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Raleigh's citizens' councils hope a new manager will usher in a more neighborhood-friendly era

"The fact is," says Paul Boudreau, the man formerly known to Raleigh neighborhood activists as "Bulldog Boudreau" for his willingness to battle big-box developers, "Ninety-eight percent of the people don't know there even is such a thing as a CAC."

Which has got to hurt your feelings if you believe strongly, as Boudreau does, in the idea of Citizens Advisory Councils, the volunteer groups that are supposed to help people in Raleigh's far-flung neighborhoods know what their city government is up to downtown. And Boudreau believes in them still, despite the fact that he got so fed up with the way the city courted developers in his part of Raleigh, that he up and moved to Morrisville three years ago, resigning first as chair of the Northwest CAC.

Raleigh's 18 CACs were created by the city in 1973 to broaden citizen involvement in government beyond the usual suspects at the Chamber of Commerce. The councils were set up to advise elected officials on neighborhood issues and act as a conduit for information generated at City Hall. Six more CACs are on the drawing boards now--all split-offs from councils in North Raleigh that have seen their territory mushroom in three decades' time.

The CACs have had their ups and downs, longtime leaders say. They were up in the late 1970s, when neighborhood activism was at its peak and Mayor Isabella Cannon, "the little old lady in tennis shoes," was elected over the incumbent developer-mayor, Jyles Coggins. They were strong through the '80s. But since then they've been down, as Mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble have tilted decisions toward business and away from neighborhoods.

It didn't help that Dempsey Benton, the city manager until just a few months ago, was no fan of the CACs either. "Not in the slightest," says Liz Biss, a member of the North Central CAC--which covers the northern part of Southeast Raleigh--and vice chair of the Raleigh CAC, a citywide umbrella group.

Benton was pro-development, CAC folks say, and saw the councils as a way to get government information out to citizen "consumers," not for people to put their two cents in. "Dempsey didn't like trouble," is how Biss puts it. "If the neighborhoods caused any trouble, he'd just take your budget away." While the CACs don't have budgets of their own, the city manager controls funds they receive for newsletter mailings (no e-mail yet) and community events.

CAC leaders are hoping that Benton's successor will be more neighborhood-friendly. Russell Allen, currently manager of the Charlotte suburb of Rock Hill, S.C., lists the creation of 70 neighborhood groups there--in a city of just 50,000--as among his best achievements. Using "neighborhood organizing and empowerment," official pronouncements say, he's "successfully molded a community-oriented government" and used it to do strategic planning, neighborhood assessments, downtown redevelopment and historic preservation.

Allen says he doesn't know much about Raleigh's CACs, but he sounds genuinely committed to the idea that, in addition to government serving people as customers, "there is a level beyond that, because people live in neighborhoods and in communities too." Getting communities organized and engaged, he says, makes it a lot more likely that people will pitch in and help their city.

When Allen arrives in Raleigh next month, he won't have to invent neighborhood organizations. But he will find the CACs--which are supposed to be the link between neighborhoods and city government--in need of empowerment.

A good illustration of that came during the most recent Raleigh CAC meeting. Members were all set to adopt a resolution in favor of a small but important change in the city's zoning ordinance. The alteration grew out of a state Superior Court ruling that said Charlotte's one-stop process for approving developers' rezoning applications violated the public's right to be involved in zoning cases. The change in Raleigh's ordinance would have required developers to meet with neighbors before submitting a rezoning application (now they are merely "encouraged" to do so), and would have allowed them to use CAC meetings for that purpose.

Advisory council leaders were all for that. But while they were busy gathering support for the resolution among their members, the Raleigh City Council voted to reject the change without waiting to hear from the CACs. The vote was a familiar 4-4: Four moderates on the Council were in favor; Mayor Coble and his three conservative allies opposed putting what they called more "burdens" on developers.

In some older parts of the city, there aren't a lot of rezoning cases and CAC involvement isn't as big a concern. But in most of Raleigh, development is roaring ahead and rezonings are key CAC issues. That was certainly true for Boudreau when he headed the Northwest CAC. The group had about 60 cases a year, he says, including such biggies as the CarMax and Target Stores developments on U.S. 70. More recently, the controversial Coker Towers rezoning case in central Raleigh has lit a fuse under three surrounding CACs, with hundreds of people coming to CAC meetings that, until recently, could have been held in a coffee shop.

Are the CACs a good way for citizens to be heard in rezonings? Boudreau says they are "100 percent effective," but by that he means only that they do all they can to keep citizens informed about a process that doesn't exactly encourage their involvement.

Developers do generally meet with CAC leaders before they try to get land rezoned, although they're not required to do so. And the city notifies the advisory councils of pending rezoning cases in their areas. But then it's up to the volunteer CAC members to get word out to the rest of the community--a task that doesn't get much backing from the city.

For example, when Boudreau was chair of the Northwest CAC, he was given an official mailing list of only 70 names in an area of the city that contained 30,000 people, not counting another 20,000 who lived in the county but were in the city's zoning jurisdiction. Eventually, he built the list up to 1,200 names by adding "everyone who ever came to a meeting."

Another problem is that the CACs take up rezoning applications at the front end of the process, before developers make submissions to the city council and before the one and only required public hearing (which is limited to 16 minutes--eight minutes each for supporters and opponents). At this early stage, the neighbors--if they've heard about the application at all--have to be tutored by CAC leaders about how complicated zoning ordinances apply to projects that may be described only in the most general way, and may change dramatically in subsequent months.

"No question, the CACs are at a disadvantage," says Bob Mulder, a former planning commission chair. "They operate at the leading edge of information from the [developer], and the people who come to the meetings don't have a whole lot of planning information. And then projects don't always look at the end like they did at the beginning, so people can think they've gotten the short end of the stick" if they voted in favor.

How could this process be improved? One easy way, suggests Fran Robertson, the new chair of the Hillsborough CAC, would be for the city to mail notices of CAC meetings with bi-monthly water bills--the way other city events are promoted. Or the CACs could be given promotional money to use in other ways to help boost meeting attendance and mailing lists.

Boudreau suggests adding CAC chairs as non-voting members of the planning commission for rezoning cases in their areas. Also, he thinks cases should be returned to the CACs for reconsideration after they've been through the planning commission and are in final form, ready for a city council vote.

Keeping the CACs strong is critical if citizens are going to have any say about zoning decisions that will shape the future of their communities, Boudreau says. "They can't do your job for you," he says. "But without having people in the CAC who know the procedures and can advise you about the process, it's very difficult even to know when these cases are going to be heard." EndBlock


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