N.C. Senate gives initial OK to bill repealing protest petitions | News

N.C. Senate gives initial OK to bill repealing protest petitions

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Shine up your pitchforks, North Carolina citizens; they’re likely the only tool you’ll have left in fighting unwanted developments in your neighborhoods.

The state Senate voted 39-9 in favor of a bill to repeal zoning protest petitions Wednesday afternoon, after the bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on short notice Tuesday.

“This bill in no way eliminates a citizen’s right to protest,” said Sen. Andy Wells, R-Alexander and Catawba, a supporter of the bill on the Senate floor.

Actually, that is exactly what it does.

While citizens can still submit comments to their municipal governing bodies against a proposed rezoning (like they could before, because free speech), they would no longer have any formal bargaining power with their local leaders and deep-pocketed developers if this bill becomes law. That's exactly what the state’s real estate development community—groups like the North Carolina Homebuilders Association, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association and the Apartment Association—has been angling for.  

“Opponents of protest petitions have set this bill up as a David vs. Goliath battle of struggling business owners up against well-organized, well-informed activists aided by a mountain of archaic rules and admissible bureaucrats,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham. “In reality those roles are reversed. Protest petitions level the playing field between ordinary citizens trying to protect their homes and small business owners trying to protect their places of business.”

After he reiterated how seldom protest petitions are actually used in rezoning cases—they are filed 6 percent of the time, according to a UNC School of Government study— Woodard introduced an amendment that lowered the threshold of votes needed on a city or town council to pass a rezoning, and increased the threshold of neighbors who could sign on to a protest petition.

Wells argued that, in his experience, protest petitions are used “most extensively” against affordable housing developments, but didn’t elaborate or offer examples.

“Protest petitions puts power in the hands of unelected officials to change the threshold of a vote count,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-New Hanover. “That private individual, there’s no judicial review. They could be doing it for any purpose. An illegal purpose, an unethical purposes, a purpose against public policy, a racially motivated purpose.”

The Woodard amendment failed. The bill will be up for a final vote in the Senate tomorrow, then heads to the Governor’s desk.

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