Since 2011, no one has received the special use permit required, in some cases, to establish a business in New Hanover County’s unincorporated industrial zones.
But despite the failure of efforts last year to change the county’s special use permit ordinance adopted in 2011, the issue remains a topic of conversation and debate among members of the local business community and other area stakeholders.
With the help of a $35,000 grant, the N.C. Coastal Federation is facilitating an effort through a team of local members, including business groups and private developers, to come up with a model special use permit that could address a variety of concerns in the hopes of presenting it to county officials soon.
For the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, the part of the current ordinance that needs changing relates to businesses that could fall into the areas of general or intensive industry.
“That’s what concerns us because it does put us at such a competitive disadvantage when we’re recruiting businesses from outside the community and also when we’re trying to persuade existing businesses to expand,” said Hal Kitchin, an attorney and former chamber chairman who has studied the issue for the group.
The ordinance was adopted in 2011 partly in response to the possibility that New Hanover County might receive a negative federal designation because of pollutant emissions that were measured at high levels at the time, officials say. But the current conversation can’t be boiled down to a fight between environmentalists and business, said Mike Giles, coastal advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation.
When the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners did not approve proposed changes that came up for a vote in June, Giles said it was clear a different approach was needed.
“We started realizing that this was not a productive scenario,” Giles said. “I think that everyone, including the business recruitment industry, if they’re coming here, they want a clear and definite pathway if they’re required to go through this special use permit.”
While most of the concerns go back to the worry that site selectors for some companies will automatically cross the county off their lists because of the special use permit ordinance, some business groups think changes could at the least give economic development officials a leg up.
A timeframe for when a proposal could go before the planning board, such as the 55-day recommendation considered in June, would help, Kitchin said. A business would know that it would take no less than 55 days for a special use permit request to go before the planning board, but whatever happened after that, an applicant would have the right to have the application considered by the planning board at that point, he said.
Currently, the county’s planning staff has an unlimited amount of time to review applications, Kitchin said, and could, hypothetically, say, “‘We’re not going to let you go to the planning board unless you give us that study and this study and this plan and this plan’ … it may be something that takes 20 minutes or it may be something that takes nine months.”
Even though that could be an unlikely scenario and seem like an unfair characterization of the planning staff, the people helping companies choose locations don’t know that, Kitchin said.
Another element of the SUP that creates doubts, he said, is the use of broad manufacturing categories. Members of the chamber believe using the more specific North American Industrial Classification System codes is a better idea.
“Plus, we would say take some of the things that right now require a special use permit off of the list,” he said.
Some residents feel the special use permit isn’t strict enough, something that worries the leaders of some existing businesses.
“As one of the largest employers in the area, we are very concerned about any changes that would negatively impact us and our ability to expand,” said Christopher White, spokesman for GE Hitachi. “For example, if the existing business provision [in the SUP] were removed, we would have to go through what today is a very ambiguous process with no timelines and no certainty, to expand on our own site, where we have been for nearly 60 years.”
GE is part of the project team looking at the SUP, Giles said.
Not referring to GE specifically, Giles said, “It’s important to keep our current industry here. It’s important to be able to allow them to expand, but the magnitude of certain expansion, I think, needs to be looked at, whether at the staff level or county manager level or some level.”
Beth Dawson, one of the county commissioners along with Jonathan Barfield who voted against approving the SUP changes in June, said she challenges the idea that the process is unclear and unpredictable when it comes to industrial zones.
“I don’t see any proof that that is occurring,” Dawson said. “I think that a lot of misinformation has gotten out in the community … I don’t think that it has prohibited business.”
At the same time, she said she is open to suggestions.
“If there’s a business across the bridge looking at New Hanover County and thinks our process is too stringent, then come to the table. Let’s sit down in the planning department and talk about what it is you want to try to do,” Dawson said. “We want to put our can-do hats on and make sure that everyone knows New Hanover County is open for business.”
County commissioner Woody White voted in favor of the proposed changes last summer. He said he thinks the SUP as it stands could keep companies away, but infrastructure needs are even more discouraging.
“The biggest issue for the industrial corridor of our county is the lack of water and sewer infrastructure,” White said. “I think more than anything that deters would-be employers from relocating to New Hanover County.”
The SUP, he said, is a deterrent to a lesser extent.
Kitchin said the chamber isn’t pushing county officials to get rid of the SUP completely, as suggested in a recent county-commissioned economic development analysis referred to as the Garner Report.
“I suppose in theory if we went another four or five years, and no businesses had the nerve to even try to get one of these things [SUP], then maybe at that point, the commissioners would say, ‘Gee, maybe we have overplayed our hand here, maybe we do need to get rid of this thing.’ But right now, I don’t see any political appetite to get rid of it,” Kitchen said.
Some say officials might revisit the subject this year.
“We’re not going to all agree on everything, and that’s fine,” Giles said. “If the project team provides a model ordinance that the county manager feels is workable, he said he will present it to the planning board.”
That could happen in May, Giles said.
Reporter Jenny Callison contributed to this article