Senate bill would retain protest petitions

Jul. 20, 2013 @ 01:12 PM

State senators have put forward a “regulatory reform” bill that, in contrast to the one proposed by the N.C. House, would preserve the rights that property owners have to formally protest a rezoning.

The wide-ranging measure, approved Friday by the Senate on a 26-7 vote, omits language suggested by the House that would repeal protest-petition rights that have been in place since 1923.

The House included the repeal proposal in a competing regulatory-reform package it approved on July 11.

N.C. League of Municipalities officials said legislators from the two chambers will confer over the weekend to reconcile the two bills, which affect an variety of environmental and land-use issues.

The House’s move targets measures that allow the owner of a property set for rezoning or the parcel’s immediate neighbors to petition against a rezoning.

Once certified, the petition in turn requires a rezoning’s advocates to muster a three-fourths supermajority on whatever local-government board considers it before the rezoning can become law.

The petition process is most commonly used by neighbors of prospective development who either oppose it or want the project’s sponsors to make significant changes to it.

In the city of Durham, a successful protest petition means a zoning needs six of the seven available votes on the City Council to pass, rather than the usual four-vote majority.

Repeal supporters in the House argued that protest petitions are antiquated. They admitted an intent to reduce the bargaining power of neighborhood groups in zoning fights.

Durham neighborhood activist Tom Miller has been trying to orchestrate a statewide email campaign against the change.

In North Carolina, protest-petition rights “are as old as zoning itself” and were integral to the “original balance of competing interests [built] into the zoning process,” he told fellow activists on Friday.

Without recourse to petitions, he said, “ordinary people, the very people whose interests in their homes are meant to be protected by zoning rules, will lose their only leverage in a process that is often stacked against them.”

In addition to retaining protest petitions, the Senate package also stopped short of embracing a House proposal to tell local governments they can’t adopt environmental rules that are stricter than those set by the state and federal governments.

Senators on that front instead suggested a legislative study of the issue, one that in theory could produce a new bill for the 2014 session of the General Assembly.

League of Municipalities and local-government officials have argued the House’s regulatory “preemption” language could have widespread fallout.

Durham city/county planners have, for instance, said it could force a relaxation of existing development controls in the Little River and Lake Michie watersheds.

Both the House and Senate packages, however, include language that state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, on Friday said could torpedo the “liveable wage” ordinance that applies to contractors doing business with the city of Durham.

City Council members since 1998 have required contractors to pay people working on city projects a wage that in theory is sufficient over a 40-hour work week to support a family of four.

The Durham “liveable wage” is higher than the federal minimum. For 2013, it’s $11.91 an hour, city clerks say.

But the competing House and Senate regulatory packages contain identical language barring cities and counties from requiring government contractors to “abide by any restriction” that doesn’t apply to employers across the board, including “paying minimum wage or providing paid sick leave.”

Left unsaid in both packages is that local governments have little power under state law to pass laws that affect working conditions across the board.

McKissick questioned the provision during Friday’s Senate floor debate. The Senate bill’s floor manager, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, answered. “What is a reasonable living wage is prone to interpretation at best,” Jackson said.

McKissick joined Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, D-Orange, in the ranks of the dissenters. Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, was among 16 senators who missed the unusual Friday session.