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Council to Vote on Occupancy Rules

by Lisa Wilbourne

A long-debated proposal to change the occupancy rules in one Greenville neighborhood will be decided tonight.

City council will vote on what’s known as the University Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (UNRI), proposed two months ago by councilor Max Joyner.

Under the proposal, homes meeting certain criteria and located in a neighborhood stretching from Reade to Elm and Fifth to the Tar River would be permitted to house a fourth unrelated occupant. The current limit, in force throughout the city, is three.

Contested at the start by councilors Marion Blackburn, Calvin Mercer and Kandie Smith (March 8 meeting) “three unrelated,” as it has come to be known, has proved to be the “bomb” and “grenade” which Joyner and Mayor Allen Thomas half-jokingly called it during council’s January planning session. (See The Unclaimed Action Item for the history of the proposal, documenting Thomas’ support for the change during his campaign for mayor.)

If approved, the highly controversial rule change would mean owners of homes which comply with square footage, bedroom, and parking parameters may rent to four unrelated people, making more rooms available to students at ECU, whose main campus the neighborhood abuts.

Community Opposition

On both the public input questionnaire and at public comment periods during council meetings, Greenville residents have voiced overwhelming opposition to the proposed change.

The Cypress Glen retirement community, comprising 300 residents near the affected area (known as the Tar River-University Neighborhood), passed an opposing resolution citing, among other things, that the city would have to increase the number of dogs allowed at a non-kennel residence to four. (Only three dogs are now allowed: see Title 9, page 77 in the city’s Code of Ordinances.)

Just yesterday, East Carolina University, long silent on the issue, issued a statement saying, “…we believe that strong enforcement of existing rules and ordinances is the most critical issue before the Greenville community,” adding “we also believe that, in the current environment, an increase in the number of unrelated renters will exacerbate the enforcement concerns.” Further, ECU proposes “to contribute additional funds to pay for half the salary of an additional enforcement officer for the TRUNA neighborhood,” and to strengthen its off-campus student outreach to encourage “good neighbor actions.”

City Board and Commission Opposition

The Neighborhood Advisory Board, a city-chartered panel representing neighborhoods in every district of the city, unanimously agreed that the proposed change, despite affecting only one neighborhood directly, would be bad for neighborhoods city-wide.

The Historic Preservation Commission, a group of council-appointed members, in a resolution passed 5-1, urged councilors not to enact a change in the current ordinance and allow more than three unrelated people in the same dwelling. They said, “to allow a higher number of occupants, likely would have a negative impact on many of the historic homes and landscape within the city’s historic neighborhoods, particularly the College View Historic District.”

September 18 Planning and Zoning Meeting

Most recently, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, in a 6-2 vote, recommended that city council deny the revitalization initiative. Jerry Weitz, a commissioner on this advisory body, a practicing city planner and director of the planning program at East Carolina University, urged his fellow commissioners “to look at what we as planning commissioners are supposed to do, and that is, evaluate this request against our plans, including the Tar River/University neighborhood plan.” Citing specific council-adopted policies to increase owner-occupied dwellings, he says, “it is absolutely clear that this ordinance change will allow for more rental occupancy, and that is the exact and literal opposite of these stated goals.”

According to city staff, the proposal is in general compliance with Horizons, the city’s comprehensive plan. Planning and Zoning commissioner, Hap Maxwell, challenged the city’s chief planner Chris Padgett on this point, asking how the staff reached that determination when the comprehensive plan is directly concerned with promoting owner-occupied dwellings. Padgett said that is only one of many considerations that must be weighed.

In public comments before the commission voted, six residents spoke in favor of the proposal, 20 in opposition. Of the six in support, four own rental property within the proposed district. Another supporter, a recent ECU graduate, said the established neighborhood association was not open to considering solutions to the area’s problems.

The final supporter, ECU student body president Justin Davis, declared the neighborhood a renter’s neighborhood and said that people who do not like it should move to Lynndale. He brought with him an endorsement from ECU’s Student Government Association. The SGA began circulating an online petition in support of the UNRI on Tuesday.

The 20 speakers opposed to the proposal touched on many issues. Tar River University Neighborhood Association president Andrew Morehead’s presentation sums up those points. Crime statistics, and the beliefs that rent will be reduced and landlords will invest in renovation are addressed in the presentation.

Burden of Proof

As with any zoning change, if city council passes the UNRI tonight, they will have to describe how the action is consistent with the comprehensive plan and explain why they consider the action to be reasonable and in the public interest.

Chief planner Chris Padgett said the greatest number of properties that could be subject to the occupancy increase is 288, but that number is based on only one of the proposed criteria: square footage. Tax records indicate 101 of those properties are owner-occupied. The remaining 187 house renters. Unknowns include how many homes might disqualify based on bedroom or parking criteria, and the number of other homes in the neighborhood which might be modified to meet the requirements.

City staff have devoted more than 250 hours to assessing the proposal. It has been discussed by city council in numerous meetings (January planning retreat, council meetings March 5 and 8 and August 9), at three public input sessions, at several city board and commission meetings, and in neighborhoods across the city.

Watch tonight’s meeting in person at city hall (7 p.m.), live on GTV-9, or online.

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