The Council Record

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On Monday, we previewed what would be coming up at City Council with our Agenda Preview, an in-depth look at the issues scheduled for discussion before council. Today, we bring you The Council Record, an informal but nevertheless comprehensive look at the most recent City Council meeting. 

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June 7, 2016

Tuesday’s afternoon Council session began with an invocation from Vernon Matzen of the First Church of Christ, Scientist that touched on the importance of perspective and the need to exercise compassion toward all. This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Councilor David Cox.

Presentations & Awards

Once the meeting was officially called to order, Raleigh’s Communications director Damien Graham unveiled a brand-new social media campaign the City was launching: #ReflectRaleigh.

“I bet if I took a poll of all of you and asked what is the one thing that makes Raleigh so special,” Graham said,

“I bet you would all say, it’s the people that makes us unique and special.”

In that spirit, Graham said, they were setting up a 7’x4′ mirror with #ReflectRaleigh written on it so people can take pictures and share them online with the #ReflectRaleigh hashtag. The mirror is currently set up in One Exchange Plaza, but will move to the Museum of Art next week, followed by Pullen Park and the Contemporary Art Museum.

“Assuming it survives structurally,” Graham said, “You’ll see it at our Fourth of July celebration, and at Destination Dix later in July.”

After Graham showed off a photo City Council members had taken the day before in front of the mirror, Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin offered one small critique.

“I wish you had used a skinny mirror!”

This was followed by a presentation from Eric Mitcmko of the North Carolina Opera, which will be holding a screening of the cult Italian film “Hercules vs. Vampires” where the sound is turned off and replaced with a custom operatic soundtrack performed live. Baldwin noted that there were English subtitles so that people would be able to follow along.

The NC Opera will also be holding a costume party this Halloween, an event Mayor Nancy McFarlane has enjoyed in the past.

Consent Agenda

Only one item was pulled from the Consent Agenda, which called for a no parking zone in order to accommodate The Dillon project. Councilor Bonner Gaylord had been previously recused from items related to this project, as it is being developed by his employer Kane Realty. The entire agenda was approved unanimously. For a breakdown of what was in that agenda, please see our Agenda Preview. 

Planning Commission Report

Planning Commission Chairman Steven Schuster told Council that the only rezoning case they’d heard at their last meeting, Z-1-16, had been withdrawn by the applicant. For more on Z-1, see here. 

The next four items dealt with text changes to the City’s Unified Development Ordinance. The first one, which dealt with frontage standards, was not officially a text change at this point, as the process for those must be initiated by Council, then discussed by the Planning Commission before being brought back to Council. The item will be discussed further in a Council work session.

An omnibus text change was sent to the Growth & Natural Resources Committee, and Public Hearings were set for the other two, which dealt with the economic development map and construction project warranties.

City Manager’s Report

The first item on the Manager’s report was a bicycle and pedestrian improvement project for Lumley, Westgate, and Ebenezer Church Roads. City Manager Ruffin Hall noted that funding was only available at this point for the design stage of the project, and that they would need to find a way to finance the construction, possibly with money from the upcoming Transportation Bond.

Michael Taylor, a senior roadway engineer with Stewart Engineering, said the project, which will involve bike lanes, road widening, curb, gutter and sidewalk improvements and more, had been broken down into five segments.

Now that Stewart has completed the initial study, staff is asking Council to fund a $438,229 contract with them to design the project. The estimated cost of the entire project, including construction, is $2.256 million. Councilor Dickie Thompson estimated that at 6.5 miles, this meant it would cost about $65 per foot, and asked if there was any way they could bring the cost down.

Councilor Gaylord said the project was a “fantastic connector” that would greatly benefit all the neighborhoods involved; a point Councilor Thompson agreed on. The funding for the contract was approved unanimously.

The next item on the Manager’s Report was a redevelopment plan for the East College Park neighborhood. A large swath of City-owned land will be redeveloped into a mostly single-family neighborhood of affordable housing; Council needs to approve a layout at this point in order for infrastructure work to begin. Once that is complete, the land will be sold to and developed by a private company or nonprofit according to the specifications outlined by Council.

Councilor Corey Branch, whose District the project is located in, offered up two alterations to the latest version of the plan, which swapped out a block of town homes for single-family homes, and an apartment complex for town homes. This would reduce the total number of units from 172 to 148.

Noting the plans for higher-density affordable housing in the form of the Walnut Terrace Complex, which will eventually offer 400 units. The plan for East College Park was approved unanimously.

