So when Daniel Levine decided he wanted to build a road that could dump more than 6,000 extra cars a day from his business park into the Stonehaven neighborhood, residents of the middle-class Southeast Charlotte subdivision figured their biggest battle would be overcoming Levine's name and family connections.
As it turned out, they were wrong. What they've been fighting for months now is a far greater force, a bumbling and contradictory one whose power isn't derived from money or influence, but from chaos and confusion. That force is the bureaucracy at City Hall and the well-meaning City Council members who take its advice.
If the folks from Stonehaven lose their battle, Levine will be able to build a road connecting McAlpine Business Center on Monroe Road -- which will eventually grow from its current size to a 500,000+ square-foot business development -- to Thermal Road. Thermal and a series of three roads that adjoin it wind through the Stonehaven neighborhood and eventually empty onto Sardis Road. Three of those roads -- typical two-lane neighborhood streets with no sidewalks -- are, to put it mildly, not equipped to handle that kind of traffic.
"All the kids' bus stops are basically on the curb or the gutter of these four streets where the traffic will go," said Stonehaven resident Paul Andrews. In addition, these two-lane streets are in a neighborhood that's home to a facility for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Stonehaven residents are concerned that daily cut-through traffic won't exactly be sensitive to those children's welfare.
The residents of Stonehaven have learned a lot as they've battled Levine's road plans, but what they've discovered about how city government works has shocked them.
As they pored over ordinances and asked question after question which city bureaucrats either couldn't or wouldn't answer, the Stonehaven residents came to a startling realization: Most City Council members had not read their own policies and didn't understand what was in them. Worse yet, changes to policies had been quietly written by city staff and powerful developers who stripped out parts of ordinances that would have protected neighborhoods like Stonehaven from the kind of traffic Levine wants to run through the neighborhood. The clincher is that City Council members have been rubber-stamping these policy changes without reading them, and without realizing it.
Once the neighborhood understood that their battle was about much more then just their neighborhood, they overwhelmed a City Council meeting in mid-October. The whole thing surprised veteran City Council member Susan Burgess, who, facing a sea of over 200 Stonehaven residents dressed in yellow, remarked that she'd never seen a neighborhood turn out in quite these numbers before to protest something. She'd never seen a neighborhood quite this passionate, she said.
But there's a lot Burgess didn't know that Stonehaven leaders did. Like every other City Council member Creative Loafing interviewed for this story, Burgess had never heard of something called the Turn Around Committee.
The committee, Burgess was surprised to learn, is a subgroup of something called the Subdivision Steering Committee. Neither committee is appointed by City Council. Instead, Planning Commission staff simply invites powerful developers to "informal meetings" that aren't posted for the public to attend, because, well, they're informal. Then, at some of these meetings, these developers quietly helped staff rewrite city policy.
I Voted For That?
Back in 2001, when City Council asked city staff to study cul-de-sacs, Planning Commission Subdivision Administrator Linda Beverly invited developers from companies like Crescent Resources, Pearson Development, Provident Development, Pulte and Yarbrough-Williams to join her. By the time they were done, the group had rewritten the city's policy on cul-de-sacs. In the process, they gutted some neighborhood protections from the city's connectivity policy, leaving places like Stonehaven, and many others, vulnerable to being ruined by excess traffic.
According to the American Planning Association's guide, the point of "connectivity" is to connect neighborhoods by road to adjacent properties like schools, parks, and grocery shopping centers to keep neighborhood drivers off major thoroughfares. The goal of connectivity is not to dump cut-through traffic into neighborhoods, but rather to build new ways for neighborhood traffic to get out. The problem is that it could be a stumbling block for developers who want places to dump out traffic when they're building infill development next to neighborhoods.
So the Turn Around Committee slashed sections of the city's subdivision ordinance that might have protected existing neighborhoods from the effects of traffic that could be dumped onto their streets from new developments. They chopped out sections that said connections should only be made between neighborhoods and neighboring developments when adjacent land uses were similar. And then, somehow, their work wound up before City Council in the form of an ordinance amendment.