Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bradford neighborhood delivers scathing public hearing comments on affordable housing implementation.

We've obtained a copy of the comments delivered by the Bradford HOA president at the public hearing on the proposed planning ordinance changes.  Posting.them here for anyone who wants to review.  Does your neighborhood have similar issues?

Regardless, it was great to see citizens being active in their community.  We need more.of that.  Comments begin below..


Public Comment Regarding Davidson’s Affordable Housing Ordinance
Delivered to Davidson Town Commissioners on Novemb!?er 11, 2014

My name is Juliet Bowden, and I am here with residents of Bradford to share our concerns related the Town’s Affordable Housing Ordinance and its implementation.
Our neighborhood has endured 6 years of troubled history with the Affordable Housing Ordinance, and the Town’s implementation of it.

There has recently been much discussion and focus on the policy merits of providing affordable housing. And there is also much focus and discussion on the impacts of such policies on developers. However, there is rarely discussion regarding the real impact of such policies on the neighborhoods subject to the ordinance. Neighborhoods, mind you, that consist of tax-paying Davidson residents like those in Bradford who ironically have had the least voice in the matter, yet have been significantly negatively impacted.

This is partly because of the stigma associated with speaking out against affordable housing. This is also because neighborhoods like ours have largely been cast aside as bystanders to business dealings between the town and the developer. Bystanders who can suffer economic damage as a result of those dealings between the town and the developer.

So as not to go down that path of stigma and social misunderstandings, we would simply like to let the facts from our experience speak for themselves to hopefully inform meaningful changes to both the ordinance as well as the manner in which the Town implements the ordinance.

Bradford’s First Experience with Davidson’s Affordable Housing Ordinance

THE DEVELOPER AND TOWN’S COLLECTIVE DECISION TO EXCLUDE HOMEOWNERS
In early 2008 the developer started building the first of three affordable homes in Bradford up at the front of the neighborhood near the River Run entrance.
In October of that same year, Bradford residents discovered that the developer had worked with the town to revise and develop additional Affordable Housing units.
This plan entailed consolidating three adjoining single family lots and constructing there a 10 unit complex.
At the time, many of the residents who had purchased homes in the neighborhood were unaware of the material fact that more than 3 were required to be built.
Since this was drastically different from the original plan for the subdivision, residents were taken aback that no input was sought in advance of this revised proposal.
It was puzzling how just several months prior the Town had required a charrette for a proposed pool in the neighborhood, but did not seek residents’ input on significant changes to the developers Affordable Housing plan or land usage in Bradford until the residents had discovered it was in the works and pressed the issue.
As a result of pressing the issue, residents held a meeting with Town staff in which residents were invited to voice their concerns. Town Manager Lemon Brice, then Town Planner Kris Krider and Cindy Reid were present. The developer was also invited, but did not attend. Around 40 – 50 Bradford residents did attended that meeting.
At this meeting, residents brought up valid issues around building a 10 unit building in Bradford, but were instead treated with disrespect and called “NIMBYs” (not in my back yard) by the Town staff.
If there was anything constructive that came out of this episode, it was to be Bradford’ case against a 10-unit structure and building units for the lowest AMI in rural areas. Residents brought to light with the Town the significant issues such as density versus dispersal of units, access to public transportation and public services, parking issues, access for emergency vehicles and the apparent mixed messages from the Town regarding the importance of transparency and public input. The issues brought forth by residents at that meeting were dismissed by the Town and residents were told, as they have always been told, that the developer has to fulfill his obligation and it’s his legal right to do it this way.
However, Bradford just learned this year from the Town that the 10-unit building could not have been built anyway because the deed restrictions filed in 2008 broke with Bradford’s covenants which the homeowners brought to the Town’s attention back in 2009 – another interesting facet of this saga that calls into question concerns over the Town’s wherewithal to implement the ordinance.

