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Special Use Permit Arguments Linger On

By Vince Winkel, posted Sep 23, 2016
County commissioners approved a SUP for S.T. Wooten to expand an existing sand mine operation off U.S. 421 North earlier this month. (Photo by Vince Winkel)

Special use permit.

Have you grown tired of those three words yet? It would be understandable if you were.

For five years now, those three words have been a growing part of New Hanover County lexicon.

In 2011, county commissioners approved a special use permit ordinance that replaced an outdated 1969 policy. They haven’t stopped talking about it since. 

A special use permit (SUP) is required for any development that might be compatible with a zone in which it wishes to locate, but requires special consideration of its potential impacts on the surrounding area.

For example earlier this month commissioners approved a special use permit for S.T. Wooten to operate a sand mine off U.S. 421. 

But those same commissioners have yet to approve a revised SUP process in the works for a few years. 

In 2014, amendments were proposed to the SUP that would have added more clarity to the application and permitting process. These amendments ultimately failed in a 2-2 vote by the county commissioners. Soon thereafter, the N.C. Coastal Federation received a grant to create a “model” SUP, which it has since distributed to county officials and business leaders. That version has received both thumbs up and thumbs down. 

“Without an objective, clear and specific SUP like the language the federation has proposed, the county will not be able to promote its stated economic strategy to attract those industries that best match with our community,” said Mike Giles of the Coastal Federation. 

“Some think that any job and any industry is a good thing,” Giles pointed out, “but when you are talking about the smallest and one of the most populated counties in North Carolina located on the coast with specific environmental challenges, a high quality of life, quality of place, public health, arts, culture, a vibrant historic district, three very important beach communities that balance must be well thought out to protect those very things that can be used in a strategic manner to recruit and encourage sustainable and proper growth without compromising the economy, air, water and our natural assets. To do this you need a well thought out and objective process to both incentivize and vet proper growth.”

Giles said his organization is primarily concerned with heavy industry. 

Wilmington Business Development CEO Scott Satterfield said the county would never put the environment at risk with a poorly conceived SUP. 

“Effective stewardship of our economy, by its very logic, includes being vigilant about environmental impact,” Satterfield said. “Quality of life is integral to our region’s appeal as a business destination, and our environment is central to that quality of life. Why would a community devalue one of its major selling points? With or without an SUP, that’s not who we are.”

Three months ago, county commissioners instructed planning staff to draft changes to the special use permit “to give our property owners and prospective businesses a clear expectation of what is necessary for a smooth and expedient permitting process in New Hanover County.”

Since then, there have been county meetings, work sessions and a lot of back and forth between all the interested parties. County staff presented a revised SUP, but at a Sept. 7 county planning meeting the public spoke, and the revisions were sent back to the planning staff for … more revision.

Regardless of the final SUP, it will have substantial impact.

“The effects could come in a couple different types, an effect on the level of growth and an effect on the type of growth,” explained Adam Jones, regional economist in the Cameron School of Business at UNCW. “I might think of these two effects as tradeoffs. To the extent that the SUP prolongs the permitting process or adds uncertainty, it will depress growth as good firms and projects usually have options and the permit system may drop us down the list. However, proponents of a more discretionary SUP program are willing to accept that tradeoff to affect the type of business that locates in the Port City.”

Tradeoff, another word growing in the lexicon.

“I agree with the sentiments of their statement, but the notion that there is some sort of 'trade off'  between good jobs and our environment is a false equivalency. There can be no trade off of our environment, regardless of the opportunity presented,” said Bruce Holsten, managing director of American Harbor Capital Strategies. “More importantly, our critical natural assets, including water supply and aquifer protections are fundamental to our very existence. One only need look around our country and the world at the many cities and regions that have lost easy access to potable water or recognize their water supplies are finite. Everyone acknowledges this.

"By its very existence, and as intended, the SUP could impact the level of growth as it will provide a much needed safety valve to insure that the applicant industry or company is in full compliance and meets our county’s four 'Findings of Fact.'If they mean that an SUP would deter intensive polluting industries from locating here, then it has served its useful and intended purpose."

County Commissioner Woody White believes a healthy balance can be struck.

“The balance we refer to is not a science; it’s an art. It is a political and policy balance that sets forth clear rules, that are easy to understand and that are transparent,” White said. “It’s an easy balance to strike.

“But instead of striking this balance, the recent discussions have been mired down in misinformation, bad science and political groups with self-serving agendas that propagate emotional reactions that scare vulnerable people into believing that any modification of the SUP will result in dire consequences for our air and water quality,” White added.

Two weeks ago in a letter from several economic leaders addressed to the planning board, it was stressed that this is an issue not to be taken lightly. The statement was signed by representatives from the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, Wilmington Business Development and Business Alliance for a Sound Economy. 

“We encourage your thoughtful deliberations on this complex issue. Changes to the Special Use Permit will impact hundreds of properties in New Hanover County including churches, convenience stores, cell towers, mobile homes and day cares. Rushing through this process will lead to bad public policy,” the letter stated. 

Heath Clark, president of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, added that “we must embrace an environment for companies to know what types of regulations and permits will be needed to set roots within our community. Unpredictable terms, definitions, and processes only create barriers and impediments that in the end will drive companies away from our area and, in return, hurt our economy.”

The Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors (WRAR) has also been making recommendations.

“Streamlining the process is absolutely in the best interest of everyone, regardless which side of the issue you may support,” WRAR president Don Harris said. “It stands to reason that uncertainty in the process could serve as a detriment to our area being considered for projects that can add to economic growth.”

But is it possible that there are other factors in play, and other reasons why new industry is not choosing the Wilmington area? 

“SUPs are extremely common and don’t have any negative impact on business activity,” said Craig Galbraith, director of the Office of Innovation and Commercialization and professor of entrepreneurship and technology management at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business. “In fact, some of the most successful economically developing areas in the U.S. have very strict SUP and other land-use requirements and ordinances.”

Galbraith believes that when it comes to economic growth here, there are more important fish to fry.

“In trying to attract the type of businesses that we want to attract to this area – high growth, scalable, high value added and high-paying jobs with high multiplier effects – the key thing that the city can do is concentrate on the ambiance and clean up the rather unattractive streetscapes. We will never have quality economic growth until this is done – SUPs are a minor issue,” Galbraith said. “Our commercial streetscapes are astoundingly unattractive in many of the most important areas, like College Avenue, Market, Oleander and Carolina Beach Road.”

Beautification and streetscape projects aside, Jones said it’s difficult to quantify the exact impact the existing SUP is having.

“Firms and consultants don’t often call to say they gave us a look and crossed us off the list,” Jones said. “I have a hard time imaging the current version attracting firms which leaves me to conclude the effect must have been negative, how much so is difficult to quantify though.” 

On Sept. 22 the county planning board held another work session on SUP, after this issue went to press. Later this year or early next, if the board signs off on it, the county commissioners will finally vote on those three words: special use permit.

Donna Girardot, chairwoman of the planning board, said she remains confident.

“The planning board solicited input from citizens and then convened as many work sessions as was necessary with community stakeholders, the environmental community and the business community, and drafted a Comprehensive Plan that the commissioners adopted unanimously,” Girardot said. “We plan to follow the same process with the Special Use Permit and there's no question in my mind that, once again we can craft a well-balanced, well-thought out ordinance that may not be what each one of us wants or anticipates, but that we can each support going forward."
 
“With a community as rich in desirable living resources as we have, we can successfully attract top line industries to grow a diverse economy and to use that growth to further foster our high quality of life,” added planning board member David Weaver. “No reason exists why the SUP modification process cannot be win-win for New Hanover County.” 

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