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A Warehouse District workaround

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If the residents of Raleigh's Warehouse District will have to look out their windows at a 20-story tower where the Dillon Supply Co. building now sits, they want to make damn sure that the development is at least done well. They want shops, offices and apartments at ground level, not parking decks; they want buildings stepped back from the street to encourage people to walk; they want the Dillon Supply sign preserved, not destroyed. That is, in their view, the least the city could do: After all, any building on that property is, according to current rules, only supposed to be as high as 12 stories.

But more than that, they want their voices to be heard, and they are miffed at what they've perceived as the city's Planning Commission shutting them out.

Last week Pamela Chestek sent a letter to the Planning Commission and members of the City Council. In it she argued that she and her fellow Warehouse District residents had not been given notice of their opportunity to speak on the proposal before the Planning Commission, which in late May unanimously voted to override the city's comprehensive plan and recommend that Council approve the rezoning. The commission cited a need for higher density around transit hubs—which, when Union Station opens in 2017, the Warehouse District will become.

According to Chestek, the city initially announced a public hearing for March. A sign was posted on the property, and residents who live within 100 feet of the property were notified by mail.

When Chestek and five other stakeholders arrived, however, they were told by commission chair Steve Schuster that the hearing had been deferred. Developer John Kane wasn't there. Schuster offered them the chance to speak during the public-comment portion of the meeting, but they decided to wait until the proposal was on the commission's agenda. They assumed they'd be notified when that happened. They were wrong.

The hearing was rescheduled for May 12, but no notices went out to residents and no signs were posted on the property. Chestek says she and her neighbors were unaware that the zoning case was being considered that day.

While Kane's attorney, Michael Birch, gave an overview of the case that day, no one from the public showed up to speak. The commission delayed its vote until May 26, when the rezoning passed unanimously.

The neighbors weren't told about that meeting either. Chestek says she found out about the vote on Twitter, after the fact.

The city's Unified Development Ordinance states quite clearly that, within 45 days of submission of a rezoning proposal, the Planning Commission "shall hold a public meeting on the proposed amendment which shall be noticed" by mail, a posted sign on the property and a notice on the city's website. The commission did all of that the first time, in March—for a meeting that never happened.

It didn't do so for the May meetings, when presentations were made and votes were taken. The city argues that, the UDO aside, it didn't have to.

Raleigh planning and zoning administrator Travis Crane says Chestek is conflating the terms "public hearing" and "public meeting," and that while state law mandates that cities give notice for public hearings, hearings for rezoning cases are held at City Council and not necessarily at the advisory level of the Planning Commission. The city's UDO "goes above and beyond" what state law requires, Crane says, by "adding an additional layer of notification" in advance of the initial Planning Commission meeting.

"Our philosophy is, when we have a public meeting we provide notice," Crane says. "The Planning Commission does a review process, which can take weeks and months. Rather than re-notice every Planning Commission meeting where a rezoning case may be discussed, we depend on the public to use the digital tools we have in place."

For Chestek, however, the city's passivity comes across as a lack of transparency. She questions whether the city actually wants citizen input or whether it prefers to give developers whatever they want. She argues that since she and other stakeholders weren't aware that another hearing had been scheduled, the Planning Commission vote should be rescinded and another public meeting scheduled to give the community "a fair opportunity to provide comments on the proposed rezoning."

"Do not take the absence of any neighbors at the public hearing as agreement with the rezoning," Chestek wrote.

She'll get a chance to air her concerns before Council on July 7.

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