Second Experience with Davidson’s Affordable Housing Ordinance

THE FIRST OF THREE AFFORDABLE HOMES BUILT
In 2008 the Bradford developer attempted to build three homes for the Affordable Housing Program.
The first of these homes was purchased for $203,500 within the Affordable Housing Program by a family who works in Davidson. A month after moving in, a mechanics lean was placed on the property because the developer had not paid his sub-contractors.
The other two of these three affordable homes were not finished by the developer, foreclosed on, and sat unfinished with building materials laying on the property among weeds and debris until they were finished and sold in 2011 and 2012.
One of the foreclosed affordable homes was purchased by the Town in 2011 and sold to an Affordable Housing homeowner for $120,000 – although identical the home that had sold for $203,500 under the Affordable Housing Program.
The other foreclosed home was released from the Affordable Housing Program and was sold by the bank for $112,000 and is now for sale on Craig’s list for $225,000.
This was the first of a few significant Affordable Housing failures that Bradford residents suffered from.
Third Experience with Davidson’s Affordable Housing and Other Ordinances
THE FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS TO RESIDENTS INCLUDING THE DEVELOPER’S & TOWN’S FALIURE TO SHOW DUE CARE AND COMMON SENSE
After attempting to build three affordable homes in Bradford, coupled with the failing housing market, the developer packed up in 2010 and called it quits. Leaving the 75 residents of Bradford with a string of bills and unfinished work that required the homeowners to take up special assessments and raise dues in an effort to pay for approximately $83,000 of developer debt: $22,000 Duke Power contract, the electricity bill, the developer’s annual contribution of $11,000 per year for mowing his lots and common areas, and in 2012 Bradford Homeowners received a foreclosure notice and tax bills totaling $17,000 for the back taxes the developer owed on the common areas which coincidentally the developer deeded to us with the assistance of his attorney Rick Kline.
What do these have to do with affordable housing? This is evidence of a ripple effect that can occur when a poorly conceived and poorly implemented ordinance places a burden on both the Town and the developer – a burden that is however born to a great extent not by the Town nor the developer, but passed on to the residents who have had little say or representation in the matters.
In addition, the Town endeavored to reduce its losses in Bradford by requiring the developer to sign an agreement to deposit $25,000 for each lot sold into an escrow account for street repairs. Once again, the Town with its attorney Mr. Kline along with the developer’s attorney Mr. Kline managed to mitigate risks for the developer and town, but passed the developer’s debt for the residents of Bradford to shoulder. What has recently come to bare once more in Bradford are the repairs to the streets that satisfy the developer’s obligation and satisfy the Town’s requirements, but ultimately residents shoulder the burden of this deal. This is just one more debacle that has left residents significantly distressed over the appearance of our streets.
Take a look at the work that was recently completed on the streets in Bradford. It reflects and underscores our statements that the Town’s implementation of its ordinances can cause additional harm to a community.

Lessons Learned from Experience

We know that a one-size-fits all approach does not work as each neighborhood has different attributes that affect the feasibility of affordable housing, such as proximity to public infrastructure, developer wherewithal, etc.

We know that implementation is just as important as what’s written in the ordinance.

We know from experience that developers will knowingly or unknowingly pass an unfair economic burden of compliance onto residents.

We know that it is unacceptable to have a continuing lack of transparency into agreements between developers and the Town and selective adherence to policies aimed at seeking citizen input, etc.

Bradford residents learned a lot about the ordinance over the past 6 years and learned a lot about their own neighborhood. We know that while we may not meet the AMI housing perfectly, in the spirit of the Town’s mission and the Affordable Housing Ordinance, Bradford is the kind community that Davidson seeks to encourage with its Ordinance. We have economic diversity, ethnic diversity, single family homes, town homes, garage apartments and homes that a lot of people would consider affordable.

Conclusion

We need relief. We’re not asking for relief for the developer. We, the residents who have been harmed the most by the administration of the Ordinance, are the ones who need the relief. We have naively assumed that a town of our size, a town where the mission statement and ordinances are written to promote the wellbeing of its citizenry, would do the hard and necessary work to ensure that its citizens are not mishandled and crushed in the process of achieving those goals.

