Protest petition quietly put to death amidst sweeping GOP changes

by Jordan Green

Barring an act of God or some other extraordinary event, the protest petition is dead across the state of North Carolina.

The provision, which has been part of state law since the 1920s, gave neighboring property owners the ability to petition against a rezoning request that undermined the values of area properties or destabilized the community. If neighbors met a required threshold, approval by a city council would require a supermajority vote of 75 percent.

The protest petition could be used by neighbors to prevent a developer from building three-story apartments next to a community of single-family homes. It put the brakes on controversial rezoning requests; in most cases, rezonings receive unanimous or near unanimous approval when council members see a clear economic-development benefit and minimal disruption to existing neighborhoods. Rarely, if ever, were rezoning requests subject to the protest petition turned down outright; typically developers modified their proposals to obtain at least grudging support from the neighbors.

The repeal was tucked into a laundry-list bill entitled “an act to improve and streamline the regulatory process in order to stimulate job creation, to eliminate unnecessary regulation, and to make various other statutory changes.” The repeal provision was tucked into the omnibus bill without notice and did not receive a hearing in committee, according to Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). No city council members or developers were asked to give input. No expert testimony was taken from professors at the UNC School of Government. There was some debate before the floor vote, but only after members had undergone a bruising battle over sweeping restrictions on access to abortion.

If you think that a governor who is a former Duke Energy executive is going to veto a so-called regulatory reform bill after agreeing to sign a bill restricting women’s access to abortion when he made a campaign promise to not do anything to further restrict women’s access to abortion, you are a person possessed of a great and pitiable faith.

The protest petition is a middle-of-the-road issue, pitting middle-class neighborhoods against developers and balancing property rights on both sides.

It doesn’t raise the social temperature anywhere near the red-hot level inspired by efforts to curtail women’s reproductive rights. It doesn’t provoke the class-war antagonism engendered by the Republican leadership’s spiteful cutoff of unemployment benefits, rejection of federal Medicaid funds to help the poor or proposed sales-tax hikes on the poor to finance relief for the rich. In short, the death of the protest petition is barely a blip in a week when the New York Times editorial board slammed our state government as “a demolition derby, tearing down years of progress in public education, tax policy, racial equality in the courtroom and access to the ballot.”

Residents in many cities across North Carolina might have taken the protest petition for granted, but not in Greensboro.

The city was mysteriously exempted from the statute in 1971. When a politically connected developer proposed an intrusive apartment building project on West Friendly Avenue in early 2008, citizens suddenly realized what they had been denied, although nobody could remember why it had been lost. A citizens movement led by Keith Brown — ironically, a High Point resident — and investigative reporting in this publication set the stage for restoration.

Developers, represented by the Triad Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, fought hard against the change, and the Greensboro City Council — its members’ campaign accounts flush with real estate money — stalled by tasking TREBIC and the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress with studying the matter and recommending tweaks. But state lawmakers in the Guilford County delegation, led by Harrison, along with fellows Democrats Rep. Maggie Jeffus and Sen. Don Vaughan, made it clear they had no intention of waiting for a resolution from city council. (Jeffus and Vaughan, incidentally, lost their seats in 2011, victim of Republican-led redistricting.)

So it was no surprise last week that the effort to save the protest petition was led by two Democratic survivors from the Guilford County delegation.

Harrison filed an amendment to strike the repeal section from the bill. And Rep. Alma Adams, after making a spirited argument against the abortion bill, pleaded for mercy on the protest petition.

“It gives citizens an opportunity to have a voice,” she said. “We have a voice here; they should have a voice back home.”

Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican, opposed the amendment. But Rep. Charles Jeter, a fellow Republican and former a member of the Huntersville Town Council, took the opposing position. “It was not an onerous obstacle because typically they were 5-0 [votes] anyway unless [the requests] were controversial,” Jeter said. “It was effectively used in Huntersville.”

Rep. William Brawley, a commercial real estate broker from Matthews, argued that the protest petition is no longer needed because zoning regulations are more stringent and citizen input is more robust now than in the 1920s.

“It’s frequently used as a tool to get lots of concessions and run up costs,” he said, “but I don’t know that it any longer contributes to the health and safety of the people.”

Amidst the rest of the wreckage left behind by the General Assembly when this session ends, it’s doubtful many citizens will remember that the protest petition was also trashed. But in 20 years residents will wonder how developers have gotten away with cramming so many incompatible projects into neighborhoods. And someone with a long memory will remember: Oh yeah, didn’t we used to have something called a “protest petition”?