January 27, 2016 (INDY Week)
By Jane Porter
Ryan Barnum lives at 1300 Lorimer Road, a shady, narrow street in west Raleigh. When he bought his 1950s house last April for $284,000, he’d never heard of an in-the-works proposal to install a 6-foot sidewalk on a stretch of that street, along with curbs, gutters and storm drains.
Soon after he closed, a woman named Donna Burford contacted him. A few months earlier, Burford—who lives on an adjacent street—had started gathering signatures on a citizen petition for the street improvements, lobbying neighbors up and down Lorimer to gain the 50-percent-plus-one support the city requires to validate such petitions. Barnum says Burford pitched the sidewalk improvements as a way to fix flooding issues.
“I was very reluctant to sign the petition,” Barnum says. He had good reason: The 14 property owners on the northern side of Lorimer would be assessed a total of $53,600 for the improvements; city taxpayers and property owners on the southern end of Lorimer will pick up the remaining $1.7 million. Because Barnum has the most property fronting the street, he’ll be charged more than $10,000. Later, he says, he learned that he could have started his own citizen petition to have the city merely repave the road and install stop signs for a fraction of the cost.
But Barnum says he also doesn’t think the project is a good idea on its merits, at least not on the northern side of Lorimer. “I don’t want a sidewalk on that road,” he says. His house, he points out, sits relatively close to the street. The sidewalk would be 15 feet from his living room.
Barnum contacted city project administrator Donetta Powell with his concerns. According to Barnum, Powell (who did not respond to requests for comment) told him the improvements were inevitable and the rates would be going up soon, but a signature now would secure the current price. She also said residents would be able to negotiate later for a smaller, less intrusive design.
Barnum signed the petition.
None of those assurances turned out to be true, he says.
“There was the fear of having to pay a lot more for something that I don’t want that contributed to that decision,” Barnum says. “That was a scary thing for me. I don’t have that kind of money lying around.”
He’s not the only one who feels duped.
Ten homeowners on the northern end loudly oppose the improvements, citing high assessment fees, encroachment into their front yards and loss of privacy. They say their section of Lorimer—which comprises about a third of the entire project—should be left out of the plan because it doesn’t have much car traffic or safety concerns. They argue that Burford told residents they’d pay more in assessment fees if the project wasn’t done right away. (Burford did not respond to the INDY‘s request for comment.)
“The unique, natural character of the street will be diminished,” wrote Steve Grothmann, who will be assessed $5,000 for the project, in an email to city council members last week. “The canopy which we will lose adds value. A walkable city is a commendable goal in general, but this part of Lorimer is already walkable, and neighborhoods’ unique characteristics should matter.”
The council approved the project in September with an 8–0 vote. “Change is coming, the population is growing, more building is coming. Face it, you can’t stop it,” council member Kay Crowder told opponents at a neighborhood forum Oct. 20, according to meeting minutes. “You cannot amend a petition once council has voted on it.”
But the northern Lorimer neighbors haven’t given up.
One of them, David Simonton, says he will appear before the council in February to ask that the project be suspended until these “allegations of misconduct and misrepresentation can be investigated.”
If that doesn’t work, they have another option: sue the city.
This isn’t the first time a citizen petition has prompted confusion and acrimony. In 2014, residents successfully petitioned for a controversial traffic-calming project on Laurel Hills Road. Some neighbors went before the council that October questioning the petition’s validity. The council sent the issue to its public works committee. Residents showed up en masse to complain that they had signed the petition under false pretenses and didn’t actually want the improvements.
Ultimately, the city scrapped the Laurel Hills plan, but the council didn’t make any changes to the citizen-petition process. There are a few things it could have done: Door-to-door petitioning could be replaced by a mail-ballot system, or information could be sent out, or neighborhood meetings held, before a petition is circulated. Neighbors could also be given an option to rescind their signatures, an appeals process could be put into place (a model Charlotte uses) or the city attorney could be authorized to spike a petition when allegations of misconduct arise.
These changes were proposed by city staff in two different council committees over the last three years, but were never debated or followed up on. Council members did not respond to requests for comment.
Not everyone on Lorimer is unhappy. Those in favor of the project—nearly two-thirds of all the affected households—paint the dissenters as a vocal minority opposed to a project most everybody else supports.
“There is no general ‘angst’ in the Lorimer Road neighborhood over the approved street improvements,” wrote Lorimer Road resident Sharon Mixon, Donna Burford’s sister, in an email to the council last week. “We are eager for the project to proceed and are impatient with the continued complaining and attempts to delay or alter the project. … Regarding the petition process itself, the property owners were indeed contacted and no one felt mislead [sic] or pressured into signing, and were fully aware of the proposed improvements.”
But the opponents, eager for a compromise they say is readily available, are losing faith in the city and its leadership.
“The information being circulated to secure the signatures was cloudy at best,” says resident Jeff White. “… The process by which these citizen-driven petitions are reviewed and accepted is flawed, and at a minimum the city should recognize this and look to improve the checks and balances of such a petition.”
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