Friday, July 3, 2015

Is there a River Run phase six?

That’s effectively the question being asked by a letter received by the town on June 13th from an attorney with the Hedrick Gardner law firm in Charlotte.  Writing on behalf of the River Run Courtyard Association – a sub-association of the larger River Run neighborhood – the firm raises several questions about some proposed new lots in the River Run area of Davidson.

In a column in early April, it was mentioned that the River Run Country Club wants to convert some of its golf course property to residential lots.  If successful, these sales would bring in several hundred thousand dollars to the club.

There have been several questions about the buildability of the land because it is significantly impacted by current flood plane lines.  However, beyond just the environmental questions homeowners have been questioning whether subdivision of these lots follows current town ordinances and procedures.

The Club has been pursuing an administrative approval from the Davidson Planning department to plat the lots for sale.  The neighborhood association letter contends that the development of new lots in the proposed part of the neighborhood should not be allowed under the ordinance which brought River Run into the town back in 1992.

If anything it would appear that this should be approached as more of a new development involving a change of use from golf course to residential and approval from the town board itself – not an administrative change.

The association’s attorney sums it up by saying “the River Run Country Club’s request to plat lots on Wildcat Trail and River Crossing Blvd. is a violation of town ordinances and not substantiated by fact, or the record. The Association strongly urges the town to reject the River Run Country Club’s request.”

All of that may seem like rather mundane land development back and forth.  However, that is not the most interesting part of the letter.  The association’s attorney closes with this.

“Should the town believe that further legal opinion is necessary; the Association asks that such opinion be obtained from an outside council. Town attorney Rick Kline, is as a founding member of River Run Country Club and has advised the Country Club on this matter. Furthermore, his long tenure as the council of record for River Run Limited Partnership, and thus, his probable involvement in drafting documents for both the Partnership and the Town, that are a part of the record, makes obtaining an outside opinion the only legitimate way to insure that the rendered opinion is unbiased and without even the appearance of impropriety.”

Ouch!

For those keeping score, this is now the second time in recent months that a homeowners’ association in Davidson is officially questioning the town attorney’s role in land development in town.  The first was by the Bradford neighborhood at the end of last year for Mr Kline's role representing that neighborhood’s developer.  In that instance, Mr Kline was asked to get an opinion from the State Bar on his involvement.  As of this writing, the neighborhood has not heard back on the outcome of that request.

Based on reviewing public record emails, when Mayor John Woods saw the letter from the attorney in the current River Run Club situation, he quickly came to Mr Kline's defense.

However, that defense was roundly refuted by the HOA with several examples of Mr Kline's involvement.  These examples took place over several months and include references involving senior town staff, the Planning Department, and regular citizens.

One of those references refuting the mayor’s defense is very direct.

In early October the club’s developer sent an email to a River Run resident concerned by the lot proposal, stating, “A Club member and attorney, Rick Klein has been kind enough to participate in the plat recording process to be assured that the plats correctly reflect all these restrictions.”

In another instance the town attorney’s advice to staff  that these lots would be “grandfathered” under the original zoning for the neighborhood was actually refuted by the town manager, Leamon Brice.

Based on speaking with people familiar with the situation and reviewing the public record, multiple attorneys have reviewed this proposal as well as other planning professionals and even the UNC school of government has been contacted.  Nobody appears to think these lots should be approved without a much more involved process.

Davidson’s town attorney has been with the town for nearly four decades.  He’s also been in private practice as a real-estate attorney during that time.  After seeing the recent repeated examples where things become a bit too gray between those two jobs, it may be time for the Town Board to ask him to choose which one he would rather do.


This post first appeared in the Harold Weekly opinion section at huntersvilleHerald.com

Monday, June 29, 2015

How close does Cintra's road get to Governor Pat McCrory?

Whether one calls it lobbying, public relations, business development, or crisis management, what you are really hiring when you employ somebody for any of the above functions is a "fixer".  That's someone who gets things done that might not be do-able otherwise.

Lobbying is big business.  There is lots of money involved.  Lots of connections to work.

It is also one of the stops many people in politics take in between campaigns while working their way up the ladder in the political world.

Recently, a poster over at the Exit 28 Ridiculousness Facebook page posted something about Cintra having their own registered lobbyists in North Carolina, so that seemed like a good place to start looking into how that part of the proposed $650 million I77 HOT lanes project has panned out.

WARNING!  The rest of this post is a bit stomach churning.  Reading any further may require some Pepto Bismol.  Get some now if necessary.

