New Hanover County commissioners’ approval of changes to the county’s special use permit process this week is a step that some officials hope bodes well for another major move: development of a Unified Development Ordinance for the county.
Monday’s unanimous vote by the commissioners to approve the new SUP language and Table of Permitted Uses sends an important signal, said Hal Kitchin, an attorney with McGuireWoods and former chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. It not only concludes a four-year debate about how to revise the SUP process and standards, but it allows the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) process to proceed, he said.
“We feel really gratified that all of the hard work and good faith effort that was put into trying to resolve some of the special use permit issues finally culminated last night in a unanimous, 5-0 vote by the commissioners to approve the revisions in front of them,” Kitchin said Tuesday afternoon, noting that since he chaired the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce in 2013 when the SUP issue surfaced, he has continued to represent the business community to the county on the proposal.
“I think the best thing we accomplished was, we allowed for greater clarity in our zoning ordinance on this issue. In particular, changing the [Table of Permitted Uses] to use the NAICS [North American Industry Classification System] codes will really resolve a lot of ambiguity, not only for businesses but for citizens, who now will have a much better idea of what can and cannot be done with regard to the various zoning districts around the county,” Kitchin continued.
At Monday’s meeting, county officials emphasized that the SUP text amendments do not affect current zoning, but do clarify, in the Table of Permitted Uses, industrial activities permitted by right in light industrial (L-1) and heavy industrial (L-2) zones. Businesses wanting an exception to those permitted uses will have to apply for an SUP, and will have to show that their activity meets specified standards in order to obtain the special permit.
With the revised SUP rules resolved, Kitchin said, the UDO should be next on the county agenda. He said that any counties and municipalities have already adopted UDOs, which fuse regulations on zoning, subdivisions, waste water and other development-related matters, but New Hanover is still using a decades-old amalgam of separate ordinances. A UDO would aim to be a cleaner, more streamlined compilation of development regulations that would be easier for individuals and businesses to use.
“As part of that [UDO] process, it is an option for us to tweak some of our zoning districts, especially if we see areas that might have been appropriate for certain zoning back in the 1960s but are no longer appropriate for that zoning now,” he added.
The N.C. Coastal Federation, for one, may decide to take advantage of the opportunity to suggest further tweaks.
In his remarks at Monday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, the group's representative Mike Giles explained his organization’s stance on the SUP proposal.
The text amendments “are not perfect, but will serve to vet industrial proposals until the outdated zoning ordinance is revamped and overhauled,” Giles said. “The federation still has some concerns about the Table of Permitted Uses and urges the county commission to direct county staff to work with the LSL planning consultant ... to look at the TOPU.”
The N.C. Coastal Federation has one primary concern, Giles said later in an email, pointing to the table’s inclusion of a few uses formerly classified as “intensive” or heavy industrial into the light industrial zone.
“Our concerns focused on the lack of any sound reasoning or explanation for this change,” Giles said. “Since we supported the SUP as proposed, the Coastal Federation does not plan to address the TOPU since that will happen in the Unified Development Ordinance overhaul, which will begin sometime this spring.”
What the federation will do, Giles continued, is monitor any SUP applications that would be affected by the reclassification of those “intensive” industries “and hold the County accountable for a full and vigorous review of those. We will be monitoring the industrial SUP process to evaluate its effectiveness in reviewing industrial projects and hold staff, the planning board and the Commissioners accountable for their decisions.”
Kitchin said Tuesday that, while development of an UDO will involve some zoning review and the opportunity to address improper zoning, he would hope that county officials would approach potential rezonings with caution.
“Anytime you change a zoning map you will naturally run into opposition from landowners who might feel they are being mistreated. Drafting a UDO for the county is a big undertaking and the more we try to amend the zoning map, the more difficult we’ll make the process of getting a new UDO approved,” he said.
In another zoning-related unanimous vote Monday evening, the New Hanover County commissioners approved a request by Design Solutions and its client, New Beginning Christian Church, to rezone 8.57 acres in the 3100 block of Blue Clay Road to allow an age-restricted housing development.
The property will change to a Conditional Use Residential District, and the developer will be granted a special use permit for high-density development.
Cindee Wolf of Design Solutions presented the plan for The Covenant, a residential community designed for people aged 55 and older, which she and church officials said will address the need for affordable housing for older adults. The tract will contain 17 building, each containing four one- or two-bedroom units.