While several local residents had turned out in protest of the plan, the chair of the local Citizens Advisory Council, Octavia Rainey, told The Record after the vote that while Branch’s changes had alleviated some of their concerns, they were focused now on ensuring that the homes were affordably priced, perhaps somewhere in the $100,000 range.

Historic Cemeteries Advisory Board Report

The board, which was allocated $500,000 in 2015 as part of the parks bond to preserve and maintain three historic Raleigh cemeteries (City Cemetery, O’Rorke-Catholic Cemetery, Mount Hope Cemetery) gave a brief presentation on its 2016-2017 work plan. If you want to take a look at it, click here.  The plan was approved unanimously by Council.

Parks, Recreation & Greenway Advisory Board Report

The board presented its $6 million plan for improving the Pullen Arts Center. Formal design begins this summer, with construction expected to begin the fall of 2017, with construction lasting about a year.

A descendant of Richard Stanhope Pullen, who had donated the land to the City in the late 19th century, thanked the City for their efforts to maintain and improve the park. City Councilor Russ Stephenson in turn thanked her, and even got a bit choked up talking about the importance of Pullen Park to the city.

The plan was approved unanimously by Council.

Economic Development & Innovation Committee Report

The first item brought up by the Economic Development Committee was a Building Upfit Grant, that offers businesses 1:1 matching grants of up to $100,000 for improvements made to their building. Properties outside the targeted economic development zones can receive a maximum of $50,000; a minimum request of $5,000 is required.

Councilor Thompson asked how much was available per year — $500,000 — and whether the cap of $100,000 was too high.

Councilor Gaylord said they wanted to make it flexible enough to allow for larger projects.

“This first year is a test; this is sort of a pilot program we’ll be learning from,” Gaylord said.

The next two items from the committee dealt with changes to the City’s outdoor dining policy.

First was a proposal that would remove the three City plazas, including the newly reopened Market and Exchange Plazas, from the regulations that govern sidewalk dining. This change, essentially, will require businesses that wish to set up private dining areas on the plazas to go before Council for approval, instead of City staff.

“We really need to have some specific attention and a plan for these plaza spaces,” Mayor McFarlane said.

“The idea is that they’ll be multifunctional and diverse; there’s a lot of events on the big plaza on Fayetteville.”

“I’ve been asking the Downtown Raleigh Alliance for a strategic plan for downtown for three years,” the Mayor continued.

“We talked about a need for a plan that spoke to a whole mix of goods and services, what is it we need to have a successful downtown, and I think these spaces are unique and different from the sidewalks.”

(If we may offer up one humble suggestion for livening up at least City Plaza on Fayetteville: build those parklets there, instead of having them take up on-street parking.)

The motion to remove the plazas from the sidewalk dining regulations was approved unanimously, and will be further discussed with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the Convention and Visitors Bureau the Urban Design Center and the City’s office of special events.

Next up was a change to the layout requirements for sidewalk dining, the most significant of which was the replacement of stanchions with medallions as a way of establishing boundaries. Councilor Stephenson proposed that if a bar or restaurant owner contested a violation due to the more nebulous nature of the medallions, they should be given the option to have it not count against the three-strike policy, although they would be required to replace the medallions with stanchions.

This motion was withdrawn after Councilor Kay Crowder said they had other ways of dealing with bad actors, and asked how many violations had been issued related to sidewalk dining; the answer given was 31, many of which may have been issued within the last two months, as a Public Records Request we put in to the City in early April turned up only a dozen violations. 

A motion to approve the requirements as they appeared in the agenda was approved unanimously.

Growth & Natural Resources Committee

Councilor Crowder said the concerns related to the Unified Development Ordinance’s Height Limits and Building Setbacks had been held for further discussion, as a lot of complex issues had been raised.

Report of Mayor and Councilors

Councilor Cox kicked off the reports by noting it had been six months since the election, and that he wanted to thank the Mayor, his fellow Councilors and City Staff for “making this newbie’s transition onto City Council relatively painless and actually rather enjoyable.”

Cox then went on to discuss the crucial need for pay increases for the City’s police and fire employees, noting that starting salaries were not in line with inflation and that the salaries of existing employees had grown very slowly over the last decade.

Councilor Branch wanted to remind everyone of the Farmers Market offered by WakeMed at their main Raleigh campus every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. He also offered his congratulations to recent high school graduates, telling them to remember “This is just getting started.”

