Do we still need Super Majority Laws?

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Planning and Zoning, saintblog, Social Media, Thought Leadership

Mike S 2014(1)By P. Michael Saint, Chairman and CEO, The Saint Consulting Group

In many states, like North Carolina, citizens who want to block development of a new property can get signatures from abutters and force proponents to win rezoning of a property not by a simple majority, (say 5 of 9 votes) but by a super majority, (say 6 or 7 of 9). Obviously, having to win two thirds of a city council is much harder than getting a 50% plus one.

For a brief background on the supermajority practice, see the following column in the Durham NC News Observer newspaper describing attempts to modify the super majority law in North Carolina.

Author Tom Miller says the practice started back in the day of President Warren Harding in the 1920’s and was an attempt to give neighbors more power to protect their property from unwanted next-door development being proposed by those who had greater resources than the existing residents.

Writes Miller in the News Observer: “The protest petition, if he can organize his neighbors and get the necessary signatures, is frequently the only tool available to him to make the developer and the city council seriously consider his interests and concerns.”

But is this still true in the 21st century? The Internet and social media make it far more possible for concerned citizens to be notified of an upcoming development that requires a change in zoning and allows opponents to quickly organize to participate in the political approval process. It takes almost no time to set up a Facebook page or web site and solicit signatures on petitions or attendance at public hearings. The internet gives the residents extensive background, sometimes unfavorable, about the project developer, background that can be used to convince elected officials not to allow the proponent to build what they propose.

Many communities have strict notification rules and procedures that give neighbors a say and out of town developers often have no real political clout with city councilors who see dozens or even hundreds of their voters show up to urge them to vote “no.”

And if the political votes goes against them, neighbors can often file lawsuits or seek additional environmental approvals or put the matter on the ballot, all of which can cost the developer time and money, if not kill the project all together.

So has the tide turned? Is it now easier to stop a project than to get it approved? And if so, does the SuperMajority rule now create an unfair advantage for NIMBY’s?

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email