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A spirited, at times sharp-edged exchange at a City Council committee hearing brought renewed attention to the city’s development services office.
The office has been criticized by the real estate community as an unfriendly place to do business.
Four years ago, the city created a centralized office to provide more efficient service in handling development proposals. The idea was to offer a more predictable path for developers trying to win approval for projects.
Members of the council’s budget and economic development committee got an update last week on how the system is working. They also got an earful from Tom Worth, a land use attorney who says the answer is not very well.
“It appears to me the situation is still broken,” Worth said. “There is a culture of no instead of a culture of ‘let’s see if we can get together and work through these issues.’”
Worth recounted his early days practicing law in Chapel Hill, a town historically known for setting strict standards on development.
“I do not want my hometown (Raleigh) to end up with the same reputation,” he said. “If it becomes too difficult to get things done, people are going to go elsewhere. There are neighboring communities that are very attractive.”
City Manager Russell Allen, who listened to Worth’s comments, strongly defended the office in an interview the next day. Worth’s objections have already been addressed, Allen said, thanks in part to the work of a citizens advisory committee that interviewed developers and recommended changes.
“Many of those (procedures) have been improved based on feedback we’ve gotten from the development community,” Allen said.
401 Oberlin ‘agony’
In his 15-minute appearance, Worth focused largely on his work representing developers of the 401 Oberlin project across from Cameron Village.
The apartment-and-retail building won approval following lengthy negotiations. To placate wary neighbors, the developers reduced the number of apartments from 280 to 250.
Worth called the 401 Oberlin negotiation an “odyssey in agony” because of the maze of rules and regulations.
Worth said the developers had to wade through bureaucracy to get a demolition permit before they could begin submitting development plans for review. The process has since been streamlined to allow developers to simultaneously move forward on both tracks.
The criticism from Worth prompted a round of questioning from Councilman Thomas Crowder, who noted that he, too, makes his living in the development business.
“I want to make sure, being a native like you, that when it comes to development, we need to be very proactive,” Crowder told Worth. “When we set the rules, the rules should be easily implemented and you should go through a process that is not time-consuming.”
Over the years, Worth has been involved in some of Raleigh’s most contentious rezoning cases. He represents developers and corporations in negotiations with neighborhood groups, city planners and, ultimately, City Council members who decide the fate of proposed projects.
Other developers are wary of speaking up, he said, because they fear retaliation the next time they have to negotiate with city planning and zoning officials. Allen said during the discussion that such behavior from employees is not tolerated.
But in Worth’s view, the reality is more nuanced.
“There is indeed a fear on the part of some, Russell, that’s just a fact,” Worth said. “You can hurt a project with 1,000 razor nicks and never be able to point specifically to malice behind those nicks. I’ve heard enough of the comments and complaints to know they are real.”
Others feel differently
In assessing the current environment at City Hall, Ed Sconfienza, a civil engineer involved in many Raleigh building projects, said customer service has improved – but mainly because of an economic downturn that has resulted in fewer requests from developers.
“I think they’ve gotten better because they have less to do,” Sconfienza said. “When they were busy and they really didn’t have time, they’d say go fix it and bring it back. You’d get stuck in these endless review cycles. Now it’s ‘here’s the problem and here’s what you have to do to fix it.’ ”
A big change looms. After nearly three years of discussion, Raleigh leaders are close to passing a new set of development guidelines intended to encourage a more compact, walkable, transit-friendly city.
Mack Paul, an attorney frequently involved in rezoning cases, said the code should build on the city’s recent progress.
“Over the last three years, even without the UDO, there’s been a concerted effort to eliminate subjective criteria and judgments,” he said. “The UDO takes that a step further.”
Worth urged the City Council to appoint an ombudsman who would have authority within City Hall to investigate complaints and ferret out patterns of faulty decision-making.
Allen said the development services staff already has someone who acts in this role: Christine Darges, a 25-year city employee who manages the development services office.
Creating another position could prove counterproductive, Sconfienza warned. He said “another level of bureaucracy” would add more legwork to get plans approved.