We ask for the sake of Bradford that the town stop instituting any changes to Bradford using the same attorney as the developer’s attorney as we know this to be unfair to the homeowners of Bradford.

We know that our difficulties are not what was intended when these ordinances were written, but the Commissioners need to take a very hard look at not just the ordinances themselves, but how staff go about implementing them. We request that the Commissioners take a step back and give the process of creating ordinances that support the ideals of our community more time and public input.

Lastly – We believe that a community that makes provisions for and cares the smallest, weakest and most vulnerable of its citizens is one worth supporting and living in.

Thank you.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Is Davidson's mandatory affordable housing ordinance on the ropes?

The affordable housing ordinance in the Town of Davidson has been taking punches from all sides recently.  As one of only three mandatory affordable housing ordinances in North Carolina (the others being in Manteo an Chapel Hill), the relatively small program has withstood several controversies over the years while consuming an outsized amount of attention at Davidson Town Hall.

The program currently includes just 56 for sale units and a small number of rentals.  However, according to data provided by the Town earlier this year as many as a third of the for sale units have been sold to individuals who did not strictly qualify.  That means the houses sold with the required deed restrictions but not necessarily to owners who were below the maximum income thresholds - somewhat limiting the program’s impact on its intended target population.

Some other examples of past controversy surrounding the program include:

- The 2007 land swap between local developer Lawrence Kimbrough and the Town in exchange for an exemption from the ordinance for his high-end development off of Pine Road.  At the time, another local developer, Rodney Graham, now a Davidson Commissioner, spoke out and strongly questioned the validity of the transaction.  Graham is a strong supporter of affordable housing, but his past concerns show that even supporters see potential issues with how the ordinance has been implemented.

- In 2011, the Town attempted to buy two houses built for the program in the Bradford neighborhood after they went into foreclosure.  The move occurred after a closed session of the Board which caused concern in the town regarding transparency.  Ultimately, only one of the homes was purchased by the town, and the other was bought by a private investor.

- In a lesser known event in 2012, the town stepped in to help a small number of affordable housing owners with appeals after the most recent county revaluation when their homes were valued at more than they could legally be sold for under the ordinance’s strict resale requirements.

These events and others have led some to question the fairness of how the town administers the program.  Those simmering questions finally boiled over recently with a lawsuit filed by two local developers questioning the validity of the ordinance under NC state law and during a public hearing Tuesday night regarding the town’s Planning Ordinance re-write which includes extensive changes to the Affordable Housing rules.

Davidson has been down the litigation path before over its development policies, and the results have not usually been to the town’s favor.  After spending Town resources defending policies where it has overreached, Davidson was forced to settle past lawsuits over the Summers Walk and Davidson East developments.  The Summers Walk lawsuit eventually led to the repeal of the town Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and was a precursor to the current lawsuit involving Affordable Housing

What is new to this affordable housing discussion is what happened Tuesday night – public pushback from Davidson citizens.

Several members of the Bradford neighborhood and it's HOA Board attended the public hearing to make clear their concerns with how the affordable housing program has affected their community.  Bradford HOA President, Juliet Bowden, delivered a blistering 10 minute speech relaying the overall history of the neighborhood and the issues it has had with the Town’s continuously changing story on how affordable housing will be implemented.  Much of those concerns center around the plan to consolidate program units into a 10 unit apartment building.   A plan that was a surprise to neighborhood residents.

One of the highlights of her speech was when she repeatedly mentioned that long-time Davidson Town Attorney, Rick Kline, has also served as the attorney for the neighborhood’s developer.  “Uncomfortable” is the word that comes to mind.  The shaking heads from audience members who were not Bradford residents tells you what many people thought about that situation.

Ms Bowden’s comments were followed by the HOA’s Treasurer, Ron Sewell.  After mentioning that some were interested in pursuing legal action to get relief for the neighborhood, Mr Sewell invoked the “Davidson Way” of talking things out as the much preferred option.  He also asked for a moratorium on building affordable housing in some of the impacted neighborhoods until that can be done.

