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Against the wind 

Raleigh's "best" citizen leaders share a determination to make our city the best

When I was a lad I served a term as cub reporter for a daily newspaper in New Jersey, where I covered the local government doings in a half-dozen small shore area communities. Thus was I was initiated into the mysterious process known as rezoning. Invariably, it went this way:

At a public hearing said to be "quasi-judicial," meaning--to my young mind--"not something you're supposed to understand"--a lawyer for a landowner or developer would arise and declare, with the greatest seriousness, that the town's zoning designation for some tract of land or other was, well, ill-conceived.

More, usually much more, must be built upon it than the current zoning would allow, the lawyer would invariably say, if the property in question were to achieve--and here he'd pause and take a deep breath before uttering those teleological words--its highest and best use.

Various "experts" would thence be sworn as witnesses and would duly swear that in their expert opinions, and not merely because they were being paid by the landowner or developer, the highest and best use of the tract would be a big hotel, or a lot of apartments, or whatever else it was that their employer wanted to put there.

This struck me as oddly coincidental, if not completely arbitrary. And so, in my novitiate stage, I waited for the town's attorney, or its planning director, or somebody in authority, to rise in defense of the zoning designation being attacked.

Well, as Bob Seger said, I'm older now, and I'm still waiting. Because quasi-judicial or not, there is no other side in a rezoning case--no Perry Mason to counter the developer's Hamilton Burger--unless some community volunteer steps forward to present it.

And when they do, they are inevitably--as Seger's song says--running against the wind.

It's in this vein that I thought to give a nod, in this "Best of" issue of ours, to some of the best citizens in Raleigh--best in the sense that they are willing to step up and defend the interests of their neighborhoods even when the political wind is right in their face.

Understand, not every rezoning is wrong--or right. But in every case, the interests of the individual property owner have to be balanced against what's good for the neighborhood as a whole. And while that's supposed to be the job your elected officials do, assisted by well-paid city employees, believe me when I say that when a well-connected developer wants something, unless community leaders represent their neighborhood's interests, your city officials and staff have a way of not representing them, either.

Here are eight community leaders who do:

click to enlarge Raleigh Planning Commission member Betsy Kane is tops on the list. - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
Betsy Kane. She's the first one on my list because, as the sharpest member of the Raleigh Planning Commission, she does the hard work of thinking through and considering the consequences of every development case in the city. Of planning ahead, in other words. And yes, the irony is intended. Kane isn't the only planning-minded member of the planning commission. One or two others try, too. But a solid majority make it their business to say yes to developer-applicants regardless, because they too are developers, or else they work for developers. Kane, on the other hand, is a professional land-use planner and attorney who's paid to help other communities grow and prosper, but does her smart-growth thing for Raleigh pro bono.

Elizabeth Byrd. Her Avent West neighborhood around NCSU is dotted with apartment housing, including a lot of older houses rented to students. Which put Byrd, who co-chairs the West Citizens Advisory Committee (or West CAC), toe-to-toe with their absentee landlords--a virtual industry--when she pushed the City Council for what came to be known as the PROP. Under the PROP, short for Probationary Rental Occupancy Permit, landlords who let their rentals turn into slums can be stripped of their right to rent. That got their attention! And it helped stabilize Avent West. By the way, the CACs vary greatly in their capacity to represent community interests. The city's Community Services Department supposedly backs them up. But they really don't work at all without active volunteer leadership. The West CAC is one of the best, thanks to Byrd, Bruce Mamel and a few others like them.

Nicole Sullivan. Co-chair of the South Central CAC, which represents historically black neighborhoods east of the downtown business district, Sullivan read the riot act to city officials who looked like they just didn't care--or hadn't thought about--how the downtown "renaissance" would affect her community. The result is an ongoing "visioning" process that seeks to control gentrification and include the older neighborhood residents, and some younger ones like Sullivan, in the various goodies that the downtown redevelopment effort promises to provide.

Danny Coleman. Older than Sullivan but younger than most of Southeast Raleigh's aging cadre of political leaders, Coleman is the outspoken co-chair of the neighboring Central CAC and also heads, since his recent election, the city's leading black political organization, the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association (RWCA). He, too, is not bashful when it comes to telling City Hall what it's doing wrong, or lately, right, on his side of town.

Bob Mulder. When he was chair of the Raleigh Planning Commission in the '90s, it did some good planning--adopting the Urban Design Guidelines, for example. Up in Northeast Raleigh, meanwhile, where Mulder's still a CAC leader, the big issue for years has been stormwater runoff, the result of too much development with too little forethought as to what all that pavement would mean for the neighborhoods downstream. Mulder's work on the Stormwater Management Advisory Committee helped strengthen Raleigh's stormwater regulations, albeit after a lot of water had gone over the dam, so to speak. Soft-spoken but persistent, he continues to push for even stronger rules, which, needless to say, the developers don't exactly appreciate. Unless they've been flooded, that is.

Phil Poe. Another soft-spoken but determined guy, Poe helped lead the pro-growth planning a decade ago that gave us Glenwood South today. Now, he's focused on managing it so that SoGlo keeps growing without, however, overwhelming all the nearby neighborhoods, including his own Brooklyn-Glenwood. In addition to being a CAC chair, he's also chair of the Raleigh CAC--all the CAC leaders elected him, that is--and is determined to drag Raleigh's community process kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Starting with, say, e-mail addresses for the neighborhoods?

Jamie Ramsey. She started People for Parks, a "friends of" nonprofit, and pushed the City Council to adopt a community-based planning process for all of Raleigh's new and expanding parks. In that, she became persona non grata to the city's parks department, which liked its top-down planning model better. But Pullen Park's new master plan is much the wiser for her efforts. And if Horseshoe Farm Park (on the Neuse River in Northeast Raleigh) remains a largely undisturbed pasture and nature preserve, as it should, give Ramsey a lot of the credit--even though city bureaucrats kept her off the master plan committee itself. (Read more about Horseshoe Farm Park in the Indy's "Best of the Triangle" on page 35.)

Bill Padgett. No list of Raleigh's neighborhood leaders would be complete without Padgett, longtime chair of the Wade CAC and a former Citizen Award winner from the Indy for his leadership in the successful fight against Coker Towers. Padgett's new cause is preserving the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital tract as a park when and if the hospital itself closes. Working with Jan Ramquist, Jay Spain and others, he's coming on strong in that one too.

My list isn't exhaustive, of course. There are eight more where these eight came from, and probably eight more times eight if I knew all the CACs and neighborhood groups and their leaders, which I don't.

What I do know, however, is how hard it is to get up from the audience at the end of a Raleigh Planning Commission meeting, for example, after the developer's lawyer and his traffic engineer and his landscape planner and his architect have been heard with the greatest deference for as long as they wanted, and now, with the commission members antsy to adjourn, the chair remembers to ask, "Is there anyone else who wants to say something about this case?"

And if you do get up, you can almost hear some of them saying: "Who are you to question this outstanding plan, which we've just been told must be executed exactly as requested if it's to have any chance of making money?"

But is there a "best" city you can name that succeeds in spite of its neighborhoods?

Raleigh, like the rest of the best, succeeds to the extent that it has the best neighborhood leaders. Hopefully, it isn't too big for its breeches to remember that.

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