On Thursday evening in room 301 of the historic county courthouse in Wilmington, the New Hanover County Planning Board gathered to consider special use permit revisions, and whether to send them on to the county commissioners for final approval.
The verdict? The commissioners may have to wait a bit longer, as the board isn’t ready to take its own vote.
Since March of this year, county planning staff members have been working on revising the SUP guidelines. There have been public work sessions, and a handful of rewrites.
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.
In 2011, county commissioners approved a special use permit ordinance that replaced an outdated 1969 policy.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.
Some two dozen interested parties attended the Thursday meeting.
Chris O’Keefe, the county planning and land use director, opened the session with a detailed presentation to the board reviewing the changes his staff had made to the special use ordinance. He discussed changes in the narrative and the Table of Permitted Uses – known as the TOPU.
The board had no questions for O’Keefe on the changes in the narrative he presented, but there was plenty of public comment.
Tracy Skrabal of the N.C. Coastal Federation discussed the need for the burden of proof to be placed with an interested business and not residents. She recalled the Titan cement plant debate, where she said residents needed to prove it was a mistake for them to be permitted to open a facility in Castle Hayne, as opposed to the company having to meet a burden of proof. Titan America LLC announced in March
that it no longer made financial sense for the company to continue efforts to build a cement plant in Castle Hayne.
Prior to Thursday's planning board meeting, the coalition of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Wilmington Business Development, Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association and the Coalition for Economic Advancement released a statement encouraging more work be done.
“The organizations above would like to reiterate our joint position regarding amendments to the County’s Special Use Permit (SUP) process. Unlike other special interest groups, our position has remained consistent throughout: if the Special Use Permit issue is to be discussed, we are only in favor of changes which will streamline and provide certainty to the permitting process, support existing business and grow new jobs in our community,” the statement said.
“We STRONGLY encourage additional work sessions to enable further deliberations on the Table of Permitted Uses - TOPU. The TOPU is truly the crux of the document and it merits the same careful consideration that was given to the narrative portion of the text amendment. Haphazardly picking between the four TOPU options proposed will impact uses on properties across New Hanover County. We recommend more time to understand, discuss and consider the proposed alternatives based on available data, and not emotion.”
The TOPU is critical to some parties in the debate.
“It’s a three-legged stool,” said Tyler Newman of the pro-business coalition, as he addressed the board.
The three legs in his analogy are the narrative, the TOPU and zoning maps.
“Our request to you is to take some more time. Have some more work sessions,” Newman said. “Let’s talk about the TOPU. Making changes on the fly at the 11th hour is not appropriate. In the interest of sound public policy, we encourage you to continue this item.’’
Hal Kitchin, an attorney with McGuireWoods, echoed those sentiments.
“You have made a lot of progress; the board is almost there,” Kitchin said.
“But TOPU is an issue. You all have not had the chance to get through the TOPU," Kitchin added. “I suggest you keep doing what you are doing. Then give the commissioners something they will be proud to vote on.”
Mike Giles of the N.C. Coastal Federation urged the board to move forward.
“We have the TOPU we can use as a placeholder, to use with the improved text,” he told the board. “Use the existing TOPU until staff can work on it.”
After a discussion between board members, chairwoman Donna Girardot commented that she would like to see the group schedule at least one more work session. The board then unanimously moved to continue the item.
That means that county commissioners will most likely not be voting on the SUP changes at their Nov. 14 meeting, although they could still choose to hold a vote on that date. Should the commissioners decide not to vote, it guarantees that those commissioners elected Nov. 8 will be voting on the new SUP, and not the current set of county commissioners.