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Vote on Troubling Billboards Bill Looms

A vote on a deeply problematic billboards bill looms in the House, with a floor vote likely next week. Chamber leaders calendared HB 581 Revisions to Outdoor Advertising Laws for a Wednesday vote before pulling the bill at the last minute, just before debate was set to begin. Among its many troubling provisions, the bill gives billboard owners carte blanche permission -- with no input or discretion by local officials -- to relocate existing billboards to any place in a city or town with a commercial or industrial zoning component. Areas with no current billboards or those with mixed-use residential and commercial zoning would have to accept relocated billboards. And, even more problematically, when relocating signs, HB 581 would allow billboard owners to make the signs taller, larger, and digital, even if local ordinances would otherwise prohibited those upgrades. A similar Tennessee law created a firestorm in Chattanooga last month, where the city was forced to accept a relocated, newly digitized sign in its downtown area where no billboards had been allowed. Disconcerting images of massive digital billboards have made the local newspaper, including one measuring 600 square feet -- smaller than the 672-square-foot limit in HB 581 Revisions to Outdoor Advertising Laws.

Please take action this weekend to tell your House members you oppose this bill. Share with them which areas of your city or town would have to accept billboards if this bill became law. For a sample letter, please email NCLM grassroots associates Vickie Miller or Will Brooks. When speaking with legislators, tell them:

  • Local control of billboards is the only way to ensure that cities and towns and their residents can purse their own visions for their communities. Those visions are typically tied to their local economies and how they wish to pursue economic growth and attract jobs.
  • Local officials take into account the interests of all local business owners when it comes to the location of billboards.
  • Public opinion overwhelmingly favors local control of billboards. In late 2015, NCLM commissioned a poll with highly-respected polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, which found that 79 percent of North Carolina voters want local officials to control the location of billboards in their communities. A similar percentage -- 78 percent -- do not believe billboard owners should be given rights unavailable to other property owners.

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Committee Pulls Bill Over Property Tax Concern

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday considered HB 56 Amend Environmental Laws and its fiscal implications before committee leadership pulled the bill over concerns about a provision that would exclude from the property tax base land that is subject to specific buffer rules required by the state. Several committee members, including chairmen Sens. Jerry Tillman, Tommy Tucker and Andrew Brock, expressed concern about moving the bill forward without a full understanding of the fiscal implications to the local property revenue in the impacted counties. 

The League and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners had previously shared with bill sponsor Sen. Andy Wells local governments’ concerns that this provision would be burdensome for property tax assessors to implement, and that the proposal could significantly lower property tax revenue for a state requirement without state compensation. The League thanks Sens. Tillman, Tucker, Brock, Floyd McKissick and other committee members for bringing attention to this provision. Contact: Sarah Collins


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Planning Statutes Rewrite Receives First Hearing

A proposal to reorganize and simplify the state's planning-related statutes on Wednesday received its first of four Senate committee hearings. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance SB 419 Planning/Development Changes, a years-long initiative of the N.C. Bar Association. Before the vote, the League addressed committee members and told them that municipal officials remained neutral on the bill, a position shared by other local government and homebuilding interests. The League thanks bill sponsors Sens. Michael Lee and Floyd McKissick for moving forward with this proposal rather than another bill on related topics approved by the House earlier this session over the intense objections of local government officials. That House bills contains several provisions harmful to cities.

A subcommittee of the Bar Association began rewriting the planning statutes nearly four years ago, seeking to simplify the organization of the current statutes into a new Chapter 160-D while also codifying case law and making other consensus changes. At the time, League members provided extensive feedback on the proposal, which legislators introduced but did not approve last session. SB 419 must next receive favorable reports by the Senate Finance, State & Local Government, and Rules committees. Contact: Erin Wynia


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Budget Negotiations Underway; Leaders See Completion Soon

House and Senate budget writers are hammering toward a compromise version of their respective spending plans with the fiscal year's end, June 30, just weeks away. "We have a schedule to try to have this process resolved within a couple weeks," House Speaker Tim Moore told news outlets including the News & Observer. "We're going to do that. I would be very surprised if there were something that would throw the schedule off." The House and Senate had previously agreed to a budget limit -- $22.9 billion -- but their plans for how to spend that total differ. The League, in recent Bulletins, has shared spreadsheets that show what each chamber's plan proposes that is of interest to cities and towns. Both plans, for instance, agree to spend $150 million on additional Hurricane Matthew relief and maintain Powell Bill funding at the current level, but propose different investments in areas like the Main Street Solutions Fund, which helps downtown revitalization. The chambers must sync up their plans in full before they can send a final version to the governor for signing. If the chambers pass the June 30 deadline, they may implement a placeholder budget until the new one is finalized. Once the budget work is complete, lawmakers may focus on remaining priority bills before adjourning the regular session.

