The Greensboro City Council has a lot on its plate right now – the budget, bonds, taxes, police lawsuits and elections to name a few, but instead of discussing anything of import, the council spent its monthly work session on Tuesday, March 7 getting a pre-primer lesson on zoning.
The reason for the City Council, city staff and several journalists to waste an hour of their lives being told facts about zoning that nearly everyone knew is that Councilmembers Marikay Abuzuaiter and Sharon Hightower insist on asking inappropriate questions during rezoning hearings. And that matters because if the City Council is ever sued over a rezoning decision, the inappropriate questions could result in the City Council losing the case.
Still, to have City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson, who was first elected to the City Council in 1993 and has voted on hundreds of rezoning requests, sit through, not Zoning 101, which implies a college level course, but what was much more of a basic lecture on zoning, is an embarrassment.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan was absent from the meeting.
Most councilmembers did what they ordinarily do during these boring and often worthless work sessions – they sulked, checked their emails, sent text messages or talked to their neighbors. Sometimes there is a furious game of tic-tac-toe being played or someone concentrating on a crossword puzzle, but I didn’t see that this week.
Councilmember Justin Outling, who is an attorney in real life and doesn’t need to take “zoning for dummies,” actually engaged the speaker and asked some good questions.
Outling is perhaps the best natured councilmember who has served in the past 20 years, and trying to make this work session into something useful is just more proof of that.
But to think that either Abuzuaiter or Hightower is going to stop asking inappropriate questions simply because Adam Lovelady came over from the School of Government in Chapel Hill and tried to teach them the very basics of zoning law is extremely optimistic.
Assistant City Manager Barbara Harris, City Attorney Tom Carruthers, Assistant City Attorney James Dickens and Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) Coordinator Gwen Carter have been trying to convince Hightower that the MWBE goals are goals and not quotas for years and have had little success.
The zoning issue is a simple one: Zoning issues are about land use. If a property is zoned for multifamily residential, then asking whether the multifamily units will be rental or owner occupied is inappropriate because that is not a land use issue. Asking the rental price is inappropriate because they don’t have to be apartments and the rent charged is up to the property owner, not the City Council.
Lovelady actually gave the City Council a little quiz on what were appropriate and inappropriate questions during a zoning hearing, which indicates that someone on the city staff had told him exactly why he was there.
It was pretty amazing that someone from the school of government – which usually deals with high level academic courses – could get down to this basic “what is zoning” level. But Lovelady’s bio on the School of Government website noted that he was once a second grade teacher. That answered a lot of questions.