N.C. bill changing neighborhood protest petitions moves on to Senate Rules Committee

Backstage Vintage and Tommy's Pub.

Backstage Vintage and Tommy’s Pub in Charlotte may get evicted because of a rezoning.

House Bill 201, which passed the N.C. House, went on to the N.C. Senate where it appears to be assigned to the rules committee. Maybe it’ll never emerge, maybe it’ll sit there until July 3, to emerge when nobody’s watching.

It gives developers an easier path to rezoning and takes away neighbors’ power.

For the owners of Backstage Vintage and Tommy’s Pub in Charlotte, hyper-growth of apartments and other development in Charlotte is a real thing, pushing them out or into higher rents. Neighborhood protest petitions give neighbors a chance to speak up to preserve the kinds of things that made neighborhoods unique.

You can keep an eye on the status of the bill at the General Assembly’s site.

You can find phone numbers of senators to contact at Save North Carolina’s Protest Petition. And here’s more background on the bill that would weaken neighbors’ voices in rezonings.

And if you want to weigh in on the rezoning in Charlotte affecting Tommy’s Pub, here’s a direct link to the rezoning application at rezoning.org. There’s at least one good old willow oak that would be nice to preserve, but there’s also ground contamination from an old gas station next to Tommy’s.

Using money from public notice advertising as a digital dividend to help bridge the digital divide

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

Google Fiber, coming to Charlotte soon, taken March 20, 2015, at the Best Minds conference at Queens University. Photo by Scott E. Lundgren, @scottelundgren

People from Pew Research, Google Fiber, and the Charlotte community met on a Friday night at Queens University in Charlotte to talk about the digital divide and the potential transformation from Google Fiber.

I heard some of the talk because Scott Lundgren streamed it on Meerkat. I could listen in because I have broadband access at home.

Not everyone in Charlotte does. The city has pockets where broadband penetration is only 40%.

One tiny mention during the Q&A after the formal presentations at Queens intrigued me – the idea of  a “digital dividend.” Migration to digital tools can save money for businesses and government, and that dividend could be used to help bridge the digital divide.

Try applying that idea to a longstanding digital issue affecting N.C. businesses and governments – required public notices that historically have run in selected newspapers. Local governments want to stop spending the money to advertise public notices in newspapers and simply post the notices on their own sites. Newspapers and the N.C. Press Association propose a compromise this year, in which governments get a 15% discount for repeat advertising and the notices get posted online for free. They rightly argue that most newspaper sites generate more traffic than government websites. They also have at least one lobbyist in Raleigh as well as their own editorial pages to share the benefits of their compromise.

But they’re not the only sites delivering information. Choosing who gets the government contract for advertising public notes can be a political game, and in some small towns, that contract has had the power to kill small news organizations and feed the growth of others. It falls into the “picking winners and losers” category of state and local government law.

So let’s return to that concept of a digital dividend. What if the money currently going to public notice advertising in print was considered a potential digital dividend designated specifically for helping bridge the digital divide?

Use that money to make the notices more accessible to everyone. (And yes, that means everyone, regardless of political leanings, association membership, or ability to fund lobbyists in Raleigh.)

That money could go to one or more of these things:

  • local library support for computers, wi-fi, broadband and community outreach so people can access information online.
  • internal local government work to make the public notices more useful, granular, searchable by topic, and available to all through something like a simple RSS feed. (The state of Utah does this, with a site run by the state archives. I bet others do too.)  As they stand now, the notices are unstructured text blobs, unsearchable on a granular level, like for company names, specific addresses, or type of notice.
  • nonprofits specifically working on bridging the digital divide, like Pangaea in Polk and Rutherford counties, which is a 501(c)3 building out broadband. It has received Facebook grants to help broaden digital access in its rural area.
  • outreach work to lawyers and others who also must post certain kinds of notices but do so behind paywalls. Convene some meetings to discuss how to open that information to all.
  • a fund for unconnected communities in Charlotte and Raleigh, to help pay the $300 initial fee for Google Fiber.
  • the local government’s general fund, to help keep property taxes from rising (yes, this bullet point acknowledges political realities. It also helps longtime property owners on small fixed incomes as well as the big property owners. It doesn’t directly help the many newcomers and millennials who are renting, and it does nothing to help bridge the divide.)

Admittedly, the public-notice advertising money isn’t huge compared to the millions that the N.C. General Assembly manages. A 2009 survey by the N.C. League of Municipalities mentioned price tags of $10,500 for Monroe and $42,000 for Charlotte. But it adds up. A 2011 poll by the Associated Press came up with an estimate that local governments in North Carolina alone spent about $6 million in 2010 on legal ads and public notices.

And admittedly, any solution is complicated by differing media circumstances in each N.C. town. If you want to reach people in Davidson or Cornelius, Davidson News or Cornelius News are good bets, but a local paper in Fayetteville might have bigger reach today than a Fayetteville blogger. RSS feeds that reach any site are the best future-proofed solution to that problem.

This issue has been cussed and discussed in Raleigh and in local governments for at least four years now. It’s a bit arcane, not sexy, so proposed solutions generally reflect what Raleigh lobbyists or a few informed legislators want. But the Queens University discussion stemming from Google Fiber’s arrival raised the idea of a digital dividend. Let’s start thinking how that could work for something concrete like government’s public notices.

Making rezonings in North Carolina and Charlotte easier and making neighbors’ voices weaker

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Charlotte residents in neighborhoods that are facing increasing development pressure should speak up to their legislators about House Bill 201. It eliminates the ability for neighbors to file protest petitions against rezonings.

The current state law on protest petitions gives immediate neighbors some leverage when a piece of land is up for rezoning. Five percent of neighbors next to a project can sign a petition that triggers a rule requiring 75% of the city council to approve a rezoning.

