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NHC Planning Board To Tackle Special Use Permit Ordinance

By J. Elias O'Neal, posted Jan 9, 2014
Additional changes to New Hanover County’s special use permit for industrial projects could be headed to the county commissioners, despite opposition from some groups contending that changes to the ordinance are not necessary.
 
County planning staff will recommend changes to several sections of the special use permit ordinance during Thursday evening’s planning board meeting. Groups for and against the porposed changes are expected to attend the meeting, having discussed talking points with members in recent days about the issue.
 
Proposed changes include readdressing and clarifying the calculation of time a permit can be submitted, and establishing a 45-day review period for applicants requesting a special use permit, according to county documents. The proposed ordinance also deletes a nonbinding narrative requirement by the applicant to disclose the projected external impacts of the project, including any information about anticipated federal and or state permits that will be required, and limits county’s staff ability to request additional information beyond the original checklist.  
 
Changes to the ordinance continue to mark a long and intense debate about the permit’s effect on industry and development in the region – prompting planning officials to readdress and clarify parts of the ordinance.
 
In October 2011, county commissioners approved a special use permit ordinance that replaced an outdated 1969 policy. The new ordinance was designed to specify what types of uses could locate by right in each zoning classification and what uses would need a special use permit.
 
It also described the special use permitting process.

A special use permit is required for any development that might be compatible with a zone in which it wishes to locate, but which would require special consideration of its potential impacts on the surrounding area, according to planning officials.

Planners and county officials hoped the ordinance would be a much more useful tool for planners and for prospective businesses looking to locate or expand in the county.
 
Instead, the planners discovered portions of the ordinance remained confusing to staff. And, during a quarterly work session in November, business officials looking to lure industry balked at the reforms – many calling them antigrowth and discouraging to potential business expansion.
 
Scott Sullivan, chairman of the Coalition for Economic Advancement, said in a statement Thursday that his organization is urging the county planning board to approve the changes.
 
“Although the amended SUP does not make as many changes as we would like, it goes a long way in clarifying the process and removing the arbitrary and political components that crippled the original SUP,” Sullivan said in a news release. “To thrive, New Hanover County needs a diverse economy comprised of industry, film production, technology, service, tourism and other businesses. The amended SUP is a good first step in helping to retain existing industry and attract new industry to New Hanover County.”
 
Connie Majure-Rhett, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that its board of directors drafted an approval resolution Wednesday “supporting changes proposed by the New Hanover County planning department,” in regard to the special use permit. 
 
“The language proposed by the planning department staff provides the clarity and specificity to the process that area economic development groups and businesses are seeking,” a news release from the chamber of commerce stated. “Despite the misperception that has arisen within parts of the community, the effort was never intended to eliminate the SUP. As many of the chamber’s manufacturing members have said, ‘We don’t mind following the rules. We just need to know what they are.’ The Wilmington chamber board believes this proposed language clarifies those rules.” 
 
But not everyone agrees that the proposed changes should move forward.
 
In a statement issued by Wilmington-based Cape Fear River Watch, an organization that advocates for the protection and improvement of water quality within the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, officials called the changes “ambiguous and poorly written.”
 
“The most recent text changes … seek to remove important local reviews of heavy polluting industries on critical public resources such as water supply, wetlands and air quality,” the news release stated. “The SUP is an important tool for local government and our community to make informed decisions about the possible effects of proposed heavy industries on the region’s public investments, the economy, property values, public health and safety.”
 
Members of the Cape Fear Chapter of the Sierra Club share similar concerns, adding that the changes seem designed to appease business interests and not to enhance the overall well-being of residents in New Hanover County.
 
“It’s not shown to be a deterrent to new business or industry … there’s no evidence of a company saying they’re not coming because of the special use permit,” said Zachary Keith, associate organizer for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. “What was put in place in 2011 keeps getting chipped away.”  
 
Keith also questioned the level of transparency behind the proposed changes – adding that the level of inclusion during the 2011 SUP revision process was not apparent during this revision.  
 
“The changes need to be made with the same transparency,” Keith said. “To come back from the holidays and to have these types of changes proposed and presented without more feedback from citizens is irresponsible for the county to do . . . it needs to be open and transparent.”
 
The New Hanover County Planning Board public hearing on changes to the special use permit is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the historic courthouse at 24 N. Third St.  
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