On Thursday, empty seats will be in short supply inside room 301 of the New Hanover County Courthouse, as the planning board meets for a discussion on the special use permit (SUP) and in all likelihood, a vote to send the revised document on to the county commissioners for final approval.
The item had been on the Jan. 5 planning board agenda, but was delayed
“In consideration of a concern expressed by the N.C. Coastal Federation, that due to the holidays many people would have insufficient time to review the draft prior to the meeting, I will be asking the board to continue this item until our February meeting,” board chairwoman Donna Girardot said at the time.
At issue are text amendments within the much discussed SUP ordinance and also the contents of its Table of Permitted Uses.
The SUP requires that some industries meet requirements before being allowed to open a business in New Hanover County. Business leaders don’t want an SUP that is too restrictive and discourages industry from locating in the county, while others including the N.C. Coastal Federation contend that a strong SUP is needed to keep potentially polluting industries from damaging the region.
In a letter to be presented to the planning board Thursday evening, the business coalition that includes the Wilmington Chamber, Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, Wilmington Business Development, Coalition for Economic Advancement and the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, will outline their full support for the revised SUP.
“The organizations above would like to thank you for your thorough deliberations on the Special Use Permit text amendment. Over the course of several months, the collaborative process has led to a text amendment which will give certainty to new and existing businesses while protecting our quality of life and environment in New Hanover County,” the letter states. “While the work sessions were numerous and lengthy, they offered a full opportunity for the Planning Board and stakeholders to discuss a variety of options regarding the Special Use Permit process and the Table of Permitted Uses. This process was critical, as it facilitated a full and robust discussion, while at the same time, enabling the Planning Board to clearly identify items of consensus and move the discussion forward."
“The business community would like to express our full support for the staff recommended text amendment,” it concluded.
The N.C. Coastal Federation, however, remains concerned that the SUP is missing several key components.
“Right now only two of our suggestions have been included in the planning board's recommendations: the 35-business day review of a SUP application for just intensive industry by planning staff, and the requirement for an applicant to hold a Community Information Meeting for the public," said Mike Giles, of the N.C. Coastal Federation.
That, according to Giles, leaves big concerns for the federation, including “the deletion of section 53.3-4.1 requiring Intensive Industry to describe and disclose the potential external effects of their proposed project. This was the cornerstone of the SUP approved by the county commission in 2011. Most other counties and municipalities in North Carolina with SUPs require a complete disclosure of the purpose of the project, its use and process and effects upon the community."
In 2011, county commissioners approved a special use permit ordinance that replaced a 1969 policy. In 2014, amendments were proposed to the 2011 SUP to add more clarity to the application and permitting process. These amendments ultimately failed in a 2-2 vote by the county commissioners.
Another criticism is that the requirement for a "written description of the proposal depicting the nature and scope of the proposed development" as required is Section 70-2 (2) subsection (e) is just too general and does not provide the applicant the clarity and specific requirements that should be included with the application.
Lastly, Coastal Federation officials said they are concerned with the proposed reclassification of a laundry list of intensive industry to the more general open classification that was under the now deleted limited and general industrial classification. The list is referred to as the table of permitted uses (TOPU).
“These are impactful industries that now could be permitted in the I-1 or B-2 zones, which are designated by definition for less intensive use due to their close proximity to residential areas, low impact business, schools and parks,” Giles said. “So in essence if these industries are reclassified they could be located in areas without the more restrictive review, the 35 business day review, the community information meeting and would not be required to list any state or federal permits.”
The Coastal Federation is encouraging residents via email to attend Thursday’s session.
“We need to ‘pack the house’ at these upcoming hearings to truly make a statement about our community – whether wearing business suits or wearing flip flops – and how we can unite on shared values. The text amendments that the federation are advocating for set a baseline standard for clean air, clean water and clean jobs. And that is a right we should all have in our community,” one recent email stated.
County planning staff spent hundreds of hours working on the SUP in 2016
, which included several work sessions open to the public.
Hal Kitchin, the former chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce board, has been working on the SUP issue since 2013.
“A lot of people have put in a lot of work into getting a consensus product here that ought to be acceptable to everybody in the community,” Kitchin said Tuesday.
“The planning board has been holding work sessions, five of them now, all open to the public, most of which had public input sessions. All of these involved participation by the Coastal Federation representatives and business community representatives. I just don’t see how you could have a more open and transparent process,” he added. “We literally sat around a table and drafted these revisions, in pubic, in front of everybody.”
Girardot said it is time for a vote.
“Speaking for myself, I am ready to take action on this item on Thursday,” Girardot said. “As important as this issue is, it's time to close this chapter and allow the citizens and the county to move on to other issues such as the upcoming UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) and the 2017-18 annual budget.
“Throughout this process, I believe all parties at the table understood that the final product would be one of compromise. Did each organization and planning board member get everything they wanted? I doubt it. Could it be better? Perhaps,” she added. “We need to remember, the draft that we will be considering Thursday evening is a temporary amendment which will once again be under review as will all the county's ordinances, as we work our way through the upcoming UDO process.”
The planning board meeting begins at 6 p.m. Thursday at the New Hanover County Courthouse downtown.