INDY Article (1/27/2016) & Comments

January 27, 2016 (INDY Week)

A divisive street-improvement plan raises questions about Raleigh’s citizen-petition process

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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To clarify, I live on the southern part of the affected stretch of Lorimer. Several of my neighbors on the south end also oppose the plan in general and consider the petition process to be flawed.
-Steve Grothmann

Posted by Steve Grothmann on 01/27/2016 at 9:36 AM

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71% of property owners living on the section of Lorimer Road between Onslow Road and Garland Drive—one block, the “north end” of Lorimer—want no part of this project as it’s planned. We’d like to go back to the drawing board to work out a compromise. We believe that, under the circumstances, it’s a more-than-reasonable request.

We petitioned the City Council—twice—to separate us from the original petition. But both times the answer was no. Whatever happened to majority rules? 71% of us are about to have to pay for (and maintain) something we neither want nor feel we need.

At an October 20th neighborhood meeting, District D Representative Kay Crowder was asked, “Why didn’t the Council consider splitting out the north end of Lorimer from the petition?” Mrs. Crowder’s (non-)answer: “The City wants to do whole streets, whole sections at once. ‘Microgaps,’ where sidewalks stop in the middle of the block, are only trouble to fix later. The City is trying to fix existing ones, and not create any more.” A “microgap,” by the way, according to Transportation Manager Eric Lamb, is “a missing section of sidewalk anywhere from 25 feet to 300 feet long and often involves a single property owner not wanting a sidewalk crossing in front of his or her property.”

On September 1, Crowder explained using another rational: “Though we don’t have sidewalks on Garland (or all of Garland) yet, I do think in the future that will happen as development happens on that street. I recently had a discussion with someone who’s trying to buy property on that street to build homes, and, under the code, he would have to put sidewalks in.”

Ouch! Some developer’s future requirements trumps what 71% of current day residents want for their own block.

And then there’s this: “…The goal is to make sure that kids can get to school.”

Okay. So, what lesson would those kids learn from the way the adults conducted themselves here in order to get what they wanted? —“Do whatever it takes, kids. And say any darn that comes to mind to avoid having to answer for your bad behavior … even if it’s only ‘no comment.’”

Posted by David Simonton on 02/09/2016 at 2:57 PM
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I wish the City would consider augmenting the “Unified Development Ordinance (UDO)” to incorporate a second set of design & construction standards for older, established neighborhoods, perhaps especially for those inside the Beltline.

The house I live in on Lorimer Road was build in 1950. The neighborhood I live in was established even earlier than that. And yet my neighbors and I are about to have present-day standards for NEW development applied here. Why?

Perhaps the City Council could formulate a complimentary set of more appropriate standards for long-established neighborhoods like ours. Perhaps a “URO,” with the “R’’ standing—NOT for “Retrofit” (which is how our project is being described)—but “Redevelopment,” since Raleigh’s older neighborhoods were “developed” years ago. Sidewalks would still be constructed, of course (leading to the connectivity our City desires), but they’d be scaled to better suit the size and aesthetic of the neighborhoods they’d be built in. Setbacks could be reduced—or eliminated—as well. Why not?

By doing this, the City would recognize AND HONOR the special qualities and unique characteristics of Raleigh’s diverse older neighborhoods.

-David Simonton

Posted by David Simonton on 01/31/2016 at 6:00 PM
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