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Weasel Conditions: A Zoning Tool for False Council Promises
Our recent Blog UpZoning 101describes the basic elements of the zoning process in Raleigh, focusing on how money and politics often tip the zoning process in the developer’s favor. The blog lists 5 political lessons of the Shelley Lake upzoning that neighbors learned the hard way.
This discussion of Weasel Conditions is a case study of how the Z-41-19 developer and complicit Councilors weaseled the meaning of Zoning Condition #8 to create a misleading narrative, suggesting the upzoning would offer significant environmental protections, when in fact, it did not.
What are Zoning Conditions?
Past Councils acted as mediators between development interests and community interests, negotiating developer commitments that would mitigate the proposed development’s increased impacts on infrastructure, environment and community quality of life. Those commitments are called conditions of the zoning case and become binding commitments of a parcel’s new zoning. Below is a conditional zoning scenario described by the UNC School of Government:
A developer needs a rezoning to increase permissible densities on a tract in order to build a project that may well be good for the community. The neighbors have legitimate concerns about the impact this more intensive development would have on the quality of their neighborhood and their property values. Discussions between the developer, neighbors, planning board, and town council indicatea workable compromise might be possible.
Weasel Conditions are False Promises
In fact, almost every rezoning case in Raleigh involves the opportunity for workable compromises, offered by the applicant in zoning conditions. The problem arises when the intent of those workable compromises is subverted by weasel conditions. Weasel conditions are promoted by the applicant and supportive Councilors as offering substantial community benefits, when in fact few, if any benefits are intended, much less guaranteed.
Councilors Promote the False Promise
The Shelley Lake upzoning (Z-41-19) contains a classic weasel condition that was promoted falsely as a 215 foot tree buffer. Councilor Melton (an attorney) referenced the weasel condition in his glowing newsletter, citing it as a reason for supporting the density increase:
Melton’s Weasel Promise: “We approved a rezoning to allow 112 residential units near Shelly Lake Park. … Because they were asking for additional density, they offered certain conditions to protect the park, such as a 200+ foot tree buffer”
Below is the exact weasel language of the “certain conditions to protect the park, such as a 200+ foot tree buffer” condition Melton cited:
Condition 8. “For those properties identified as Lot 3E, Lot 3F and Lot 3G, there shall be no principal building located within 215 feet of the Shelly [sic] Lake property (PIN 1706-08-7302).”
In fact, Condition 8 doesn’t commit to protect or preserve ANYTHING within 215 ft of the park. Instead, it permits a wide range of clearing, paving and construction. City officials confirm Condition 8 allows the following within 215 feet of the Park: parking lots, parking structures, dumpster enclosures, leasing offices, club houses, pool houses, maintenance buildings, etc — anything except the principal building could be built within 215 feet of the Park.
Councilor Buffkin (an attorney) praised the condition multiple times, in his Council vote, in his newsletter and in a TV news report:
Buffkin’s Weasel Promises:
• At Council: “The current zoning does not provide nearly the protections [as the Z-41-19 zoning condition] for the lake property”
• In his Newsletter: “There will be a 215 foot setback on the back of the property, next to Shelley Lake.”
• In the Press: “Buffkin says he signed off on the development because it provides transitions and buffers between the lake …”
Mayor and Councilors Ignore Expert Evidence of the False Promise
How could these two attorney-Councilors not know that Condition 8 was a weasel condition, especially after a forestry expert emailed specific concerns to them, the City Attorney and the rest of Council on June 3rd, more than two weeks before the June 16 Council vote?
Instead, Council continued to promote the false narrative that the additional density was justified in return for a “200+ foot tree buffer”. Either they weren’t doing their job: to read constituent emails and zoning conditions, or they had already bought into the applicant’s false narrative and didn’t want to rock the boat by serving as mediators in an authentic, workable compromise.
Council’s Growing Pattern of Silencing Community Voices
Weasel Condition 8 of the Shelley Lake upzoning is another example in the growing list of consistent and coordinated efforts by this Council to promote developer profits by silencing community voices. This Council’s subversion of community voices are documented in a series of blog posts grouped under the following topics: