Six years ago, the state legislature returned long-denied strength to Greensboro residents: the protest petition.
Greensboro had been quietly exempted from the state's protest petition law in 1971. A push to remove the exemption, supported by the City Council, was quickly approved in Raleigh.
That was a different crowd running things in the state capital. Today, the protest petition law itself is in dire straits. It's called by critics anachronistic, anti-democratic and a roadblock to development.
The law lets neighbors of proposed rezonings object through a petition process. If they are successful, their opposition can be overridden only by a three-fourths vote of the City Council.
That gives them a lot of clout. Critics say it violates the principle of majority rule. In that regard, the provision isn't unique. The legislature has to muster a super-majority to override a governor's veto, for example.
It's true that there's a low bar for achieving a protest petition under current law. The petition is valid if it's signed by the owners of just 20 percent of the property in the area or owners of 5 percent of a buffer area surrounding the property proposed for rezoning.
Those numbers should be subject to negotiation. In fact, Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Wake) offered substantial concessions in an amendment she proposed on the House floor Tuesday. Owners of two-thirds of the neighboring property would have to sign petitions, and only a two-thirds vote of a City Council would be needed to approve the rezoning. The amendment was rejected, and the House went on to vote to kill the protest petition provision.
Developers oppose protest petitions, and they prevailed in the House. They say the measure gives too much power to a few neighbors of proposed development. Yet, those neighbors have a vested interest in how nearby property is used. A detrimental rezoning can adversely affect their property values, no small concern when a home may be a family's most important asset. Their quality of life can be impacted by an unwanted development. Furthermore, developers can have an outsized influence of their own with a City Council — or legislature — by making large campaign contributions or threatening to back opposing candidates.
The fact that protest petition power has existed in state law for more than 90 years without slowing growth and development too much speaks to its moderate influence. More often than not, neighbors and developers can agree on changes that satisfy everyone. Hopeful developers of the Hobbs-Friendly site in Greensboro have made significant revisions of their plans because of opposition from neighbors. But the spirit of compromise is encouraged by the existence of a tool residents can use if they have to.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where Republicans generally support developers but should be troubled by leaving ordinary property owners with few options. A better course than repealing the protest petition provision is adopting the Avila amendment, which creates at least a balance of power.