When the New Hanover County Commissioners gather Monday for a public hearing on the Special Use Permit (SUP) ordinance, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether they will vote on the latest revisions.
The commissioners meeting comes 11 days after the county planning board voted not to send their latest SUP proposals to the commissioners for a vote, deciding instead that it needed more work.
Since the planning board has had this issue for more than 30 days, the commissioners could consider – and vote – on the SUP revisions at the meeting even though the planning board tabled the issue Nov. 3 and made no recommendation.
Adding a new wrinkle into the SUP drama is the election. Monday’s meeting is the last chance the existing set of commissioners will have to decide on the SUP.
It will be chairwoman Beth Dawson’s last full meeting with the county commissioners, as she lost her re-election bid in March’s Republican primary.
Dawson has sided with the Democrats in the past on the SUP issue. Two years ago, she voted against a list of proposed changes to the SUP, alongside Commissioner Jonathan Barfield.
On Friday, Dawson said she was disappointed that the planning board had not sent in its final version of the SUP, despite all the hard work members have pouring into the effort.
“They have worked very hard,” she said.
“This has been discussed for years,” Dawson said. “It’s been a very transparent process.
“I was hoping to move forward, so we can recruit more business to New Hanover County, and encourage development of the industrial corridor.”
The new board will be seated Dec. 5. Based on this week's election results that board would include newcomer Patricia Kusek, a Republican who fills Dawson’s vacancy, and incumbents Republican Woody White and Barfield, a Democrat. The results in the tight race, however, won't be made official until the Nov. 18 canvass.
Rounding out the five-member board are Skip Watkins, a Republican, and Democrat Rob Zapple.
A large turnout is expected Monday, as both the business coalition and the N.C. Coastal Federation have been rallying the troops for support.
On Nov. 8, the business coalition consisting of the 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 sent a request to the commissioners.
“Please do not move forward with Special Use Permit (SUP) amendments at your meeting on November 14,” the statement said.
“As your appointed Planning Board knows firsthand from several months of debate and numerous lengthy work sessions, the SUP issue is multifaceted and will impact a wide range of existing businesses, valid special use permits and future applicants,” it said.
“The easiest way to think about the SUP is a three-legged stool with the SUP text amendment (narrative), the Table of Permitted Uses (TOPU) and the existing zoning map working in concert with one another. Changing one piece has an impact on everything else, whether that is enhancing the narrative with additional regulations or adding a new definition of ‘intensive manufacturing.’”
That new definition is something the N.C. Coastal Federation has been working on.
“For more than two years, the federation has been one of the stakeholders working in a collaborative process to address an SUP specifically for industrial applicants,” the federation stated in an email Nov. 8. “More than 200 businesses and residents have signed an open letter recognizing that our elected officials have a responsibility to balance growth and development with protection of our community’s health, economy, and natural resources. Throughout the process, the federation has maintained a sharp focus to specifically address a review of the external effects of the most intensive industrial applicants.”
“There is a push to delay the vote,” said Mike Giles of the federation, “until the new commissioners are seated.”
The federation has been pushing what it calls a “model SUP” for commissioners to adopt, and would prefer a vote on the SUP be held this Monday.
Meanwhile Donna Girardot, the chairwoman of the planning board, has scheduled a work session for Nov. 15, the day after the commissioners meet, to continue work on the SUP.
“Since the SUP was placed on the Commissioners' Agenda advertising a public hearing prior to the planning board continuing the issue to another work session on November 3, I anticipate that the commissioners will extend the public the courtesy of listening to their input on this complex and controversial item at their meeting,” Girardot said in an email Friday. “I am confident, however, in the commissioners' dedication to always doing what is in the best interests of the county and its citizens; that they will then allow the planning board to continue at our November 15 work session to concentrate on drafting the best product through consensus of all parties and not based on an artificial timeline.”
Business leaders are pushing for more work on the SUP.
“There is no staff recommendation regarding the item on the commissioners' [meeting] agenda, because the planning board has not completed its work,” said Tyler Newman, president of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, on Friday. “Those two things being true, I'm still uncertain why there is a continued push to move forward. It doesn't seem like good public policy. I'm hopeful that the commissioners will let the planning board complete their work.”
White has been vocal with his frustration over the process, and the misinformation that he said he believes has been running rampant.
“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 told the Greater Wilmington Business Journal in September.
“For example: when it is said that a group is pushing for a ‘model SUP’ that is the product of community involvement, it leaves out the very reasonable and well-based objections posed by some in the business community. To say that there is universal agreement on what is a ‘model SUP’ is misleading. To suggest in radio ads and other advocacy pieces that death and sickness will result from modifying a convoluted SUP is demagogic and false,” White said.
As for what will happen Monday at the courthouse, Dawson has some simple advice.
“You’ll have to come to the meeting to find out,” she said. “Some commissioners think the planning board needs [to do] more work.”
“It depends on what the majority of the board wants to do, whether we vote,” she added.
The commissioners meeting on Monday is at 4 p.m., in the historic county courthouse at 24 N. Third St. Tuesday's planning board work session on the SUP will be held at 2 p.m. at the county’s offices, 230 Government Center Drive.