The old council majority wouldn’t touch it. The new majority, elected in October, is wrestling with it, and it’s causing the first fissure in their ranks. The issue is the rash of teardowns in Raleigh, mostly in older, inside-the-Beltline neighborhoods, and whether new McMansions should be allowed to proliferate alongsideand perhaps muscle outthe ranches and bungalows of yesteryear.

That question came to a boil in 2007 with the creation of Community SCALE, a neighborhood group advocating contextual limits on the size and height of “infill” houses. Adding to the concern was a report from the city planning department revealing that the number of teardowns since 2002 has zoomed past 600.

Now there’s a major battle brewing, to which City Planning Director Mitch Silver referred dryly in a recent memo: “Some residents have expressed concern” about big infill houses knocking down trees, blocking the sun and eventually driving them and their small houses out of their neighborhoods. “Other residents … strongly support their rights to develop property” and believe that the big new houses represent progress and are better than the aged small ones.

In other words: Neighborhood rights are pitted against a property owner’s or builder’s rights.

When this debate came to the City Council in May, its old pro-builder majority punted, choosing to hire a new planning staffer to grapple with the issue; six months later, the new position is “almost filled,” Silver says.

But in October, Raleigh voters dumped two pro-builder council incumbents in favor of challengers Rodger Koopman and Nancy McFarlane, shifting power on the council to the pro-neighborhoods side and creating a “Meeker majority,” as it’s often known.

Before his new allies were even in office, however, Mayor Charles Meeker rushed an “interim” scheme for curbing teardowns to a public hearing in November. It would have temporarily reduced allowable building heights and increased setback requirements on most residential lots in Raleigh Silver wrote it, but even he said it hadn’t been “vetted” sufficiently.

The result was a political fiasco. Community SCALE said the proposal was overkill and walked away from it. Builders and developers, however, turned out in force to denounce it, declaring accurately that it would impede small additions and renovations all over Raleigh.

For Meeker, the worst moment came when his longtime rival, former mayor and now County Commissioner Paul Coble, stepped up to microphone to sayto loud applausethat the Silver-Meeker plan was “ill-conceived, ill-advised and ill-prepared.”

When the hearing ended, Meeker admitted defeat, and acknowledged last week that pushing the plan was a mistake. With the new council seated, he and Silver have another scheme in mind. But this time, neighborhood advocates are organizing to oppose it. They have a different planand an unlikely ally on the Raleigh planning commission.

With the first plan officially off the table, the debate has turned to what Silver, in his memo, termed “Option 2” and “Option 3.” Option 2 would require anyone demolishing a house in order to build a substanitally bigger oneor putting a large addition on a hometo receive approval from the City Planning Commission. Option 3 would reduce the number of steps required to adopt a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District, a custom zoning code that a neighborhood, with the consent of the majority of property owners, can impose on itself. Community SCALE members prefer Option 2, but suggest both options could be used. Several of Meeker’s council allies agree. Meeker and Silver, though, say Option 3 is sufficient, and that it’s unecessary to consider Option 2, even as a stopgap measure until neighborhood plans are in place.

Option 3, conservation districts

Option 3 uses Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts, also known as NCODs, to curb the proliferation of teardowns. In an interview, Silver praised NCODs as “proven tool” used in 16 established Raleigh neighborhoods. NCODs allow residents to voluntarily reduce allowable building heights and change setback and street orientation rules from existing Raleigh zoning regulations.

Meeker, too, supports NCODs saying they have “worked well” and can be adapted to address infill issues. Meeker responded to concerns that teardowns might continue while neighbors debate the details of the NCOD plan; he suggested that a moratorium on teardowns could be triggered when a majority of a neighborhood’s residents have signed petitions to do so.

However, NCOD plans can take at least three years to adopt, even in neighborhoods where there’s a consensus, because of unnecessary and cumbersome requirements, Silver said. He proposes streamlining the process so residents can skip the time-consuming “plan” part (returning to it later if they want) and immediately negotiate the rules. This could allow a new district to be adopted in as little as four to six months, Silver maintained.

“Option 3,” Silver said, “could be in place by February or March” and be a permanent solution to the infill issue. Whereas, he warned, “if Option 2 is put forward, it could be as ugly as what happened before” to Option 1.

“Many [on the builders’ side] are upset that Option 2 is still alive,” Silver said, adding that the number of cases it would generate could burden his department.

Option 2: seek plan approval

Option 2 is virtually the same idea proposed after the November public hearing by Clyde Holt, one of the planning commission’s newest members and a lawyer who commonly represents developers’ interests.

In a letter to Silver, Holt said that “[m]ost builder/developers are sensitive to neighborhood scale, architectural compatibility and the like,” but “not all.” (Emphasis in the original letter.)

“[Some] builder/developers from out of the region may not have the same sensitivity concerning neighborhood infill as do local builder/developers,” Holt said. For that reason, he added, on bigger infill projects, the planning commission should review the building plan and allow public commentthe same method used for site plans as for new subdivisions.

The planning commission would decide whether to approve the infill project using the same eight standards for subdivisions, including public health, safety and community welfare. Builders or neighbors could appeal the decision to city council.

Community SCALE members interviewed last week unanimously thought Option 2 could be used in neighborhoodds, at least in the interim, until the city has demonstrated that a streamlined NCOD district process will workor until Raleigh adopts sophisticated infill standards like those in place elsewhere in the country. (Atlanta and Austin, Texas were cited as examples.)

SCALE members were skeptical that Option 3 could be fast-tracked as Silver described, especially in neighborhoods where builders have started buying and some residents are itching to sell.

“I personally like Option 2,” said Carol Majors, a graphic designer who’s among Community SCALE’s leaders. Majors owns a house on Cooleemee Drive in the Five Points area, the epicenter for teardowns. A dozen “spec castles” have gone up on or near her block, she said, with price tags of $1.25 million and up. Her own house is “modest,” she adds. “Actually, I think my home is quite nice, but the scale is changing dramatically, so I guess I am living in a future teardown in someone else’s mind.”

Councilors Russ Stephenson, Thomas Crowder and Koopman, all Meeker allies, each expressed support for Community SCALE’s position. “Options 2 and 3 are both very much alive,” said Koopman, whose district includes the Five Points neighborhood.

The debate resumes at the Jan. 8 council meeting.

See related story, “Infill ousts old charm,” May 9, 2007.