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Bill Would Eliminate Homeowners' Right To ‘Protest Petition’ Land Development Next Door

Members of the North Carolina House of Representatives are scheduled to vote Monday night on a contentious bill that would curtail home owners’ ability to block certain type of construction in their neighborhood.

Under the proposal, lawmakers would eliminate from state law “protest petitions,” a nearly century-old procedure that property owners can use to force a three-fourths vote from their city council to change the zoning classification of an adjoining property.

The measure pits the interests of real estate and land-development groups—who want to make it easier to change the designated use of certain types of land—against many city and town government leaders—who want to keep some form of protest petitions. Similar efforts failed in the General Assembly in 2014 and 2013.

“Thomas Jefferson defined democracy as majority vote,” said Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake), lead sponsor of the bill. “You have to have a really, really good reason to require something other than a majority vote, like changing the constitution because that affects people’s fundamental rights.”

Home owners such as Michi Vojta have used protest petitions to block certain types of developments on property adjacent to theirs. In 2013, Vojta and a group of her neighbors in Northeast Raleigh filed a protest petition against a 24-hour Sheetz at the intersection of New Hope and Buffaloe roads. They were worried the gas station would worsen traffic, erode the character of their neighborhood and depreciate their property value, Vojta said.

“The protest petition helped us not only come together a bit more,” Vojta said, “but it also helped people believe in the process a bit more, the governmental process.”

The measure—House Bill 201—got its first approval on Thursday in the House Local Government Committee, after committee chair Rep. Carl Ford (R-Rowan) ignored an apparently favorable committee vote for an amendment. When Ford called for a “voice vote” for the amendment, those in favor appeared louder than those against, but Ford ruled that the amendment failed.

Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, turned to reporters after the meeting and joked that he was going to get his hearing checked.

The failed amendment, brought by Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) and supported by the North Carolina League of Municipalities, would have kept protest petitions but increased the percentage of adjoining property owners that would have to object to a rezoning. It also would have decreased the required city council vote when protests are filed to two-thirds from three-quarters.

Correction 2:05 p.m. March 3, 2015: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Raleigh resident Michi Vojta as Michi Njeri. 

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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