Councilors voted 5-3 again Tuesday in favor of a controversial zoning case that would allow for the development of a seven-story student apartment complex with ground floor retail on Hillsborough Street.
First recommended for approval by the planning commission in April, zoning case Z-2-14 has been the source of much debate due to its proposed seven stories. Although the case meets the height requirements of the Future Land Use Map, which cap out at 75 feet, the map also calls for a maximum of five stories.
The case came up this week for a second vote due to a requirement that Councilors need a two-thirds majority to pass an ordinance on first reading. Although it had been discussed at length in the meeting held two weeks earlier, a handful of Councilors chose to continue the debate.
“I’m trying to understand what the public benefit is,” said Councilor Thomas Crowder.
Crowder, the project’s most vocal opponent, said approving it would set an “extremely bad” precedent by making the limit for stories appear irrelevant.
Councilor Wayne Maiorano argued that approving the development would not have an impact on future decisions.
“I regret that certain members of Council feel bound by a precedent that is not legally constraining,” Maiorano said. “Each case is going to be [decided] on a case-by-case basis, as it should be.”
He said that the Comprehensive Plan is a good document, but not one that should be “blindly followed” in all circumstances. For this case the benefits, including increased density and more student housing in a transit corridor, outweigh any concerns, Maiorano said.
After Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin argued that this kind of debate “is not what the Council should be about,” Crowder once again jumped into the fray, and said, “This is the place for debate, and public debate.”
Crowder asked Maiorano to explain what the public benefit of the project was, stating, “For the record, we need to state what the public benefit is.”
Councilor Russ Stephenson agreed, and said he, too, felt approving the project would be an “unfortunate precedent.”
Stephenson went on to list five precedents that approving the case would set, a list that covered everything from ignoring resident feedback to opening the city up to potential lawsuits.
“Maiorano talks about the fortitude by exception; I would say the other way of viewing that is its wisdom to not act by exception,” Stephenson said.
He added that “newcomers” on the Council, such as Maiorano, have had less time to see how the Comprehensive Plan works, and that if the Council starts governing by exception, it will make it harder for the city to reach its Comprehensive Plan goals.
Maiorano responded that he understood and respected Stephenson’s opinion, and said he hoped that by recognizing and respecting the opinions of those that have differing views, everyone could recognize that “they are just that – differing views.”
When the Council finally voted, the results were the same as last time, with Mayor McFarlane and Councilors Stephenson and Crowder voting against approval and the rest voting in favor.