Mayor’s Power Stripped as Opposition Aims to Derail Granny Flats and AirBnB Policy

In a surprise move in the December 5th City Council Session, Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s committee assignments were overridden by her fellow Council members. The vote passed due to a technicality when newly appointed (he was literally appointed two minutes before) Mayor Pro Tem Branch abruptly left the council table. Mr. Branch later posted on Twitter that he had been feeling unwell and had to leave suddenly. He returned to the table shortly after the vote concluded. This is perhaps the second most controversial part of the story, we’ll get to it later.

The revised committee assignments appear to change little on paper, but its effect on two very controversial affordable housing policies will be huge. The biggest change is to the “Growth and Natural Resources” committee. The other changes are mainly to move members around so the changes to the “Growth” committee work. P.S. there’s a reason I keep putting “Growth” in quotes.

The Committee Lists

Mayor McFarlane’s List
  • Economic Development
    • Chair – McFarlane
    • Thompson, Stewart, Branch
  • Neighborhoods
    • Chair – Stephenson
    • Cox, Mendell
  • Transportation
    • Chair – Branch
    • Crowder, Mendell
  • Growth
    • Chair – Crowder
    • Vice-Chair – Thompson
    • Stewart, Stephenson, Cox
The Replacement List
  • Economic Development (No Change)
  • Neighborhoods
    • Chair – Stephenson
    • Stewart (added), Mendell (Cox removed)
  • Transportation
    • Chair – Branch
    • Crowder, Cox (added) (Mendell removed)
  • “Growth”
    • Chair – Crowder
    • Thompson, Mendell (added), Stephenson, Cox (Stewart removed, Thompson demoted)

What’s the Problem?

The “Growth and Natural Resources” committee is known to those who follow City Council’s meetings as the place where policy goes to die a slow painful death. Hardly anything comes out of the “Growth” committee, and it’s currently holding granny flats (aka ADUs) and short-term rentals (AirBnB, VBRO) policies, hostage. ADUs have been in committee for 18 months, short-term rentals are about to be in its second year as a prisoner.

So what’s the harm with the change if nothing comes out of the “Growth” committee? Well, that’s because it’s likely going to start moving things out of committee with heavy-handed restrictions tied onto it. For example, newly elected Councilwoman Stef Mendell favors the approach of using overlay districts for the city to determine where ADUs can be built. The “Growth” committee is also now stacked with people of a similar mindset, so there will be no opposition in committee to pushing these highly regulated ideas forward.

Now to understand the issue with this particular example. You need to understand two things. First, the process of putting an overlay district in place. The below is taken from the City of Raleigh’s website but amended for understanding. Click here for the official text. We’ll look at this in the case of creating an overlay district for allowing you to build an ADU in your backyard. Steps with a * indicate a place your request can die due to a Council vote. I’ll also give an estimated time and difficulty for each step.

  1. Go out and get people to sign a petition showing your neighborhood wants granny flats (ADUs) to be allowed in your neighborhood. (1-2 months, high barrier)
  2. Present petition to City Council (1 month to get on agenda, low barrier)*
  3. City Council directs planning staff to complete analysis of the neighborhood and hold a neighborhood meeting for all affected property owners (3-6 months, low barrier)
  4. Staff presents findings to City Council. This includes any complaints heard at the neighborhood meeting. City Council votes on whether to authorize a text change to the UDO (1 month, low barrier)*
  5. The text change public process starts. This is the next pain in the rear. You’ll go through a public hearing, and have all resulting comments and data analyzed again by city staff in planning. Oh, and City Council has another vote. (6-8 months, high barrier)*
  6. If the text change is approved, it is adopted into the UDO! Hurray, you made it…right? RIGHT?
  7. Nope, now you start the rezoning petition. Ironically, you thought the first part of all this mess was hard, but rezoning is even worse!
  8. Go back to your neighborhood and collect signatures of residents for a petition to rezone. Answer lots of questions about how long this is taking, and why they have to sign another petition. Also, more than 51% of residents must sign this petition, or your overlay district is dead. (1-2 months, high barrier)*
  9. For the sake of time, I’m just going to post an image from the city’s website that shows the rest of the rezoning process. One thing to keep in mind though, you must complete the rezoning process within four years of the UDO text change you got in step six…or your overlay district efforts are scrapped.

