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NC cities facing more legislative intervention

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Two years have passed since historic anti-annexation legislation became law, and the Republican-led General Assembly still isn't finished trying to take the powers and clout of North Carolina's municipalities down a few more notches.
    
Several bills seeking to intervene in cities' affairs have been debated and passed at least one chamber during this year's session.
    
Senate Republicans have pushed through legislation that would end Charlotte's ownership of one of the nation's busiest airports and give it to a regional authority comprised of several counties. They also voted to cancel the state's lease with Raleigh that allows the building of a big-city park on the old Dorothea Dix mental hospital campus. Lawmakers want to renegotiate the terms for less land and more money.
    
"We're just stunned," Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. "The fact that they think they can go back and undo a lease and then hold us hostage for more money sends a frightening message to the business community, to anybody who wants to do business with the state of North Carolina."
    
The House, meanwhile, has passed bills backed by home builders that restrict what kind of building inspections local governments can require and prevent local new-home design and appearance standards beyond what state law allows.
    
With moves also being considered to eliminate some of their revenue sources in tax reform and to phase out powers cities and towns use just beyond their boundaries, municipal leaders from both political parties are telling legislators they're frustrated and angry.
    
"I don't know if that's adversarial. I don't know why it's being done. But it is," Blowing Rock town council member Jim Steele, a Republican, said at the North Carolina League of Municipalities' state government lobbying day last week. "Then I think, why are we messing with this when we've got in our state so many other things that need to get accomplished?"
    
Republican leaders defend the bills and say they reflect an ongoing reset in the balance of power between local governments and the General Assembly. The state constitution says the legislature has ultimate authority over cities and counties as subdivisions of state government.
    
As North Carolina's population keeps shifting toward urban centers and cities dominate counties where they sit, municipalities are being restrained, said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.
    
"It's just the natural outcome by the growth of cities," he said in an interview. "I think that is more the controlling factor in what we're seeing here than a (political) power play. It's just a natural transformation."
    
While the House inspection and zoning bills received some Democratic support, there's no doubt among Senate Democrats there's partisanship at play. Most of North Carolina's large cities are either led by Democratic mayors, councils with Democratic majorities or both, even if many actually run in officially nonpartisan elections.
    
Republican-leaning counties around Charlotte would have more say over Charlotte Douglas International Airport if a new regional authority is created. And Democrats say Republicans don't like the Dix lease because former Gov. Beverly Perdue, who finalized it during her last days in office, is a Democrat. Other bills focus on Asheville, another Democratic city.
    
"A core Republican philosophy is government is best that which is closest to the people," said Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake. "What is clear is that philosophy only applies when Democrats control state government. Now that Republicans are in control of state government, they have absolutely no shame in interposing their judgment instead of that of the local communities."
    
A watershed moment in the rebalance came in 2011, when the General Assembly approved an overhaul of the 1959 laws governing rules cities and towns used to annex unincorporated areas against the will of those residents. City leaders said the rules served the state well by promoting healthy municipal growth.
    
Grassroots activists failed to receive changes when Democrats led the General Assembly. Advocates said that they couldn't stop their land from being swallowed up by municipalities, and that they failed to receive timely water and sewer services. Republicans passed a law giving landowners the ability to petition to block involuntary annexations and receive service hookups for free. When a judge struck down the petition method, the GOP quickly made the case moot by changing it to an up-or-down referendum.
    
In the middle of this year's municipal malaise sits Gov. Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, who is trying to be both empathetic to his former municipal colleagues and careful not to damage relationships with his fellow Republicans in the legislature. McCrory will be asked to sign some bills into law, while others labeled local measures aren't subject to a veto.
    
During a question-and-answer with the governor at a league meeting last week, New Bern Mayor Pro Tempore Sabrina Bengel pleaded with McCrory to step in and halt the bill reining in local home appearance standards.
    
"I see the legislature slowly but surely taking this away from our local authority, and it concerns me greatly," Bengel said. McCrory told mayors to speak with their legislators, but mentioned some cities had abused their power at times.
    
"We've got to find some mutual ground here on some of these local issues," McCrory said.

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