Councilor Crowder said she wanted to involve the City’s planning staff in a the selection process for a site for the Oak City Outreach Center to ensure its location is aligned with the City’s future land use plans.

Councilor Gaylord requested that additional City staff be made available for his monthly District E Alliance meetings; staff is currently made available every other month, but Gaylord said his constituents had requested they be available at all meetings to answer any questions that might come up.

After some discussion on the availability of staff and how much time they could spend at events such as the District E Alliance meetings, No strict policy is required for this, although a report will be generated to examine how much time evening and weekend time staff spends on such duties.

Councilor Thompson introduced Doug Grissom, the new director of the convention and performing arts center.

Appointments

Edie Jeffries, who ran against Councilor Gaylord in last year’s election and now works with him on the District E Neighborhood alliance, was nominated to the Planning Commission.  Other appointments were held due to a disagreement on the reappointment of one member who had been absent from more than 50 percent of the meetings due to international travel.

Evening Session

Due to the Public Hearings scheduled for the City’s upcoming FY17-18 budget and the possible legalization of short-term rental units such as those offered through Airbnb, Council Chambers Tuesday night were filled to capacity, with overflow areas set up in the lobby and on the third floor, where those who didn’t show up at least 20-25 minutes early were able to watch the proceedings on large television screens.

Requests & Petitions of Citizens

Alphonzo Hedgepeth addressed Council regarding a house at 712 Bloodworth Street which had belonged to his grandmother but was taken by the City through an eminent domain ruling. She was allowed to remain in the house until she passed away.

“She had 17 kids by same man; she raised them all in the same house, that’s why this is a priceless heirloom,” Hedgepeth said.

“This is all we have to remember her by.”

Hedgepeth said the City had “bullied” his grandmother by suing her under eminent domain provisions and asked that Councilors re-examine such policies.

He requested that a task force to look at eminent domain be formed, and another one be put together for cultural sensitivity training for the City’s housing department, which he said had been rude and disrespectful.

Hedgepeth was followed by Thomas S. Erwin, an attorney representing Saintsing Properties, LLC and Edna S. Dillard. He asked that the City request NCDOT to transfer Old Leesville Road to the jurisdiction of the City of Raleigh and designate it a “Sensitive-Area Residential Street.” Staff does not believe that this request is consistent with City policies.

Public Hearings

The first matter scheduled for Public Hearing was the City’s upcoming budget for FY17-18, which will be approved in July. As mentioned, this issue drew significant crowds, the largest of which was made up of Raleigh firefighters, who had staged a protest in front of City Hall before the meeting asking for better pay. One sign visible at the protest estimated that the hourly rate paid to Raleigh firefighters was less than $12.

The hearing, which lasted about an hour, began with a speech from Jamie Rigsbee, Raleigh Chapter president of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association. He said the low pay offered to Raleigh Police officers was driving many of them to surrounding municipalities, which offer higher pay and easier work. The only response they had received from the City when bringing up these issues, Rigsbee said, was that a pay study was underway.

“That’s the equivalent of saying a check is in the mail,” Rigsbee said, pointing out that a number of top City executives had received significant pay increases without a study being done first.

“Are you ready to fix the issue and support the police department?” Rigsbee asked.

Matt Cooper from the Raleigh Police Protective Association, who spoke later in the evening, reiterated these arguments, and said other municipalities were taking advantage of Raleigh’s low pay to draw both new and experienced officers away from the force. He called for a 5-10 percent across the board salary increase and the elimination of additional health care costs.

Rigsbee’s comments — as were Cooper’s later — were met with deafening applause from the audience.

The next speaker Keith Wilder, from the Raleigh Professional Firefighters’ Association, received a similar reception. He said his members had experienced years of sluggish salary growth, as previously reflected in a 2009 pay study.

“Don’t forget, there’s $191 million in the City’s unreserved funds,” Wilder said. “Over the last seven years while City employees are told things were going to get better, the City was stuffing money into the mattress.”

“Support us today as much as we have supported you: do what’s right, we’re asking for no less than a minimum of a seven percent increase,” Rigsbee told Councilors.

A short time later, Jennifer Patterson, a Raleigh firefighter, shared with Council a moving story about the time she was called to put out a fire at her own apartment complex. Although it was difficult to put off letting her family know she was OK and trying to save her own apartment, Patterson said she was able to work with her brothers and sisters in the department because they all value crew integrity above all else.

Despite her love for the job and for the department, Patterson said that putting on the uniform each day was becoming “increasingly difficult.”

“Please reconsider this; we’ve waited a long time.”

