Friday, February 13, 2015

NCGA targets local government overreach...

With the new General Assembly barely underway, multiple bills have already been submitted that put State lawmakers and some local government officials on a collision course over local authority to make some planning decisions.

S25(H36) - Zoning/Design and Aesthetic Controls was submitted last Tuesday.  That was followed by Wednesday's H51 -  Justice for Rural Citizens Act.

S25 and its companion bill, H36, are carryover bills from previous legislatures. The legislation has never been passed mostly due to timing on the legislative calendar, but it has raised angst among local officials every time it has been discussed.  The bills submitted last week match versions from the 2013 session that received overwhelming bi-partisan support.  Republican Senator Jeff Tarte from Cornelius is a primary sponsor on the Senate side – the same as he was last time.

The bill would explicitly prevent municipalities from implementing regularions on single family homes such as designating specific external building materials or design restrictions such as minimum setbacks on garage doors.

When this legislation was being discussed in 2013, the Town of Davidson took the unusual step of asking citizens to contact their legislators encouraging them to oppose it.  When asked if the Town would do that this time around, Public Information Officer, Christina Shall said "we will likely ask citizens to contact their representatives to oppose these bills, but we are waiting for the appropriate time."

Davidson Commissioner, Rodney Graham, who is also a custom home builder, was specific as to why he opposed this legislation.  Graham said "this legislation is being promoted by the production home builder lobby, and I have no idea why Raleigh feels they are better equipped to legislate design considerations than are the local towns."

When asked about this concern regarding local control of these decisions, Senator Tarte had this to say.

"The purpose of the aesthetic controls bill is to clarify where municipalities have inappropriately reached beyond their sphere of control as originally intended by the General Assembly. Nothing more and nothing less."

That sentiment meshes with comments received from Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter.  In 2013, then-Senator Clodfelter - a Democrat - was also a primary sponsor of this legislation along with Senator Tarte.  We asked Mayor Clodfelter's office if his feelings had changed now that he is on the municipal side.  Interestingly, he said we could use the same colorful quote he gave back in 2013 regarding the legislation as well as a study called a Health Impact Assessmenr opposing it completed by Davidson staff.

"The bill has no effect on such things as walkable design, bike-friendly design, or anything of the sort.   I have read the “study” and was perplexed by the fact that the authors of the study seemed to be talking about a piece of legislation they had never even read.   There has been a great deal of “Chicken Little” reaction to the bill, and that has been equally perplexing.   The bill actually is a restatement and reinforcement of current zoning statutes, which I think are quite direct about the permissible subjects that may be regulated through zoning ordinances.   The need for the bill has come about because some local governments have been simply ignoring the limitations in the current statutes.”

A collision course with Davidson would seem to be set on this one.
The second potentially controversial bill entered last week, H51 - The Justice for Rural Citizens Act, will also no doubt cause major heartburn for elected officials used to having their way with local planning decisions.

H51, if passed, would strip municipalities of their Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) planning authority.  Currently, municipalities can have some level of land use control beyond their municipal boundaries.  H51 would remove that authority over land use in an ETJ while leaving authority over public safety and things like water/sewer in place.

The rational is simple.  Residents from ETJs can not vote in municipal elections, so municipalities should not have a say in how their land can be used.

Again in Davidson, while town officials would certainly oppose seeing their authority over the town's ETJ stripped away, not everyone would be sorry to see it go.

Former Davidson Planning Board member, Martha Jenkins, had this to say when asked about the bill.  "The ETJ is a terrible and unfair restriction for property owners outside of town limits. Property owners in the ETJ are subject to people making decisions on land uses – while the actual property owner has no voting rights for those people who make those decisions. This concept allows town officials to control zoning and land uses without giving regard to the people who own the property and pay taxes."

She went on to say "the ETJ concept contradicts the American ideal  – all citizens should be allowed to vote for decision makers."

If this bill goes forward, after decades of living in Davidson's ETJ, Ms Jenkins and others may finally see that contradictory situation remedied.

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