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No Special Session, Lawmakers Say

Gov. Roy Cooper's call this week for a special legislative session, for the purposes of redrawing General Assembly districts, was ruled out of order on Thursday by state lawmakers. Governor Cooper had proclaimed at a Wednesday press conference that the General Assembly should swiftly begin development of new districts per action from the U.S. Supreme Court this week siding with a lower court ruling that the current maps, which went into effect in 2011, were drawn on an illegal racial basis. The following day, House Rules Chairman David Lewis of Dunn issued a point of order that led to the dismissal of the governor's special-session call. The North Carolina Constitution says the governor can call a special session "on extraordinary occasions, by and with the advice of the Council of State," but Representative Lewis argued that those conditions hadn't been satisfied. He noted that lawmakers are already in session (currently negotiating a state budget) and that the courts said new maps should be drawn in regular session. He also said Governor Cooper didn't get appropriate counsel from the Council of State. Representative Lewis, for his arguments, cited a section of the North Carolina Constitution that gives any legislator permission to "dissent from and protest any act or resolve" that the legislator believes will injur the public. House Speaker Tim Moore of King's Mountain affirmed Representative Lewis' case. Similar procedures followed in the Senate.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week stood with a lower court decision that struck down the current state legislative maps. The case is going back to the lower court to answer whether elections under redrawn maps should take place this year, news outlets reported. Governor Cooper in his proclamation for a special session said it's "imperative that the General Assembly immediately remedy the violation...." He had wanted the special session to begin Thursday. According to the Associated Press, Speaker Moore told reporters that lawmakers "will deal with redistricting once we have guidance that we need from the federal court."


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City, Tech Officials Gather for Smart-Cities Summit


NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson (far left) talks with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley at a smart-cities summit on Tuesday. Right of O'Malley is Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane. Photo credit: Ben Brown

Local government officials and tech insiders this week charted the future of cities at a summit keynoted by former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, a voice in the "smart cities" movement. With a focus on data-gathering sensors and analytics, among other smart-city platforms, discussion at the Triangle Smart Cities Summit at the N.C. State University Centennial Campus on Tuesday painted a picture of more efficient government services, communications and responses that would drive down costs and enhance quality of life. "The Internet of Things just reminds us of something else we already knew at a primal level, and that is the connectedness of things," O'Malley said after Durham City Manager Thomas Bonfield, on a panel with fellow Triangle municipal offiicals, noted the boost that smart data collection, analysis and solutions-modeling could give to regionalism. Bonfield noted existing collaborations between his city and county government on open data, with an online platform that gives datasets to the community to help them and their government spot trends, predict the future and implement smart solutions. "We have an incredible amount of data on our open platforms," said Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, another panelist. She added that the city is building new online dashboards to allow the public to observe what the city is doing programmatically and what is being accomplished.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger discussed her city's collaboration with UNC Chapel Hill on tech improvements and implementation, and on how the strategic deployment of sensors are gathering real-time data and creating new levels of predictability and service. Like many cities and towns these days, Chapel Hill has a platform allowing anyone to photograph and report a public-works problem -- like a pothole or a graffiti-covered stop-sign -- via smartphone so the city can quickly respond. Residents who report these problems also receive updates on the progress. Mayor Hemminger said other smart monitoring tools were useful during the NCAA National Championship in April, which saw enormous crowds partying on the Chapel Hill streets. Real-time monitoring enabled the city to position public safety personnel in an informed way and quickly respond to any incidents. "We had a fabulous celebration that was very safe," she said, adding that residents like having access to that data as well, because it makes them feel more connected to their city and its behavior in the moment. A large crowd at the summit listened to and asked questions of the panel, primarily in the interest of adding such smart solutions to their own towns. A big takeaway was the importance for cities to connect with their local universities or community colleges to collaborate on smart tech ideas and experiments. N.C. State News reported that NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson and Mayor McFarlane pledged to join the MetroLab Network, a national collective of city-university partnerships focused on improving city government with better data practices. O'Malley is a MetroLab official.

Anyone unfamiliar with the smart-cities conversation can get a quick primer from this episode of the League's Municipal Equation podcast.


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Podcast: A Role for Cities in the Bee Crisis?

It's time for a brand new episode of Municipal Equation, the League's biweekly podcast all about cities and towns in changing times. We've all heard about the hard times that honeybees are going through and the huge implications for us all. But how do cities fit into all this? There's a surprising compatibility between cities and bees, and a role local governments can play. (Has your city ever passed a resolution or policy related to honeybees? It's not as unusual as it sounds.) This episode comes just ahead of National Pollinator Week (June 19-25, though some honor it all month). To celebrate, we're joined by Bee Downtown, Bee City USA, and other voices covering the North Carolina cities of West Jefferson, Davidson, Asheville, Durham and beyond. Loads of trivia and insights on this one. Municipal Equation comes out every other Tuesday at soundcloud.com/municipalequation. If you've liked any of our past episodes, please leave a friendly review on iTunes. Have an idea for a future episode? Or feedback on one we've already done? Email host/producer Ben Brown.


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New 'Asset Map' Aims to Help Cities Improve Local Innovation

A new tool, billed as the first of its kind, emerged this week for cities and towns of any size to enhance their innovation ecosystems. The InnovateNC Community Innovation Asset Map, made public on June 8, comes via partners including the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) at N.C. State University, RTI International, and the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Board of Science, Technology & Innovation. The open-source tool, which IEI says is widely applicable to both rural and urban communities of all sizes, can be used as designed or modified by communities to meet their individual needs. "The Asset Map was designed with an intentional focus on inclusion,” said IEI Policy Manager Sarah Langer Hall. "It's terrific to have high-quality resources in a community, but not so great if large segments of your population don't know they are available or can't access them." IEI calls the Asset Map a critical step for communities to develop strategies that leverage their innovation and entrepreneurial assets. It is being offered to communities as a free download during its initial launch. Additional tools are planned for release by the end of 2017 at InnovateNC.org.