Is mandatory affordable housing on the ropes in Davidson?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  One thing for sure is that it certainly does have a fight on its hands.

Full disclosure alert, I live in the Bradford neighborhood but had no involvement preparing any of the neighborhood remarks.  However, we have attained a copy of the HOA President's comments.  Check back later today for those.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NC Supreme Court Debacle for Republicans

After last Tuesday, Republicans now securely hold all the levers of power in the state - election tested super majorities in both houses of the Legislature, the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor offices, both US Senate seats and 10 of 13 seats in Congress.  It is becoming harder to say that NC is truly a purple state.

However, all was not rosy for the GOP last Tuesday.

Just before Election Day, we told you about the most important but least known races on your ballot - the races for NC Supreme Court.  Unfortunately, while Republicans romped across the state and the nation, these non-partisan races went heavily for the Democrats where they one all three associate justice races and flipping the seat held by Republican Robert Hunter.

As the smoke clears, it has become obvious the most likely path for Democrats to stop the conservative direction of the state comes in the courts.  That will be much easier to do in coming years.  In the next three election cycles only one of the more conservative justices will be on the ballot.

Flipping one of those seats is all that needs to be done.

Ironically, it appears that one of the voting changes pushed through by the Republican legislature may have helped cause this situation.  Check out this piece over at the The Voter Update.  They postulate that removing straight ticket voting contributed to the dramatic reduction in voter drop off for these non-partisan races this cycle.

Only about 15% of voters skipped these races this year where 25% skipped in the past.  The idea is that under straight ticket voting people thought they voted for these races when in fact they did not.  By removing the straight ticket option, people took a closer look down ballot and did not skip these races as often.

It also could be that the Democrats just did a better job of getting their message out about progressive judges.

Over at TheDailyHaymaker.com commenters relayed stories about conservative activists that would not hand out voter guides that included the judges because of who else was on the ticket.  Here locally, the County Republican party also had trouble fully staffing the polls with volunteers this cycle.  Handing out the judge information is critical on election-day.  Often, it is the only piece of information people will take.  Without it, many voters have no idea who to vote for in these judiciary races.

In a cycle where Republicans won a statewide Senate race and received a majority of the combined votes in the races for US Congress, they somehow missed out on solidifying control of the State Supreme Court.  That's a mistake that could turn out to be costly.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Questionable Tactics in “Education” Tax Campaign

The size of the defeat for the “education” sales tax referendum in Tuesday’s election likely surprised many in Mecklenburg County Tuesday night.  Whether you supported it or opposed it, it’s doubtful too many thought the margin would be over 20 points. (38.8% For, 61.2% Against to be exact.)

As someone who longs for transparent and honest government, it was very disappointing and hard to watch how this sales tax referendum unfolded from beginning to end.  There were several troubling aspects which taken together make it feel like it was the right thing that this did not pass.

Was this a process that had community buy-in from the start?  No.  The Chamber of Commerce and even the School Board were taken off guard when the County Commissioners decided to put the tax on the ballot in a split 5-4 vote - mostly along party lines.

Was a sales tax the best way to fund CMS salaries long-term?  No.  It is too variable a revenue stream.  What happens when the next economic downturn hits?   Would those raises turn into pay cuts when sales tax revenue dips as it always does during a recession?  Would the other organizations slated to receive funds from this tax face cuts to keep CMS salaries from falling?  Too many outstanding questions were left unanswered.

Was the tax even a guaranteed source of revenue for education?  No.  While supporters of the tax claimed during the course of the debate that it would always be for education, the truth is that a future Board could have redirected this money to anything.  This tax revenue would have been general revenue and not legally tied to education spending.  The reason the ballot question on Tuesday did not mention education was that this was not an “education” tax.  Those who supported the tax were anything but clear on this fact.

