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The Charlotte Way

Developers Lament Too Much Democracy in Charlotte

The public has had too much say in crafting Charlotte’s future, developers will tell Mayor Vi Lyles this week, and they are asking elected officials to postpone finalization of a suite of policies to guide the city’s growth in coming decades.

The delay, developers hope, will give them more time to pressure City Council into adopting plans that better protect their interests.

The Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which city officials are refining after gathering public input over the last two years, is intended to set the city’s development-related goals for coming decades and adopt tools and policies intended to achieve those goals. The aim is to create livable communities that honor the values of diversity and inclusion, connectivity, sustainability, and innovation. The plan will also promote affordable housing, coordinated growth, and vibrant cultural scenes, among other goals.

But the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (“REBIC”), an advocacy group representing the local development industry, is bemoaning that members of the public ignoranti have been involved in the plan’s formulation and that special interests like theirs have not been granted a monopoly on deciding the community’s future.

“While some in the development community were invited to participate throughout the process, the vast majority of the goals, objectives, and recommendations included in the Plan appear to have come from the general public, some of whom know very little about the development process, its challenges, and significant risks during the process,” REBIC wrote in a March 3, 2021, statement submitted to city officials. “It appears this was by design as the input of ‘experts’ was generally disregarded.”

REBIC’s top-tier members include the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association, Greater Charlotte Homebuilders Association, Charlotte Region Commercial Board of Realtors, Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, and NAIOP Charlotte. Other members include various builders, developers, and firms that provide services related to residential and commercial development.

Rob Nanfelt is the executive director of the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (“REBIC”), a special interest group in Charlotte that thinks the process of drafting the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan has been tainted by too much democracy.

The builders continued, “We have assembled a knowledgeable group from our organization, that includes our coalition partners, to engage in meaningful dialogue about how to improve the Plan and establish realistic expectations for the general public.”

The developers do not want the people themselves involved in crafting the plan — at least not if the priorities of the great unwashed masses might trump the financial interests of builders and be treated as more than democratic window dressing — but want special interests to draft the plan “for the general public.”

Democracy be damned!

REBIC’s disdain for democracy is one of the messages the group’s representatives will deliver to Mayor Lyles at a private meeting scheduled for Thursday, March 11, when they will be able to bash the public behind closed doors.

While complaining about their exclusion from the deliberative process, the developers seem simultaneously thunderstruck that their recommendations were not unthinkingly accepted by the city — recommendations they wouldn’t have been able to make if they actually had been shut out of the discussions.

“Throughout the process, the development community and experts in the field made recommendations, but they were not readily accepted,” REBIC wrote to city officials, stunned their views were not adopted without question, objection, or revision.

Madeline Keeter serves as government affairs manager for the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (“REBIC”), a special interest group for Charlotte developers that seeks to diminish the voice of the people in city government.

State law requires cities to adopt a comprehensive plan by July 1, 2022. Municipalities that fail to do so risk losing their right to enforce zoning regulations.

City officials are hoping to present the finalized plan to City Council this spring for consideration, according to the plan’s website.

But not if the developers can help it.

To facilitate their hoped-for sabotage of the plan, the builders are asking the city to delay its adoption, which would give the developers’ “knowledgeable group” of “coalition partners” a better chance to strike from the plan any provisions that may be good for the community, but bad for their bottom lines.

“Because there is no immediate legal requirement to adopt the Plan, we should take the time to get it right,” REBIC wrote to city officials. “We urge you to delay the vote on the Plan until such time as is necessary to resolve the many outstanding issues that remain in the proposed document.

Among the “outstanding issues” identified by REBIC is the failure of the city to perform an economic analysis of the plan. “This should include, at a minimum, any assessment of potential job losses, decreases in property value, and limitations on the ability to pursue future economic development opportunities,” REBIC wrote.

To hear the group tell it, a community that places people over builders’ profits will suffer a parade of horribles.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that builders who oppose the plan because it might cost them money assume its economic consequences will be negative, not positive: “job losses,” not job gains; “decreases,” not increases, in property value; “limitations on,” not opportunities for, future economic development.

Despite the developers’ suggestion to the contrary, though, a thorough economic analysis would highlight both the negative and positive economic impacts of the plan — with “economic impacts” being broadly defined.

That raises the real questions: Positive for whom? Negative for whom? The builders seem to assume their interests are Charlotte’s interests, a variation on the old adage about GM and America: What’s bad for developers must be bad for Charlotte, an assertion of dubious validity.

Not content to rest on idle predictions of economic gloom-and-doom were the city to adopt the plan in its current form, the developers also made clear in their communication to the city that if elected officials adopt a plan that dares to cross them, lawsuits await.

Some Recommendations Are Illegal,” REBIC wrote, pointing to, among other things, the possibility of impact fees whereby local governments levy on developers a per-unit charge for new development to help offset the cost of increased demand on public services such as utilities, roads, and schools.

Developers in other fast-growing communities in North Carolina have successfully sued local governments in the past to invalidate such fees and have thereby saddled local communities with the public costs that result from builders’ private profits.

Indeed, Charlotte homebuilders sued the city in the 1990s when it adopted a schedule of fees to perform such municipal tasks as reviewing subdivision plans. Unlike more recent cases in which impact fees for schools and utilities have been struck down by the courts, the North Carolina Supreme Court rejected the challenge to the city’s fees for municipal services.

Local builders now appear ready to litigate again to protect their profits at the cost of sacrificing the good of the community, whose members they dismiss as ignorant and incapable of properly governing themselves.

Their message to the mayor and city is clear: Damn the people and do as we say, or else.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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