The interconnected names that come up when looking at the people and firms involved in the past and present lobbying efforts employed by Cintra and related firms will make your head spin.  Official "lobbyists" are required to register as such with state and federal authorities.  However, as mentioned above, influential people working in the firms involved in lobbying are not always officially lobbyists.  They don't have to register as such.

In Cintra's case this story starts with someone who is a lobbyist.  According to the NC Secretary of State website, Cintra employs three lobbyists in North Carolina from a law firm named Brooks Pierce.   One of those lobbyists is a man named Chris McClure.  McClure was hired by the firm in January of 2013.

Who is Chris McClure?

Well, one of his previous jobs was as the Executive Director of the North Carolina Republican Party.  That is the top staff position within the state party. McClure held that position from 2007-2009.  McClure has also done work for Texas Governor Rick Perry according to his bio.  (That will be important later.)

During the 2008 campaign as head of the state party staff, McClure certainly would have crossed paths with the next person in this story, one Russell Peck.

During the 2008 election cycle, Russell Peck, was in charge of the North Carolina operation for the McCain-Palin campaign.  That also was the cycle where McCrory was on the ticket in his first run for governor.

The connections between McMclure and Peck go further than this however.  In 2009 Peck took over from McClure as the next Executive Director of the NCGOP.  They also both serve on something called the NC Advisory Committee of the US Global Leadership Commission.  (There are a number of interesting names on this list.)

During 2012 Russell Peck surfaces again as Pat McCrory's campaign manager during McCrory's second run at the governor's mansion.

After managing MCCrory's successful campaign, Russell Peck went to work for a firm named Mercury LLC.  Mercury's LinkedIn profile describes its business with this.

Mercury is a high-stakes public strategy firm.

We use our expertise and reach to gain competitive advantage for clients. Our expertise comes from extensive must-win campaign experience and operating successfully at the highest rung of business, government, politics and media. Our reach is the ability to use strategic intelligence to mobilize the message and persuade the toughest audiences.


We have proven results for prominent figures, leading advocacy groups and the world’s most successful companies
.


That's a long winded way of saying lobbyist.

Russell Peck is listed as the point of contact for Mercury in North Carolina on the firm's website.  Peck is only registered to lobby for one firm in North Carolina.  That firm has nothing to do with
with transportation, but it would seem to be a limited work load for someone in the lobbying biz who has worked so closely to the governor.

Interestingly, according to opensecrets.org, Mercury appears to have done work in the past for a company called Macquarie.  Macquarie has been a business partner with Cintra on multiple toll projects in the US and Canada, including some work in Texas.

Then of course there is Moore & Van Allen.

Readers may remember when Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke recused himself during the vote on a resolution by the county asking the state to delay financial close.  This was on May 19th.  Clarke sited a potential conflict of interest with a client and the project.

Moore & Van Allen happens to also be the firm where Governor Pat McCrory himself passed the time as an employee between his gubernatorial runs.  According to this article McCrory was hired because he could "add value to what lawyers could do."

The firm has also hired a close McCrory aid, Brian Nick, after McCrory became governor in 2012.

So to sum it all up, here you have two former heads of the NCGOP staff working as lobbyists.  One works directly for Cintra the other for a firm that has done work for a close Cintra business partner in the past.

Both of these men worked closely with Governor McCrory.

Then you have the firm where McCrory himself worked as a non-lobbying lobbyist having an employee having to recuse from a County Commission vote because of a conflict of interest somehow related to the project.

Remember the comment earlier in this post about Cintra lobbyist Chris McClure working for Governor Rick Perry in Texas?

Well, this whole twisted tale sounds eerilly like this article outlining lobbying efforts with close ties to the governor, including Cintra's, in Texas.

This all took about two hours of googling to pull together.  Someone with more time on their hands and resourses available should really look into this.

Who knows what you might find?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Is it possible to have a fair Planning Board hearing on The Narrow Pasage? Doesn't seem likely.

Monday's Planning Board meeting is shaping up to be considerably more interesting than most - to say the least.  The main driver of interest is he Narrow Passage project.

As mentioned here, election related swirl and scare tactics have already spun up around the planned development.

That swirl continued on Thursday.  Only hours after the recent column in the Herald Weekly was published, a Facebook page calling itself  "Preserve Davidson" popped up.  It is a site launched specifically to oppose Narrow Passage - supposedly to "offset substantial lobbying by Narrow Passage LLC."

Coincidence?  Who knows?

The site is full of what Mayor John Woods likes to call "misinformation".  It appears more designed to mislead and scare people rather than to inform.

