Council passes new parking and zoning rules, delays Lightner Center

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Tuesday’s Raleigh City Council meeting saw more intense debate over the proposed public safety center downtown with no vote. But councilors did manage to pass new parking regulations, water conservation measures and a text change to bring the city into compliance with a new state law.

Lightner Center

The architects working on the proposed Clarence E. Lightner Publc Safety Center gave a presentation comparing the costs of the so-called Plan B to moving ahead with the center. Bonner Gaylord (District E), Russ Stephenson (at-large) and Thomas Crowder (District D) proposed the alternative plan that would scrap the centralized public safety center and up-fit existing facilities downtown to house the police and fire departments and emergency call center.

Michael Stephenson, a designer with Kling Stubbins who has been working on the project, told council that the alternative proposal would cost between $200 million and $300 million. He said the excess costs came from bringing existing buildings up to code with state law regulating public safety facilities. He also said the city would have to install redundant communications and electrical systems, which the current site already has.

Gaylord, who has opposed the center since joining council in December, disagreed with the designers’ assumptions. He said the proposal they submitted could be done for $82 million.

“No one has been measurable benefits” with the Lightner Center, Gaylord said. “We don’t need to spend $205 million to prove we support public safety.”

Gaylord, speaking for Stephenson and Crowder, also said that the mayor’s arguments that the city should act now before interest rates go up is wrong. “Many economists say interest rates and construction costs could stay flat,” he said.

Mayor Charles Meeker responded in a sharp tone, markedly different from his normal all-business demeanor. He said the trio’s Plan B “fills only two-thirds of our needs.”

Meeker called the alternative plan a “fundamental mistake.”

On whether or not interest rates will go up over the next couple years, Meeker called that “a gamble we should not make.”

The mayor’s current proposal has been cut back some in recent months. The debate now centers on just the public safety center and drops five Solid Waste Services facilities out of the budget. The plan does still call for a one cent tax increase over the next three years.

New site plan rules

Councilors passed a new set of rules governing the site plan and subdivision approval process. The city had to speed up its text change process after a new state law went into effect in January that requires what it calls quasi-judicial appeals for site plan and subdivision approvals.

The new regulations say give site plans and subdivisions a 20-day appeal window before they’re enacted. If someone appeals, and the standing for appeal is fairly broad, then the case will have to be heard by council in a de novo process (meaning it doesn’t include earlier deliberations) and witnesses will be sworn in. The new rules also mean only experts will be able to testify on traffic and property value impacts.

One surprising side effect of the quasi-judicial appeals process is that since councilors will be acting as jurors in the appeals, developers and concerned citizens will not be able to lobby councilors over subdivisions and site plans.

The only point of contention, which has followed TC-1-10 since it was introduced, is that it requires developers to only notify in writing people within 100 feet of a subdivision proposal. For site plans, the notification will stay at the 400-foot radius currently required.

Only Crowder voted against the text change, arguing that the notification should be set at 400 feet for both site plans and subdivisions.

Councilors on the comprehensive planning committee plan to look into creating a separate body to hear these appeals so they won’t have to go before the full city council. Setting up a new board for the appeals does mean that residents will again be able to talk to councilors about site plan and subdivision cases.

Parking changes

Councilors decided to continue debating front-yard parking, which was up for a vote today. But they did pass a new set of rules on how close to the curb people have to park.

The new rules say that when there are marked spaces on the site of the road, cars will only have to be inside of those lines. When there are no markings, cars will have to be within 12 inches of the curb.

The new ordinance will go into effect Feb. 23.

That second rule, which has been in place for a while, is more flexible than city officials would have drivers believe. At a council meeting earlier this year City Manager Russell Allen said that the city’s policy allows a 6-inch grace distance, meaning that people shouldn’t get a ticket unless they’re 18 inches from the curb.

Water conservation

All new landscaping irrigation systems will be required to have smart controllers, which calculate ground water before turning on sprinklers or drip irrigation systems.

Council also approved a new program to incentivize drought-resistant landscaping. The city will create what’s being called a “Green Star” program so developers will be able to market the landscaping to customers.

Crowder said he didn’t think it was worth staff time to work on the program because it has no financial incentives.

Council also had a proposal before it to increase capacity fees by $700 over the next two years. Some members of the council expressed reservations over raising the fees, which developers pay when building new homes, during the on-going recession. Councilors voted to put the capacity fees to a public hearing in April.

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