A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Citizens Engagement Task Force. During that meeting Raleigh’s Planning Director, Ken Bowers, made a presentation to the task force about rezoning requests. At one point someone asked him why people object to rezoning requests. His answer really resonated with me.
Ken said that there are two main objections that people have with rezonings: the impact on traffic and the impact on the character of an area.
For me the last part of this statement was a revelation. THE MAIN OBJECTION OF A REZONING IS THE IMPACT ON THE CHARACTER OF AN AREA. Even when it seems that the main objection is traffic, what people really object to is the change in character. Yet, it can be remarkably difficult for people (even those who object to a rezoning) to think of their concerns in terms of character. Here is why.
I have been involved with contentious rezoning requests where people walk away from public meetings with a gut wrenching feeling about what the proposed request is going to do their neighborhood. Inevitably, the word, “mitigation,” comes up. What is it about the rezoning that you don’t like? What is it that can be done to mitigate those impacts?
At subsequent meetings discussions ensue about traffic, lighting, noise, hours of operation, offensive odors, etc. One-by-one the impacts are mitigated. Don’t like the lighting? No problem, we will install parking lot lights that direct the light straight down. Concerned about dumpsters? No problem, we will ensure that the dumpsters are only emptied once a week at a that is convenient to you. Can’t stand the odor of hamburgers cooking? We have that covered by ensuring that our restaurants won’t have fryers or grills. Concerned about traffic? We can handle that too by widening the road and adding traffic lights.
One-by-one the checkboxes are ticked off and all the concerns are mitigated.
Pause a moment and think about this statement. One-by-one the checkboxes are ticked off and all the concerns are mitigated. Logic dictates that if all the concerns are mitigated, then the rezoning request should be approved.
What people often don’t realize is that there remains one checkbox that is frequently overlooked: the change to the character of an area. Yes, all the minutiae has been addressed. But in the end, growth and development is all about change. Sometimes the change to the character of an area is minor or at least acceptable – as long as the individual concerns have been mitigated.
In other cases, the change to the character of an area is so dramatic that people cannot accept it even though the individual concerns have been mitigated.
Ken Bowers distilled peoples’ concerns down to two issues: traffic and character. I distill those concerns even further to just character. Yes, we can widen roads, add turn lanes and traffic lights. In some case we can even do the dramatic like construct interchanges and fly overs. We can handle the traffic. But, despite all of our ability to “mitigate the impacts,” what gives people that gut wrenching feeling is that some rezoning requests and proposals for growth and development forever change the character of an area.
And forever changing the character of an area is something we should take seriously and not overlook simply because we have ticked off all the other checkboxes.
One of my interests in computer science (I have a Ph.D. in computer science) is 3D computer graphics. I think we should bring this technology to bear during rezoning cases. Raleigh is growing rapidly and being able to visualize the impacts of growth and development are essential for deciding how or if property should be rezoned.
Here is an example of state-of-the-art software for doing exactly this sort of visualization.
Raleigh recently adopted a new Code of Conduct to regulate the behavior of City Council Members.
I voted against the Code of Conduct. In fact, I was the lone dissenting vote.
In general I agree with much of what is in the document. There is language about treating others with respect and using the manners that most of us learn from an early age – like not interrupting when another person is speaking. In general, the parts of the Code of Conduct that address “how” we behave are fine.
Where I disagree are with parts of the Code of Conduct that discourage or prohibit “what” we can say in public and “with whom” we can associate with in public.
There is language in the code of conduct that discourages even the mere attendance at public meetings. For example, if constituents that I represent have a concern about a rezoning case, I am discouraged from attending a meeting of the Planning Commission to hear the arguments of the case – even if I were to simply sit quietly in the back of the auditorium only to listen.
When a Councilor does speak in public, the Code of Conduct admonishes, “Keep your political support and opinions away from public forums.”
However, it is OK to talk privately with people and express one’s views. For example, the practice of privately meeting with developers and their lobbyists about rezoning cases can continue unimpeded. In fact, some Councilors will call developers to advise them that they can or cannot vote for a rezoning. Sometimes you will hear that a developer has withdrawn a rezoning case. Very often that is because a Councilor has told the developer that he or she doesn’t have the votes.
Fundamentally, the parts of the Code of Conduct that limit with whom one can associate with and what one can say in public are the parts that I disagree with. They are fundamentally in conflict with the First Amendment that prevents government from abridging the right of free speech and the right to assemble in public.
In my opinion, these limitations should be removed from the Code of Conduct.
