Will Raleigh follow its plan in mediating neighborhood zoning fights? | Citizen | Indy Week
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Will Raleigh follow its plan in mediating neighborhood zoning fights? 

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Photo by Bob Geary

Back in the bad old days, these things could get ugly. I mean eye-gouging, knees-to-the-groin ugly and unfair. One side, green as grass, would play by the rules. The other, veterans in the ring, would break the rules—but sometimes, the refs didn't seem to care!

You know what I'm talking about: Rezoning fights in Raleigh could be bloody.

The Battle of Coker Towers, Stanhope's Last Stand, they all started the same way. A developer optioned land next to a neighborhood, then tried to get it rezoned for construction on a bigger—often a much bigger—scale than the current zoning allowed. Neighborhoods, alarmed, turned to the city's old comprehensive plan for protection. The company countered with the zoning code, a pastiche of loopholes.

In the end, the only rule that mattered was that the City Council could decide to rezone a tract or not—which turned some of these planning decisions into political brawls.

Finally, following the arrival of Mitch Silver in 2005 as Raleigh's new planning director, the Council embarked on a complete rewrite of the plan and the code, led by Silver's staff and consultants. 

The City Council's goal: Make land-use outcomes fair and predictable for neighborhoods and developers alike.

The Great Recession gave Raleigh some breathing space to work on the plan, which the council approved in 2009, and the code, which required until 2013 to produce—and is only now about to go into effect. This spring, the planning staff is supposed to propose a citywide remapping, which would replace all the old zoning classifications with the new ones.

But the delay had its upside, because the comprehensive plan sets the goals and then it's the job of the zoning code to implement them with clear, detailed rules—and the extra time means the details are more likely to be right, yes?

Maybe not. The first indication that all might not be well arose last year in connection with a rezoning case for a Sheetz gas station and convenience store next to a neighborhood off New Hope Road. A unanimous City Council turned it down, to the neighbors' relief, finding the project incompatible with the site's Neighborhood Mixed-Use designation under the 2009 plan.

However, had the new zoning code been in effect, the NX category, "the most appropriate for neighborhood mixed-use" sites according to the plan, would have allowed the Sheetz bid, no rezoning needed. 

Oops.

The first two rezoning cases of this year also involve land designated for Neighborhood Mixed-Use in the comprehensive plan. And again, things are getting ugly, neighborhoods are pitted against developers, and the refs—Silver's planning staff—seem to have blinders on.

In the first case, a developer wants a 12-acre tract off Falls of Neuse Road in North Raleigh rezoned to permit a 50,000-square foot supermarket, the first Publix grocery store in Raleigh. The tract is at the entrance to the Bedford neighborhood.

In the second, a developer wants to put up a 7-story building—first floor retail, upper floors student housing—on the north side of Hillsborough Street in West Raleigh, across from the N.C. State campus and backing up to the University Park neighborhood.

The question in both cases is whether the scale of the project is compatible with the adjacent neighborhood.

I think both are incompatible, by which I mean that, if allowed, they would detract from the adjoining neighborhoods rather than enhance them.

But don't take my word for it. Go by the comprehensive plan. It defines Neighborhood Mixed-Use as "neighborhood shopping centers and pedestrian-oriented retail districts ... typical uses would include corner stores or convenience stores, restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets other than super-stores/centers, drug stores, dry cleaners ...."

Further, where housing is built above a store in a Neighborhood Mixed-Use area, "heights would generally be limited to three stories, but four or five stories could be appropriate in walkable areas with pedestrian-oriented businesses."

Unquote.

The tip-off that these projects aren't compatible with the adjacent neighborhoods is that, in both cases, the developers aren't seeking to be rezoned under the compliant NX category, but instead under CX—the next level up.

CX—short for Community Mixed-Use—"is the primary corresponding zoning district" for areas designated as, that's right, Community Mixed-Use.

And what is Community Mixed-Use? It's "medium-sized shopping centers and larger pedestrian-oriented retail districts such as Cameron Village. Typical uses include large-format supermarkets ...."

CX zoning allows for large-format supermarkets, which is why Morgan Property Group, the developer working for Publix, wants it.

More than 3,000 people in Bedford and the larger Falls River neighborhoods have signed petitions opposing the rezoning.

Similarly, CX zoning would allow a 7-story building, which is why the developer, HBST Partners, wants its small (0.18-acre) site rezoned to CX-7 status even though that part of Hillsborough Street is likely to be zoned NX-3, according to guidance issued by Silver's staff in 2012.

The CX category would also allow a first-floor bar, which NX does not. I should note here that my wife is a member of West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, which is immediately behind the 0.18-acre site.

What's mystifying about these cases is that, though they would seem to be in conflict with the comprehensive plan, Silver's department has stamped both as "consistent" with it. The full staff report isn't out yet on the Publix case. In the Hillsborough Street case, it is—and finds a 7-story building "inconsistent" with the Future Land Use Map that is the heart of the plan, but somehow consistent with the plan regardless.

These cases will be reviewed by the city's Planning Commission, which will make a recommendation. Ultimately, the City Council decides.

I asked Councilman Russ Stephenson, who chairs the Comprehensive Plan Committee and worked endless hours on the plan and the code, how projects so obviously inconsistent with the plan could be seen as consistent?

Stephenson just shook his head. "I'd have to ask staff for an explanation," he said in exasperation. "Because clearly this is causing confusion."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Gloves on, gloves off."

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