In reality, these petitions often don’t stop development, but they give neighbors negotiating room for things like green buffers, fences or walls and input on design things like height and drive-through windows.

Close-in neighborhoods in Charlotte are having a bit of a redevelopment moment, with denser apartments popping up, especially where walk scores are high. So the proposed repeal is important to NoDa, Villa Heights, Plaza Midwood, Dilworth, Elizabeth, South End and Myers Park. The repeal, however, affects the whole state and affects those in farther-out suburbs too.

It’s easy to sign an online petition these days, but organizing a protest petition for a rezoning remains hard, with detailed rules about who qualifies as a neighbor and hard-copy signatures necessary. A recent rezoning request in NoDa illustrated the issue, with nearly 1,500 people signing an online petition to “Save the Chop Shop,” but with zerozero – people showing up at a public hearing to speak against the rezoning.

Developers and some legislators claim the current rules allow neighbors to hold property owners hostage, and that’s far from the truth. The current rules simply give immediate neighbors some leverage, protecting neighborhoods from overheated redevelopment that can destroy the very character that made the neighborhoods attractive.

If you want to preserve your ability to influence development right next to your home, find your state representative and give them a call or email about House Bill 201.

House Bill 13 tries to make healthier N.C. schools but raises the hurdles for children getting in to schools

A new school health bill coming out of the General Assembly in Raleigh would require all new students in N.C. public schools to get a health assessment. Current law only requires kindergarten students to have the assessment, which includes a record of vaccinations.

On the surface, the goal of making sure all N.C. students are healthy is a civic good, hard to oppose. However, House Bill 13 fails to provide more funding to county health departments or schools to support parents new to North Carolina, navigating a confusing and overburdened health care system.

Imagine moving to North Carolina with three or four children and having to get appointments with a local doctor to fill out yet another form amid the stack of new-school paperwork and moving chores. Imagine that school nurses serve an average of 1,177 students each, which is 57 percent more students than the federal recommended ratio of 1 nurse per 750 students. Imagine that you have 30 days to comply before your kids are kicked out of school. Imagine that it can take several months to get appointments once you find a doctor or locate the county health department (PDF from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools). And imagine that you make too much money to qualify for Medicaid or the N.C. Health Choice program to help pay for the exams.

That’s not a thought exercise. That’s the reality in North Carolina. Counties like Mecklenburg have made a local funding commitment to more school nurses, but other counties don’t necessarily have the funds to supplement the funding they get from the state.

Private schools and home schools are exempt from the new requirements in the bill.

Without accompanying funding to support more certified school nurses or to pay for more support from county health departments, the new bill just raises the hurdles faced by families who want their children to get a sound basic education in North Carolina.

The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston (a border county). The bill, House Bill 13, has a fiscal note attached estimating any increased costs to the state, specifically public health departments. It says “any impact to local health departments would be negligible.” (PDF of the fiscal note). For counties like Mecklenburg with a large influx of newcomers, that estimate doesn’t represent reality.

The bill has passed out of the House Committee on K-12 Education. Other sponsors include Rep. Bert Jones, R-Caswell, a dentist; Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus; and Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Polk (another border county). You can follow the bill’s progress here.

As it stands, the bill is an unfunded mandate for county health departments, especially those with large influxes of newcomers. Those aren’t necessarily just big counties like Mecklenburg. The N.C. governor recently touted a new chicken processing plant for Robeson County (a border county), which had a child poverty rate of 47.8 percent in 2012. Some of those new chicken-plant workers will likely come from out of state, with children who will need help staying healthy and getting access to education. Increasing the hurdles they face for school without increasing the funding to help them get health care is wrong.

Thundering voices in North Carolina, including Susan Ladd of Greensboro

Sunday papers in North Carolina had lots of strong thundering voices today, and John Robinson has his good Sunday roundup, including stories about open government to mark Sunshine Week. One fact stands out: It’s been 19 months since the Associated Press requested records of emails from N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s first public safety secretary. The department’s nine public information officers just don’t have the time to get to all of the public information requests.

But one N.C. columnist worth noting goes softer this week: Susan Ladd of Greensboro marks the departure of the ACC basketball tournament from Greensboro for a few years. She’s even kind to the Fighting Irish.

Ladd’s now the lead columnist for the newspaper in the middle of this big state, and she’s willing to speak her mind on justice and fairness, including minority and women’s rights. She lays it out in her introductory column from March 8 .

She’s already had the expected blowback in letters to the editor and opposing columns, including one from Charles Davenport questioning her credentials.

Put me firmly in the camp that is glad to hear Ladd’s opinionated, strong voice on justice and fairness.

Given an overall lack of women’s voices on the opinion pages of traditional media in North Carolina,  I’m happy to see her new title of lead columnist and hear her independent voice.

The FCC releases its argument supporting municipal broadband in North Carolina

Map of broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC's ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.

Broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC’s ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.


Here it is: 116 pages in PDF.
fccmunibroadband

Here’s the FCC’s full page with statements from all FCC commissioners on the issue.

Here’s the Times Free Press in Tennessee on their part of the issue.

Here’s Multichannel News on what happens next for muni broadband.

Short version: North Carolina’s law limiting town broadband expansion is bad law (it was House Bill 129 from 2011).

And arguments that criticize existing muni broadband in Davidson, Morganton, and Salisbury as examples of the dangers of muni broadband are hogwash. See pages 34-36 in the PDF.

Crossing the streams: N.C. politics (and sometimes media) on Flipboard

Flipboard screenshotFor an easy way to see curated stories on N.C. politics and civics, check out my Flipboard magazine.
Frequency of posts is fairly high, almost every day.

For less-frequent media curation, see my Flipboard magazine on that topic, ranging from net neutrality and drone journalism to N.C. media moves.