This is particularly true about rezoning cases. Developers have deep pockets and often the backing of third parties such as large corporations that want to build the next hotel, grocery store, or shopping center. They hire expensive attorneys to represent them and protect their interests. I have seen cases where developers have hired professional public relations firms and professional lobbyists. And these small armies come to the offices of the City Council to meet with Councilors and the Mayor to wage campaigns that can last for a year or more.
In contrast, you the homeowner, cannot afford to compete. Often, the only resource you have is me, your District Councilor, that you voted for to represent you.
And now, by the City’s Code of Conduct, representing you is the one thing I cannot do in public. I fundamentally disagree with these restrictions and that is largely why I voted against the Code of Conduct.
And, now for the disclaimer (as required by the Code of Conduct): “This is the opinion of the individual and not the opinion of the City of Raleigh.”
At Tuesday’s Council meeting I asked the City Manager to look into providing health insurance coverage for the treatment Autism for the children of City employees (such coverage is not now provided):
One of the key focus areas of the City’s strategic plan is a safe, vibrant, and healthy community.
It has come to my attention that the City’s health insurance does not provide coverage for a treatment known as Applied Behavioral Analysis (or ABA) for children of City employees who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.
ABA is recognized as an effective treatment of Autism. In October 2015 Governor McCrory signed into law Senate Bill 676, “An Act to Provide Coverage for the Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder” to provide coverage for ABA. This law went into effect July 1, 2016.
A number of organizations supported SB 676. These include:
• The Autism Society of North Carolina
• The Arc of North Carolina
• TEACCH Autism Program
• Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development
• North Carolina Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
• North Carolina Pediatric Society
• North Carolina Psychiatric Association
• North Carolina Psychological Association
• Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina
By passing Senate Bill 676 North Carolina joined more than 40 states in the Country to provide coverage for ABA.
As a consequence of wide spread recognition and support for Applied Behavioral Analysis as a treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder, I ask that staff consider adding coverage for ABA to the City’s health insurance plan in conformance with SB 676. Doing so will provide much needed support for the children and families of the City’s employees and will help us move towards our goal of a safe, vibrant, and healthy community for all – especially those of our community who are most vulnerable.
This past week Raleigh City Council held its annual retreat. During the retreat we learned the results of a formally conducted Citizens survey. More than 90% of Raleigh’s citizens rated the City as a good or excellent place to live. And citizens view Raleigh as one of the safest communities in the Country.
Now that the retreat is over, I would like to reflect on some of what makes Raleigh such a great City. To begin are Raleigh’s Citizen Advisory Councils.
Raleigh has a unique, long standing institution known as the Citizens Advisory Councils (or CACs). There are nineteen CACs in Raleigh serving nineteen different geographic regions of the City. They meet regularly at locations convenient to their region. All citizens are invited to attend and participate in those meetings to discuss matters of the day and matters affecting the lives of those who live in the area served by the CAC.
The vision of the Citizen Advisory Councils is “A better City through citizen participation.” Two key actions of the CACs are:
- Advise the Raleigh City Council on matters affecting the well-being of the citizens
- Communicate its views on relevant matters to the City Council and other governing boards, agencies, institutions and officials
Communication is not a one-way street. Communication is a dialog between Citizens and their elected officials. I attend numerous CAC meetings to hear the concerns of citizens, to ask questions, to answer questions, and to share my own thoughts and opinions about those matters that are important to my fellow citizens.
I ran for City Council because at the time I felt that some on Council were veering away from Citizen participation. I ran on the promise to not make decisions in a vacuum. That is why I attend Citizen Advisory Council meetings and that is why plan to continue to attend during my tenure on City Council.
I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I sent the following email to the City Manager just now and copied the Mayor and the rest of Council:
Last night I was informed by one of my neighbors that Z-15-16 was updated to PD on the City’s current development webpage. According to the date on the website, the update was available or posted to the website January 26. I received no notification that I am aware of about this update.
One thing that I would like to add for our retreat agenda is how council members can be notified and informed of activity that is of interest to them. As a district Councilor, I like to know when activities happen in District B. For example, when zoning requests are added or changed in District B, I would like to receive notification. Similarly, when capital improvement projects in District B are started or reach milestones, I would like to be notified. Another example is the sidewalks being installed on New Hope Church Rd. I only learned about their construction because I happened to drive by that location and noticed it.
Regarding Z-15-16, I took a look at it and I find no significant differences. It continues to allow a 50,000 square foot grocery anchor store, allows extensive other retail, continues to have a huge traffic impact, and does not address – intentionally ignores – the 40% forestation requirement. In short, the proposal changes the character of the area too much. Furthermore, this update was submitted without any interaction whatsoever with the community.
I am seriously considering making a motion at our next Council meeting to deny this case.
Raleigh City Council Member, District B