This last point came up at the candidate forum at River Run in Davidson.   The candidates for NC House - 98 were asked whether or not they supported the tax increase. Republican John Bradford said he did not - citing this lack of a guarantee as his reason why.  Democrat Natasha Marcus who supported the tax shot back that Bradford's stance was a "dodge". The truth is that Bradford was right.

But maybe the hardest thing to watch was how public institutions targeted to benefit from this tax, danced right up to the line on what was legal for them to do in promoting its passage.  On more than one occasion they did things which were questionable and possibly over the line while pushing for the tax.  In addition to a small body of case law, there are two general statutes in North Carolina that govern what can and cannot be done by public institutions regarding elections – including referendums.  One set of laws is about spending public money.  The other is about “electioneering” around polling places. 

G.S. 160A-499.3 states “a municipality shall not use public funds to endorse or oppose a referendum, election or a particular candidate for elective office.”  G.S. §163-166.4(a) states “No person or group of persons shall hinder access, harass others, distribute campaign literature, place political advertising, solicit votes, or otherwise engage in election-related activity in the voting place or in a buffer zone.”

At some point both of these laws were bent well past their breaking point by our public institutions and officials, but since nobody will likely challenge them in court nothing will be done about it.  A cynic would say our public institutions know that they will not be challenged in an expensive court case, so they have no fear of stepping out of bounds when it suits their needs.

The library system and CMS created fliers that indirectly promoted passing the tax.  They technically stayed within bounds and did not explicitly encourage voting for the tax.  However, both fliers certainly implied bad things would happen if it did not pass.  The Library was challenged on the placement of its fliers inside facilities that also served as early voting sites.  To avoid running afoul of the electioneering law these were removed – a sign the library knew they were pushing the legal limits.

The Arts and Science Council and the Town of Davidson went even further.  They both explicitly encouraged voting for the tax in materials they created.  The ASC had multiple posts on its website encouraging people to vote for the tax.  Davidson Mayor John Woods was encouraging the same in the town’s latest newsletter which came out late last week just prior to election-day.  It’s hard to see how the ASC’s actions do not break rules governing non-profits.  The same could be said about Davidson’s use of a publicly funded newsletter to encourage passing the tax.

As County officials go back to the drawing board on the question of funding education, the size of this defeat as well as the actions of these institutions need to be taken into account when deciding how to do it.  Using questionable, strong-arm tactics to raise revenue has proven not to work.  Maybe now it’s time for Commissioners to figure out how to live within the County’s existing means. 

Bonus Observation: Check out this interactive map for where the sales tax actually passed.  It's telling that Davidson precinct 206 was one of the few precincts where it succeeded (just barely).  Overall it, still failed for the two town precincts, but Davidson was closer as a municipality than any other in Mecklenburg County.  

Having the Mayor use public funds to tell everyone to go vote for something likely made the difference.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Like Frankenstein…It’s Alive!!!

With Halloween upon us this week, we bring you the latest transportation spending monster being planned for Mecklenburg County.  This one involves new ways to fund a project that just won’t die – the Red Line commuter rail from Charlotte to Mooresville as part of the regional 2030 Transit Plan.

The Red Line received an apparently fatal blow last June when Norfolk Southern indicated track sharing with commuter rail did not fit the long-term plans for the company’s O line corridor which would be used for the project.  However, that has not phased the mad scientists down at the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) who have been hard at work coming up with new and creative ways to finance floundering rail transit efforts - including the Red Line.

Earlier this month, the road show to start gathering support in North Mecklenburg for that creative financing kicked off in Davidson.  The MTC is requesting the towns support the following as part of its 2015-2016 Legislative Agenda for the next General Assembly.  The MTC wants:

  1. Authorization to use Public Private Partnerships as a financing mechanism for transit.
  2. Authorization to access certain low interest Federal loan programs usable for transit infrastructure.
  3. Removal of the sunset provision on Special Assessment District legislation so they can be used for long-term transit projects.

Immediately after the September MTC meeting, canned language for supporting resolutions was distributed to all of the participating towns.  The request was to have resolutions passed by the Commission's member boards by the MTC's November 19th meeting.