What is also clear is that the participants in the site make it unlikely Narrow Passage will get an unbiased hearing on Monday.  Planning Board members Brunson Russum, John Kennedy, and George Berger have all "liked" various postings on the site.

But that's neither all that surprising, nor is it too troubling.

On the other hand, this message sent by the town Planning Director , Jason Burdette, is both of those things.  Burdette sent the below mail Thursday evening to the entire Planning Board.

Subject: Planning Board  
All,
It’s come to my attention that the representative for Narrow Passage (Susan Irvin) has reached out to members of the Planning Board requesting individual meetings to address any concerns you might have about the project. As a legislative board, the applicant is permitted to do this. However, in fairness to other members of Planning Board, I would recommend against meeting with the applicant in advance of the meeting. It’s important that any conversations about this project with the developer be available to all members of the Planning Board.

Best,
          Jason Burdette, AICP
Planning Director
Town of Davidson

So, the town's official position is that it is OK for Planning Board members to actively participate in a clearly biased effort to stop a project, but it is not OK for Planning Board members to actually educate themselves on the actual details of the project.

Got that? Good!

Yes, Monday will be interesting.

Narrow Passage starts election season early in Davidson

This column originally appeared in the Herald Weekly.

Filing for this year’s local elections doesn't start for a couple of weeks, but election-related shenanigans already seem to have started in Davidson.  As is typical in small-town politics, accusations are made, emails circulate, and unfounded rumors fly.

One such issue initiating some of that election related swirl is the proposed Narrow Passage development working its way through the town planning process for more than a year now.  This is the same development mentioned in a previous column regarding property rights and how Davidson’s view of those rights impacts its decisions

The issue at stake is whether or not this project should be approved by the Town Board – bringing new development to the town’s northeastern Extra Territorial Jurisdiction, or ETJ.   The proposed 59 acre site sits right at the intersection of Rocky River and Shearers Road.  It's that location that has generated opposition.

In another area publication, local resident Ed Harris penned a strongly worded editorial about a month ago.  He lamented the possibility that three Davidson Commissioners, aka a majority of those elected by the voters, might actually approve the project.

However, that editorial paled in comparison to an email that landed in my inbox last week.  This email from someone who can accurately be described as a very well connected town insider used language that can best be defined as fear-mongering.

For example, the emailer likened approval of the project to “allowing our award winning community based approach to devolve into a politically idealistic shift that embraces an environmentally disastrous imbalance between individual property rights and the rights of the common good.”  The emailer has a similar lament about “three of our five commissioners” and  goes on to say a “small group” is working to stop the project.

However, the emailer also encouraged people to educate themselves on the project.

Fortunately, that is easy enough to do because Davidson Town Hall spent about $9,000 tax dollars last month to educate itself on this project and rural planning in general by bringing in nationally renowned rural planning guru – Randall Arendt.

Below is what Mr Arendt had to say about the Narrow Passage in a memo to the town after his visit.

“It is my belief that the ultimate layout of this development would probably not change much, if at all, whether it is approved in a timely manner or whether approval were delayed until after a Small Area Plan has been devised, debated, and adopted – a process that could take 6-12 months. Its layout reflects the opportunities and constraints of this site, and any good plan for it would probably bear a very strong resemblance to what we came up with earlier this week”.

Arendt goes on to say “it is my belief that a plan update process would not alter the reality that the southeastern end of the ETJ is currently more suburban than rural, unlike the areas north and west of Runneymede and Maple Way Drive.”  Additionally “Narrow Passage and the property just to the north of it are virtually surrounded by suburban house lots, nothing very rural.”

Finally, and maybe most importantly, for those who are at all concerned about this project Arendt says this.  “I do not believe that approval would create any kind of legal precedent, once the town updates its planning documents and regulations. Adopting a moratorium to prevent new applications being filed during the plan update process would probably be a wise idea.”

Once you get past the planning lingo, the basic idea from Randall Arendt is that the proposal presents a good design and does not open the floodgates for new development as those who oppose it fear.

There are also other facts on the table that address specific concerns emailed and printed elsewhere.

They include a lower number of planned lots – as low as 32, down from 47, if the builder takes advantage of the town’s newly lowered Payment in Lieu for the affordable housing obligation.  Another is that according of Randall Arendt the planned use of septic systems is more environmentally friendly than the town-required installation of sewer for neighborhoods of this size and density.

The project has gone through a significant amount of public input including the three day session where Arendt was brought in at the town’s request.  Additional delays in the decision making process are unwarranted.

