Raleigh planning commission nominee draws firestorm of criticism

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2013 

— Nominations for the city planning commission are usually not a magnet for controversy – sometimes it’s more of a search for volunteers.

But as major zoning decisions loom for the appointed board, the Raleigh City Council recently deadlocked 4-4 on who should fill a vacant seat. The vote touched off a flurry of emails from residents weighing in, and many had harsh personal criticism for one of the nominees.

That nominee, consultant and neighborhood leader Will Allen III, withdrew his application Monday and paved the way for landscape architect Rodney Swink to be appointed Tuesday. The controversy highlights bitter divisions between two factions with differing views on how to handle Raleigh’s rapid urban growth.

A group of Allen’s neighbors around Cameron Village wrote to the entire council last week, arguing that he was the wrong man for the job.

“Will Allen simply does not know how to listen to or hear opinions that differ from his own,” wrote Banks Talley, who succeeded Allen as president of the Cameron Village Neighborhood Association. “He can be truculent, derogatory, impatient, vaguely threatening and condescending. ... (Swink) does not simply believe that every old building in Raleigh should be bulldozed for new development like Mr. Allen does.”

Allen says he’s not surprised by the criticism. Since he became chairman of the Hillsborough Citizens Advisory Council, he’s angered some neighbors by supporting development proposals in the Cameron Village area. Others, including Talley, have expressed fears that the apartment projects could bring heavy traffic and harm surrounding areas.

“I don’t take it personally,” Allen said Wednesday. “I think that people are scared because change and progress are coming. I have become, rightly or wrongly, an icon of that because I’m not vehemently anti-development and these people are.”

Several council members say commission appointments rarely get so heated, and average citizens don’t typically weigh in. “I was surprised by how ferocious the criticism was,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “This was almost a political campaign.”

Allen said he suspects Councilman Russ Stephenson, who nominated Swink, orchestrated the letter-writing campaign. Stephenson and Allen often disagree.

Stephenson “encouraged them to write, and I’m sure he knew what criticism they would lob at me,” Allen said. “It sounds desperate and pathetic that any city councilor would resort to that kind of action.”

Stephenson admits he reached out to some of the letter writers. “I asked people who knew Rodney and knew of his service to provide their support and endorsement,” he said. “I tried to get people to focus their comments in a constructive way.”

But that’s not what happened in many of the emails. Lee Folger, a contributor to Stephenson’s campaigns, predicted dire consequences if Allen joined the planning commission.

“The commission will not forgive you for putting him in their midst,” Folger wrote to the council. “Inside three months the commission will be a shambles.”

And Phil Poe, who recently stepped down as co-chairman of the Five Points CAC, said he questions Allen’s motives for public service. “I view Will as the consummate politician,” he wrote. “It’s more about what is best for Will and less about the public interest.”

Reached Wednesday, Poe said he lobbied for Swink because the commission has a big task ahead: mapping the city with new zoning designations from the unified development ordinance. “Based on the background of Rodney, having served on the (UDO) committee, I think he will be very effective in terms of dealing with that,” Poe said.

Allen also has experience with current city issues. In addition to the Hillsborough CAC, he chairs the citywide Raleigh CAC and co-chairs the Passenger Rail Task Force. “I’ve found him to be intelligent, and he does his research and is willing to engage in conversation and debate,” said Councilman Bonner Gaylord, who nominated Allen.

Allen says both he and Swink are well qualified for the post. The criticism wasn’t why Allen dropped out, he said, noting that he “chose to withdraw to remove the deadlock.”

But while Allen says he doesn’t mind taking the heat, Baldwin worries the personal attacks could make future appointees think twice about applying. “I don’t want to discourage people from putting their name out to be a public servant,” she said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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