Of the North Mecklenburg towns, only Davidson has seen the presentation from LNTC Chairman Bill Thunberg at this point.  He is doing the road show on the MTC’s behalf.  Davidson will likely vote on any supporting resolution at its November meeting.  If Huntersville and Cornelius vote on such a resolution by the originally requested date, they would likely need to do so at the same meeting where the information is presented to their Boards.  That puts Board members in a real bind if they are trying to make an informed decision.

Giving limited time to review information is a standard tactic when trying to ram something through.  Pushing this through while most people are focused on something else - like our current elections - is also a good way to slide this by the voters.

Why would the MTC want to do this?  A couple of reasons come to mind...

Authorization of P3s for transit financing sets up the same sort of monstrous projects we are seeing with the I77 HOT Lanes.  During the entire HOT debate, elected officials have been using the fact that the NCGA "authorized" the use of P3s years ago to abdicate any responsibility for it.

The earliest plans for tolls on I77 were tiny compared to what the project has morphed into now. Authorizing P3s for transit financing without knowing how a project would take shape in the future will result in the same thing for a project like the Red Line.

The second reason to rush this through is that paying off these projects will require going outside the half cent transit tax originally approved by voters.  If this agenda goes forward, the local economy will be stuck paying for a much larger percentage of these projects than voters originally supported.  Before gutting the property tax base with tools like Tax Increment Financing and Special Assessment Districts to pay off any massive new loans from the Federal government or the P3 private partners, the MTC should have to go back to those same voters for additional approval.  You can be sure that is not something transit supporters want to do. 

At the October 14th meeting in Davidson, Mayor Woods described supporting the MTC agenda as a “benign and routine request”.  It is anything but that, and we’ve previously seen this same kind of horror movie with this same cast.

Former Mooresville Mayor Thunberg and Davidson Mayor Woods were instrumental in pushing for the creation the money-hemorrhaging Mi-Connection cable company back in 2007.  It too was presented to the public as something that just had to be done.  Like Dr. Frankenstein himself, as Mooresville’s Mayor, Thunberg cast the tie-breaking vote that actually brought Mi-Connection to life.  It was a disastrous decision for both towns.

Now, as the LNTC Executive Director and the MTC Vice-Chairman, Thunberg and Woods are showing the same zeal in pushing for the Red Line and transit.  With that in mind, elected officials on the various town boards would be very smart to decline supporting the MTC legislative agenda.  At the very least they should not support it without a commitment to go back to the voters first on any new financing plans.

Will enough LKN commissioners oppose something destined to be more “trick” than “treat” for area residents?  We will all know soon enough.

This post originally appeared in the Herald Weekly

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Most Important, Least Known Races on Your Ballot Next Tuesday

For the first time in sixteen years a majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court faces election on the same day.  This Tuesday four of the seven seats are up for grabs - a situation brought about by a random combination of retirements, appointments and the regular election cycle.

Conservative judges Barbara Jackson, Robert Edmunds, and Paul Newby are not up for election this cycle. If you want to vote for judges to give them some additional support, then choose:

Mark Martin for Chief Justice and Bob Hunter, Eric Levinson, and Mike Robinson for Associate Justices on election day.

Judgepedia.org has all the details on the races.  It's worth checking out the whole page beyond the below excerpt.

From Judgepedia.org...

North Carolina's judicial elections are technically non-partisan. However, it is a state where the justices' political affiliations are clearly known and political parties may publicly endorse candidates. Currently, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has five Republicans and two Democrats on its bench. In 2014, four seats are up for election, meaning that a majority of the seven-member court is up for grabs.

Three Democratic seats and one Republican seat were initially up for election this year. Two of those seats--the chief justice position and Justice Martin's open seat--were given new, Republican incumbents thanks to appointments by Governor Pat McCrory in August 2014. That resulted in the chief justice position changing from a Democratic incumbent (Sarah Parker, who retired) to a Republican incumbent (Mark Martin, who is running for a full term in 2014). Going into the November elections, two seats are occupied by Republicans and two by Democrats.