Nearly everyone else who spoke that night did so on behalf of an organization either thanking the City for funding, or an organization requesting funding from the City either for themselves or in general support of their causes. The only two exceptions were resident mark Turney, who requested moving up plans for a greenway project on Tryon Road, and William Terry, who said renovations to Halifax Court had made it too expensive for previous residents.

One of the organizations to request funding was Legal Aid NC, although regional manager Victor Boone was informed that the $50,000 they were requesting had already been allocated in the budget.

None of the other organizations were that fortunate, although Chris Evans from Interact who said they were facing a $70,000 funding loss at a time when need for their services, was told by Councilor Baldwin that a “budget note” would be made for their request. Interact is a nonprofit that’s offers a range of services to victims of domestic abuse.

Instead of getting into the details of every single request — there were quite a lot of them — we’re just going to list the names of the organizations that appeared.

  • Tammy Lynn Center, an early childhood intervention program
  • Power Up NC — an organization promoting a penny tax increase for affordable housing
  • Daniel Center for Math and Science in Southeast Raleigh
  • Raleigh Historic District Commission — Maybe we should have listed this under citizen requests, as Sandy Scherer was requesting funding for the purchase of more appropriate, historic lighting for the City’s historic districts.
  • Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
  • Millbrook Methodist Church — speaking on behalf of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.Interfaith Food Shuttle — outside of the police and fire departments, this organization brought out the largest crowd of supporters
  • Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness
  • Passage Home — affordable housing developer
  • Wake Up Wake County — an educational nonprofit requesting that the City address affordable housing, spend what’s necessary on Union Station, and upgrade the City’s sewer and Water infrastructure.
    NC Housing Coalition and Families Together
  • Raleigh Arts Commission
  • Boys and Girls Club
  • Hillsborough Street Municipal Services Corporation — a nonprofit that provides services such as cleanup and security to businesses and residences on Hillsborough Street

The next hearing was for STC-03-16 — Manchester Drive, which would close right of way at the intersection of Manchester Drive and Rampart Street pursuant to Resolution 2016-293. No one was there to speak to the issue and it was approved unanimously.

This was followed by the third appearance of a sidewalk assessment case. Essentially, Meredith College and the owners of the Ridgewood Shopping Center are being charged a standard rate to fund improvements along Wade Avenue.

As the City received federal funding that paid for the majority of the project, they argued that their assessment go down from $146,918 to $95,815, which was the total cost of the project to the City after federal funding. It was also suggested that they only pay 35 percent of the $95,815, as that is generally the amount of the project cost that they would be responsible for. Councilors rejected that argument but voted in favor of the first one, reducing the tax burden to $95,815 due to the uniqueness of the situation.

Two other sidewalk assessment cases were quickly and unanimously approved.

A petition for annexation for 1200 Leesville Road/Leesville Grove & 6701 Fox Road/ Foxwood Apartments was also approved without delay.

Next up was Z-5-16, a rezoning case for an 11.65 acre site on Rock Quarry Road that is partially encumbered by a power line easement. There are a variety of apparent development possibilities, including office, residential and retail. Planning Commission recommended it for approval. It was requested that conditions be added; the case will come before Council for a final vote on June 21.

Z-6-15 is a rezoning case for a 7.72 acre parcel of land in North Raleigh located approximately at 9501 Leesville Road. The developer, Halpern Enterprises, is seeking to rezone the parcel from Residential-4 & 6 to Neighborhood Mixed Use. This would allow Halpern to build a 63,000 square foot shopping center anchored by a 50,000 square-foot grocery store. A surprising number of residents turned out solely to express their support for the project, and the case was referred to the Growth & Natural Resources Committee.

The final rezoning case of the night was Z-8-16, for a small parking lot expansion at 4106 Wake Forest Road, home to Lane & Associates Dentistry. It will also close off an existing driveway and create a new one. It was quickly approved.

The final public hearing of the night related to TC-7-15, a text change that would regulate and legalize short-term rental units, such as those offered by Airbnb, within the City of Raleigh. The practice is currently illegal, but the regulations are not enforced, as hundreds of rooms are presently available on the site.

A large number of Airbnb hosts, decked out in matching yellow shirts detailing the limited number of complaints despite the large number of rentals, were on hand to express their support for Airbnb legalization and voice their problems with the text-change as it appeared. While they all agreed some regulations were necessary, they felt the text change went too far, particularly with the whole-house rental provision.