It is true that people, particularly Commissioners, should educate themselves, but the way to do it is not to listen to ideologically driven emailers intending to instill fear in an election season.

That education process continues Monday when this project goes before the town Planning Board.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

I77 Activism Blurs Political Lines...Precedent for Success in North Carolina

As someone who has been active in politics for a while now, one of the most interesting aspects of the activism surrounding the I77 HOT Lanes is how much it crosses political boundaries when it comes to the people involved.

It is clear from knowing some of the people personally and from reading comments in cyberspace from a wide variety of others that no one political label would cover the entire group.  If everyone who is actively working against this proposed plan were all in a room and someone asked people to raise their hands for the labels Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, moderate progressive, libertarian, or any other label, it is clear that numerous hands would go up for each one.

The opposition to this covers so many sub-groups it is hard to overstate how widespread it had become.  Rarely will you see this kind of teamwork across political lines, but there is precedent for it in North Carolina.

In eastern North Carolina there was a widespread effort that stopped the most powerful force on the planet from doing what it wanted.  That was the effort in the late 2000's to stop the US Navy from building a facility called the "Outer Landing Field" or OLF.

Here's an excerpt on the OLF from a piece I wrote back in 2012.  Unfortunately, the links don't work. The NOOLF site went dark - because it was no longer needed.

From April 2012...

Ever heard of the OLF?  If you've ever driven through some of the counties in eastern NC or Virginia, you would.  NOOLF.org signs dot the roadsides, and some have obviously been there for years.  Last year, the organization won a major battle in its long-running war of attrition.  Here's a quote from the most recent news item posted on the NOOLF.org website.

"The U.S. Navy called a Jan. 27 truce in its 10-year battle to build a practice airfield in North Carolina or Virginia.

The proposed Outlying Landing Field (OLF) for practice landings and takeoffs by carrier-based jets from Norfolk, Va., stirred strong opposition in both states, but none more than in North Carolina, where the Navy first attempted to obtain land for the field a decade ago.

'The Navy made the right decision,' said Vance Aydlett Jr., chairman of the Currituck County Board of Commissioners, 'The Navy promised that it would not build an OLF in a community that did not want it, and today it followed through on the promise.'"

NOOLF is a successful activist driven effort to stop government overreach, and it provides a prime example of how diverse groups can come together to stop such efforts - even as they attack the issue from totally different perspectives.  Take a look at the site's "allies" page and you will see groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and FreedomWorks.

You would never expect to see that would you?  Those groups could not agree on anything could they?  The answer to both questions is "No".  However, on this effort they come at the issue from different perspectives and end up in the same place, and that place allows them to agree.  The OLF is bad for the community for environmental reasons and  property rights reasons.  So, they agree to fight it together.


Fast forward to today and the fight against the toll lanes.  One can certainly see a lot of parallels to the efforts of WidenI77.org and Facebook groups like "Exit 28 Ridiculousness".

Always remember, no challenge is too big when "the people" work together.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Bradford, Jeter not to blame for marriage bill override

The “veto” used to be a powerful weapon in the Governor’s arsenal, but recently it has not been an effective one for North Carolina’s chief executives.  With veto-proof super majorities in both houses of the legislature, the General Assembly now regularly overrides gubernatorial vetoes – sometimes with ease and sometimes only after “gaming the system”.

Last week’s veto override of Senate Bill 2 in the House – a bill which allows magistrates and registrars to “opt out” of performing any marriages if they object to performing same-sex marriages due to a religious objection - definitely falls into the latter category.

Before getting into the details of how the House override occurred, here is a little history on the recent demise of the veto’s power.

Over the last ten sessions of the NCGA there have been 34 gubernatorial vetoes issued.  Sixteen of those vetoes have been overridden.  Fifteen of the sixteen overrides have occurred since the Republicans took over both houses of the legislature after the 2010 elections.  Eleven of the fifteen Republican-led overrides were against Democrat Beverly Perdue.  However, maybe more surprising is that four out of five vetoes from Republican Governor Pat McCrory have also been overridden by the heavily Republican legislature.

This recent history shows where the real power lies in Raleigh.  It’s in the General Assembly, not the Governor’s mansion.  But even with all that power, sometimes the leadership in the legislature has to work at it to achieve the 3/5ths vote, or 60% super majority, in each chamber to snub the Governor.

So, what does all this have to do with local politics?

Well, it just so happens that all three local legislators, Senator Jeff Tarte, and Representatives Charles Jeter and John Bradford all supported the Governor’s opposition to this bill.  All three voted against its initial passage, and Senator Tarte was one of only three Republican Senators to vote against the override in the Senate..