A partisan flip is not possible, even though a majority of the court's seats are up for election, because it would require Democrats to win all four seats and there are no Democrats in the race for chief justice.

Republicans, on the other hand, have a chance to monopolize the court if they can oust Justices Cheri Beasley and Robin Hudson. North Carolina is already a Republican-dominated state, where the GOP holds the governorship, a majority in both legislative houses and a majority on the supreme court. This is referred to as a Trifecta Plus by Ballotpedia. A court fully controlled by the Republicans would be favorable to the similarly controlled executive and legislative branches if any of their new laws are challenged in court. More information on state government trifectas is available here: Ballotpedia: State government trifectas.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Could toll-road protesters decide the fate of the US Senate?

Well, the honest answer to that question is “probably not”, and in the grand scheme of things we should all be glad that’s likely not the case.   With global crises like Ebola, ISIS, and a potentially sputtering world economy to put things in perspective, it is surely a good thing for the order of the cosmos that control of the upper chamber in the US Congress is not solely dependent on the outcome of what happens with 26 miles of interstate through the Lake Norman area.

As was mentioned here two weeks ago, events elsewhere in the country took this race off the critical path for the Republicans some time ago.  Even though the race between Tillis and Hagan has tightened in the past two weeks, North Carolina now looks like it will be a bonus seat if the Republicans take over the Senate rather than the critical linchpin it was at the beginning of this election cycle. 
None of that however changes the fact that the I77 HOT Lanes issue could still be critical in the outcome of the contest here in North Carolina.  In a contest like this where every vote counts, any issue that sways a few thousand votes one way or the other could be the difference.

In the case of the HOT Lanes, the credit (or blame) for making that difference goes to the WidenI77 activist group.  Led by Cornelius resident, Kurt Naas, along with several other dedicated volunteers, this group has been relentless in getting out their message about preventing tolls.  Recently, they have been cranking up the volume.  WidenI77.org signs have been popping up in North Mecklenburg at prominent intersections.  One was seen recently floating near the Exit 30 causeway on Lake Norman during Friday afternoon rush hour¸ and this past Saturday one of those signs along with about two dozen protesters were outside of a Thom Tillis campaign event at the Republican “victory center” on Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.

Two dozen protesters may not sound like much, but if that is what you focused on then you would be missing the point.  That small number of protesters held signs that said things like “honk if you oppose tolls”.  Standing there for a few minutes, one got a real sense for how this issue could impact this election.

The noise from those horns and the number of drivers honking them said all you need to know.
Over a five minute period that Saturday evening a good 40% - 50% of passing cars honked.  Some were a quick beep-beep.  Others gave a long angry blast.  Sometimes they came in flurries where every passing car laid on the horn.  At other moments it would be just one in a group.  There was also the person the scooter giving the protesters a fist pump as he rode by.   The most entertaining had to be the man on his bicycle in full cycling regalia giving the protesters a thumbs up as he pedaled past.
Assuming that not everyone who opposes tolls bothered to honk, it was pretty clear in this incredibly unscientific poll that tolls are incredibly unpopular.  That unpopularity could turn into consequences on election-day. 

Here’s why…

Mecklenburg and Iredell Counties have almost exactly 10% of the State’s registered Republicans.  They also happen to be the two counties where residents will be the most familiar with the tolling issue.  Anything that siphons off even a small percentage of those Republican votes from Thom Tillis could throw a monkey wrench into his campaign’s efforts to overtake Kay Hagan.
That siphon could come in the form of former North Mecklenburg legislator and conservative firebrand John Rhodes who is mounting a write-in campaign for the US Senate.  He is a familiar name in conservative circles and has garnered a respectable level of support among local tea party activists.  He is also opposed to tolls.

On the street last Saturday evening several of his supporters were seen holding those signs encouraging people to honk.  If enough of those honks turn into votes, it could spell trouble for Team Tillis.

This post was originally published in the Herald Weekly