Grand Total Time Estimate: 2 – 2.5 Years

P.S. That second thing you need to know, overlay districts don’t exist yet for regulating where ADUs can be built. So add about two more years for that to be created. Also, for those I share the link to this article with. Unless you can tell me the ‘Total Time Estimate’ above, I’m going to call you out and assume you didn’t actually read this. 

So yes, these are the kinds of solutions we can expect to see coming out of the “Growth and Natural Resources” committee. Ironically, before Raleigh had the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) you could build an ADU on your property. All of those built before the UDO went into effect got grandfathered in. Lucky for those people right?

Alright, This Sucks, Why Did This Happen?

Mainly, because the power scale tipped in the other factions favor. City Council is non-partisan, in fact, nearly all members are registered Democrats. Not a single Republican currently sits on City Council. Despite Council members all leaning left, they have very different ideas on how Raleigh should grow and evolve. We’ll go into this in detail in another post, but just to know the basics one group favors keeping Raleigh relatively the same way it is today. With changes to neighborhoods nearly impossible to accomplish through strict ordinances and policy. Let’s call them “Group B”.

The other group wants to see Raleigh change and evolve with the challenges the city is facing. They don’t want to make it next to impossible to implement programs like ADUs, short-term rentals, denser zoning, and new development. Are they for no regulation at all? Of course not. They want a balanced approach so we can try new things and see what works. Let’s call these Council members “Group A”.

Today “Group B” has 4 members, “Group A” has 1 member, and we have roughly 3 City Council members on the fence between the two.  That one “Group A” member is Mayor Nancy McFarlane, the rest either sit on the fence, are too new to tell,  or fall into “Group B”.

The irony is Mayor McFarlane enjoyed widespread support. Half of the “Group B” members actually relied on support from voters who voted for Mayor McFarlane and frequently made sure to show up at the Mayor’s election events and talks. Then; when the October elections were over, and the Mayor went into a runoff, all of “Group B” (that relied on her support) stepped aside and waited to see who would win.

Now that “Group B” has the numbers, they’ve decided to ignore the fact two of them won on the Mayor’s support. This is where the argument that the actions Council took on committee assignments went against voters. Someone who votes for Mayor McFarlane who also voted for say, Russ Stephenson or Kay Crowder, would expect them to have similar goals and views for the city right? Well, they don’t think so.

Ok…Cool, But How The Heck Did They Do This? What Happened?

So click here to see where the drama begins. The Mayor submits a list of names assigning Council Members to committees, as well as designating the chair of each committee. We’ll go into the details on how a committee works in another blog post, but know that for the past 50 years the Council has never overridden the Mayor’s committee assignments.

Russ Stephenson incorrectly “quotes” city code saying the full Council must vote on the Mayor’s assignments. Luckily, city attorney Thomas McCormick was still on the job that day and corrected Mr. Stephenson that a full council vote is not necessary. However, they could submit an alternative list and that WOULD have to be voted on by the FULL Council.

After submitting the full list Mr. Stephenson went into a speech, rebuked a rejection by Mr. Thompson, and spoke some more. Corey Branch had to leave due to illness, and then the vote was called. The result was 4-3 (Crowder, Stephenson, Cox, Mendell YES | McFarlane, Stewart, Thompson NO). However, this wasn’t enough as a FULL Council vote is required. Unfortunately, Corey Branch’s absence was not excused and thus automatically counted as a YES vote. So the motion passed 5-3 on a technicality.

Let that sink in for awhile. Due to a person’s illness, Councilmembers took advantage of the opportunity to push through their committee changes. Denying you a balanced committee, and stacking it with like-minded individuals. That’s not right. No one voted for City Council members to put on a political show like we see at the federal level to push their agenda through no matter what.

Will you call your Council members and complain? Do you want to see City Council work in a balanced way, or now that election season is over let them do what they please?