Several Airbnb hosts spoke to the relationships they’d formed with their guests and the way renting out an extra bedroom or even their entire home had helped many of them keep their houses in the face of an economic downturn or rapidly rising property values.

Only one person, Karen Johnson from the Turnberry subdivision, was on hand to argue against the concept entirely. She said she and her neighbors had significant concerns about an Airbnb home in their neighborhood and that their only apparent recourse was legal action that could cost between $30-$80,000.

The biggest laugh of the night came from Marsh Hardy, who said that people who wanted to live in a more regulated environment should “Perhaps move to Cary.”

Beyond that, it was mostly tale after tale of the benefits of being an Airbnb host.

Although serving as a host for short-term rentals is illegal, the current lack of enforcement meant that many of those present were hoping that Council would either vote against or modify the text-change as it was presented.

When the period of public comment finally ended, Councilor Baldwin pointed out that when her Committee had discussed the issue last year, it had come up with a solution to the whole-house issue: require a special-use permit.

Councilor Stephenson, however, was of the mind that whole-house rentals should not be included as part of the text change. He said it would be easier if they could regulate the “stable” neighborhoods differently than the “at risk” neighborhoods, where absentee landlords would be more likely to exploit the system, but unfortunately they are unable to do so.

Stephenson also cited former Planning Commission chair and real estate agent Bob Mulder, who argued that the “further commercialization of at-risk neighborhoods” lowers property values and creates a less-safe environment.

Due to these and other concerns, Stephenson motioned that Council adopt the text-change as is, a move that seemed to surprise many in attendance. Many in the audience began booing, although Stephenson held firm.

Councilor Gaylord was the first to respond to Stephenson’s motion, saying “I’ve got some major issues with that.” This line was met with cheers and raucous applause from those who, seconds earlier, had been booing Councilor Stephenson.

“This is a great way to make our City look horrible in the national press,” Gaylord said.

Mayor McFarlane said she preferred that the item be taken into committee, as there were several issues with the text change as-presented. She expressed support for Baldwin’s solution to the whole-house issue.

A motion to send the case to Committe failed 5-3.

Councilors Cox and Thompson, both whom represent districts that are largely suburban, said they had heard from a lot of people who were concerned about the potential impacts that short-term rentals could have on their neighborhoods, both in terms of public safety and property values.

Mayor McFarlane reiterated the slogan on the yellow T-shirts of the supporters, saying there had been 13,000 rentals and seven complaints, and that to approve the text change in its current form was a mistake, a term Councilor Baldwin also used to describe the proposed adoption.

A vote was called, and in a surprising turn of events, it was split right down the middle, with Councilors Stephenson, Cox, Thompson and Crowder voting in favor of adopting the amendment as-is, and Councilors Baldwin, Gaylord, Branch along with Mayor McFarlane voting against.

Under city regulations, a split-vote like this meant that the ordinance had failed, and that the City will have to start the process over again. The matter will be further discussed in a future committee meeting.

The final item of the night was the conclusion of an evidentiary hearing for the Merrimon-Wynne house, which is requesting an outdoor amplified noise permit. When the case first came before Council, a number of neighbors were present to express their concerns about the permit being granted.

Those concerns have been addressed, and the owners of Merrimon-Wynne were able to come to a compromise and will hold a few events where the permit will be utilized as a sort of trial run. If it doesn’t work out, they said, they won’t request a renewal.

The case was approved, and the meeting adjourned a little after 10:30.

3 thoughts on “The Council Record

  1. Could RPR figure out how much tax-payer money has been spent on discussing short term rentals by staff, committees and the council? Seems like a lot of time and money has been spent to continue to allow businesses to operate illegally. It is extremely unfortunate that this council would prefer to allow an illegal activity than to step up and give people the privilege to operate as a legitimate business. It is also sad that so many people operating illegally don’t want that privilege.

  2. ‘Stephenson also cited former Planning Commission chair and real estate agent Bob Mulder, who argued that the “further commercialization of at-risk neighborhoods” lowers property values and creates a less-safe environment.’

    Is there any research to support this claim? This does not sound true at all! I found about 10 AirBnB’s(more than I was expecting) in East Raleigh inside the Beltline and they all look well maintained. Based on what I am seeing, I would love to have AirBnB as a neighbor. There appears to be very limited interest in AirBnB’s in areas outside the Beltline. I doubt that will change anytime soon.

  3. How much does the city spend on these “studies” in order to determine whether or not our police and firefighters need a raise? Can’t they just spend this money on merit increases?