The Senate override however was the easy part.  That vote was 32-16 in favor  – easily surpassing the 60% mark of the members present.  Two of the total 50 senators were absent for that vote.

One would think absent voters would not matter, but in the subsequent NC House vote they would be necessary to ensure a successful override attempt.

In the House override vote last Thursday, 10 members were not present – four Democrats and six Republicans.  That dropped the total number of “yes” votes required to 66.  Those favoring overriding the governor had 69 votes in their pocket, so a vote was called and the bill was overridden.

As soon as the vote occurred Thursday morning, attention turned to those who were absent which allowed for the smaller number of votes required.  That attention – particularly on the political left - quickly focused on the three Republicans who voted against the original bill but who were not on hand last Thursday to vote against the override.  Two of those three Republicans were local Reps Charles Jeter and John Bradford.

The questions being asked in cyberspace implied the Republican no-shows deliberately sandbagged the vote by not showing up and thus allowed the override to succeed.  The implication was that they had not stood by their original votes.  After all, last Thursday was the first excused absence this legislative session for each of them.  It seemed suspicious.

Unfortunately for those critics, the math doesn't support their position.

Everything else being equal, even if Jeter, Bradford and fellow Republican Rep Jon Hardister who all voted against the original bill had been on hand last Thursday, the override would have still been successful.  Or put another way, their absence did not cause it to pass.

Rep Jeter was out with a stomach bug.  He says he would have been there, but knew his vote would not have altered the outcome.  Rep Bradford knew new was going to be out that day and let the Governor know in advance that his opposition to the bill had not changed.

But what about the other absent members?

There were also four Democrats and three other Republicans not present last Thursday.  After analyzing their previous votes, it appears this override likely would have occurred even if the full House membership had been present.  If all of the other absent members had been present and voted the same way they did when the bill passed originally, the vote would have been 72 – 48 – or exactly 60%.

That however might have been too close for comfort for those wanting the override to succeed, so they waited until the odds were in their favor.  In doing so, they gave a lesson in power-politics and dealt another blow to the power of the veto.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Funding I77: A question of political will, not money

Interesting numbers on transportation in the just released Senate budget proposal...

From the Carolina Journal...

The Senate proposal also eliminates a $215 million annual transfer from the Highway Fund to the General Fund to pay for the Highway Patrol. Senate leaders say this change, plus the additional $100 million a year additional income from DMV fees would provide sufficient funds for highway construction, thus eliminating the need for a $1.5 billion transportation bond package proposed by McCrory.

“The idea on transportation is that rather than borrow a billion or billion-and-a-half dollars, we could put $300-plus million annually — additional dollars — into transportation,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “The feeling was we could build the projects that are not being built presently and do it without borrowing money.”

Now, Governor Pat certainly can't like that at all.  He and his team have been running around the state giving the hard sell on his bond package.

Hardly a day goes by where some email blast lands in the ol' inbox talking about the virtues of his bond propisal, but it appears the NC Senate doesn't see it that way.

What the Senate proposal does show is that transportation funding can be achieved if the correct priorities are in place and there is the political will to implement those priorities.

Through a few strokes of the budget pen, they came up with $315 million per year in new money.

Now let's look at that from the perspective of the I77 HOT Lanes project.

How much is $315m/yr over the 50 year life of  the HOT lanes?

Answer: Over $15 billion.

How much is the true funding gap if the current HOT Lanes plan was converted to general purpose lanes or even one new GP lane and an extension of the current HOV lane while still spending the state dollars committed directly to the HOT project?

Answer:  $655m total cost - $95m direct state input - $75m DRAM committment - roughly $80m in "bonus funds" being spent to directly help the HOT lanes project - $50m in toll collection costs not needed for a non-toll project leaves a $355m funding gap.

The Senate's proposed new budget just found nearly that much in the couch cushions.

And the State means to tell one of the areas that is a major economic engine the only way to widen the road is to suck billions of dollars out of the local economy over the next 50 years rather than using a tiny percentage of the billions they just "found" to achieve the same thing?

That's not a money problem.  That's a political will problem.

Update: A reader sent in this comment...

"We need to stop the apples-to-apples comparison because we don't need an apple, we need a grape."

That's a good point.  What has been proposed by NCDOT is a "kitchen sink" type of project.  It's  more than what's needed to solve the problem with goodies like new bridges and new exits thrown in to jack up the cost to attract companies like Cintra and buy political support from some local politicians.

The point of this piece is that even when you accept those unnecessary pre-conditions this is not as much of a money problem.