mills Corporation, owner of the property, would abstain from voting.” In the northeastern and southwestern quadrants of the city, which lacked effective representation in the early 1970s, residents sometimes opposed new apartment developments on grounds that the streets were underdeveloped, schools overcrowded and shopping opportunities scarce. City council minutes show that they often turned out in force to city council meetings, obtained legal representation and wielded the protest petition. In February 1970, lawyer Jerry Tart represented 65 residents whose signatures appeared on a validated protest petition in opposition to a rezoning request at a tract alongthe north side of Hilltop Road in southwestern Greensboro to buildapartments. Minutes quote Tart as saying “his clients were disturbedbecause of the overcrowded schools, limited shopping facilities andinadequate streets to handle this increased population in their area…that it might well be put into use for mobile homes rather thanapartments.” The council denied the rezoning request in a 5-2vote. Two years later, after the protest petition was taken away, asimilar rezoning request came before council to allow multi-familyhousing east of Martin Avenue. The applicant argued that apartmentcomplexes rather than singlefamily homes afforded the best access tothe property, and that single-family homes were not desirable oraffordable. Lawyer Larry Graham spoke for 140 residentsopposed to the rezoning. Minutes record that Graham asked the councilto “give the citizens in northeast Greensboro the same considerationthey would give the citizens in Starmount or Irving Park.” The resultswere exactly the opposite of the vote two years earlier: The rezoningpassed, 5 to 2. Among those voting in the minority were the new mayor,Jim Melvin, and one of council’s two African- American members, JimmieBarber. Then, as now, real estate interests in Greensboro wereneatly interwoven with the political establishment. NC Rep. MarcusShort, a member of the Guilford County delegation that shepherded locallegislation to exempt Greensboro from the protest petition tosuccessful enactment in the General Assembly, frequently arguedrezoning cases for property owners looking to sell to developers beforethe Greensboro City Council. Representinga client with property on Guilford-Jamestown Road with an option to theMobil oil company for a service station, Short came up against theprotest petition in March 1970. The council favored him unanimously,clearing the 75-percent supermajority requirement. The mostcontentious and messy rezoning case to come before council in 1970 mayhave been Urban Systems Development Corp.’s request for a rezoning tobuild low-income housing in the Woodmere Park area of northeastGreensboro. Some of the particulars of the case appear cloudy almost 40years later, but discussion at that council meeting in August 1970appears to have pivoted on a threat by the developer to buildmultifamily housing instead of single-family housing to recoup anearlier investment in the property. Minutes record Cecil Rouson, chairman of the Woodmere Park Improvement Association, as arguing that the schools were overcrowded and there were no recreational facilities for children in the neighborhood. MayorJack Elam had harsh words for Herbert Falk Jr., the lawyer arguingUrban Systems Development’s case. “At this point the mayor stated toMr. Falk that Urban Systems Development Corp. is backed byWestinghouse, a corporation that has plenty of money; that they cameinto this community and ‘loused up everything’; that he had never seena poorer job of preparing a neighborhood for multi-family housing; thatas a result of this the council met with the residents of the area andwhen it turned out the density was extremely high, the council made acommitment to build a $250,000 community center in the area,” minutesread. “The mayor reiterated his opinion that a commitment was made andUrban Systems is backing down on a commitment.” Following thepublic hearing, council denied the request in a split vote of 4 to 3.Then, in a curious move, minutes record Councilman Vance Chavis, one ofthe body’s African-American members, as moving that, “in order to givethe two sides of this question an opportunity to ‘get together,’ thecouncil reconsider the original zoning request.” The motionwas adopted, and Mayor Elam advised that the request would be heardagain the next month. When the council reconvened in September for anadjourned session, minutes record resident AC Bowling as telling thecouncil “that he felt that this was not a zoning matter, but a racialmatter, and that the situation in the area is very tense.” TheRev. James Miller, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Cross, toldcouncil that both the US Department of Housing and Urban Developmentand the Federal Housing Administration had said more low- andmoderate-income housing should not be built in the area, and thatwhatever happened in the future, it would be remembered that “wetried.” The original motion to approve the request by Urban Systems Development Corp. — rejected a month earlier — passed unanimously. WhenJim Melvin replaced Jack Elam as mayor eight months later, he spokedirectly to the citizens from the dais. The speech was short onspecifics, but subtly acknowledged the grievances of an array ofconstituencies resentful of entrenched power. “We didn’talways do what you wanted us to,” Melvin said, “but we did what wethought was right. And now what we have got to do is convey this to thepeople, that we are legitimate. Two years ago, I sought a seat on thiscouncil. One of the reasons I did was that I was pretty well convincedthat things weren’t like they ought to be. Now, having served on theother side, I can see what the problem is, and that we have got to,somehow or another, fight this war of communications to make peoplefeel that they are getting a fair shake.” The new mayorconcluded by proposing “that we do everything we possibly can tocapture some of the segments of our city that feel like they have beenleft out, southwest and northeast Greensboro, in particular.”