The first batch of postcards went out Monday. Raleigh, city officials tell us, is beginning the process of rezoning 35,000 properties using its new and improved zoning code. In italicized letters, we're also told: Don't Panic!
OK, not panicking. But we do have—we Raleigh residents—cause for alarm.
Which is what David Cox is saying as he moves around the city spreading the message of a new group, Grow Raleigh Great. The message: Raleigh's comprehensive plan is a solid recipe for development in a growing city and it should be followed. But the zoning code, the thing that's supposed to implement the plan, is full of holes and threatens neighborhoods. It needs a lot of fixing before it's applied to any property near you.
What will it take to fix it? Five votes on the City Council, Cox says. A majority. That's his goal.
You remember Cox. Three years ago, he was hit with a misdemeanor charge for—yes, we all got a good laugh out of it—practicing traffic engineering without a license. His crime, to the state Department of Transportation's chief traffic engineer, was challenging the licensed professionals who ruled that more traffic signals weren't needed out where Cox lives. The effrontery!
Cooler DOT heads prevailed and Cox went free. But I recall two things about him from that episode. One, he wasn't an arrogant know-it-all, quite the opposite—he's a soft-spoken computer scientist, and getting crossways with authority made him nervous. But nervous or not, he didn't back away from his conclusions or his right, as a citizen, to have them considered. That's the second thing: He's tenacious.
These qualities were on display Saturday when Cox spoke to the District D Neighborhood Alliance, led by District D City Councilor Thomas Crowder. Cox, in logical, low-key fashion, described the "fundamental disconnect" between the comprehensive plan, adopted by City Council in 2009, and the zoning code, approved last year:
• The plan prescribes the scale of development allowed in each location; the code, however, leaves critical questions of scale undefined.
• The plan contains height limits for higher-density sites; the code doesn't.
• The plan distinguishes clearly between small-scale NMU districts (neighborhood mixed-use) and larger-scale CMU (community mixed-use) districts and shopping centers; the corresponding NX and CX zoning categories in the code, however, serve to blur the distinctions.
The first issue, the lack of definitions, came as a surprise to Cox and his friends in NORCHA, a North Raleigh coalition of homeowners associations. A tract off Falls of Neuse Road was designated NMU in the comprehensive plan, meaning small stores and maybe some apartments, but nothing huge. But when the code came out, the NX zoning category put no size limits on stores. The first rezoning application of 2014: A shopping center on that tract, anchored by a 50,000 square-foot Publix supermarket.
The next issue, about heights, arose with the second rezoning case, on Hillsborough Street across from N.C. State. The site was also NMU, meaning a three to four story height limit should apply unless near a transit stop, where five stories might be allowed. The developer, though, wanted to build seven-story student housing.
Turns out, the code has no height limits in NX or any other mixed-used zones.
Also, both applications initially sought CX zoning designations despite being in NMU locations (the Hillsborough Street developer has since amended his application from CX-7 to NX-7).
But wait, wasn't CX zoning reserved for sites in community mixed-used districts? Strangely, in both cases the city's planning department deemed CX zoning consistent with neighborhood mixed-use as described in the comprehensive plan.
In a 12-page paper titled "Unintended Consequences",which Cox and his allies delivered to City Council, the Grow Raleigh Great group put the problem succinctly:
"The Comprehensive Plan establishes a vision for Raleigh," it states. "Neighborhood Mixed Use envisions 'small', 'walkable', and 'servicing just the immediate vicinity.' Community Mixed Use envisions 'large', 'auto-oriented', and 'servicing many neighborhoods over a much larger area.' These are two very different visions. Yet, these visions do not carry over to the [zoning code] or the later steps in the development process."
I must confess, it never occurred to me, while the planning department hammered out the code, to check for definitions and height limits. The whole idea of the code overhaul was to be "form-based"—that is, get the form of development right for each location and then get out of the way. Form, meaning height.
And the comprehensive plan spelled out the allowable heights.
But here we go again with developers seeking special treatment from the Council—with every expectation that they'll get it. That seven-story building on Hillsborough? Councilors Bonner Gaylord and Eugene Weeks voiced support at a committee meeting last week. Russ Stephenson and Crowder are opposed. We'll see about the other four members.
But here's the thing. Cox and friends have collected 3,400 signatures from voters opposed to the Publix rezoning. Through Grow Raleigh Great, these voters will be encouraged to notice which Council members support the comprehensive plan in the Hillsborough Street case.
Cox, in other words, is trying to connect the dots and link neighbors opposed to a malevolent rezoning here with those opposed to another one there—the objective is a strong enough political force to persuade council members that it's in their best political interests to stand by the plan.
"We're not a bunch of politicians," Cox told the DDNA group. "We're just a bunch of homeowners. We'd rather be home cutting our grass. But the main thing is to advocate to Council—because ours will not be the last zoning cases."
The rezoning map rolled out by city staff Monday calls for the Hillsborough Street site to be zoned NX-4. The developer continues to seek NX-7. The zoning map is at www.raleighudo.us. See www.growraleighgreat.blogspot.com for information about Cox’s group.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Unintended Consequences ."