WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Public Servant

By Shannon Rae Gentry, posted Mar 24, 2021
Deb Hays discusses what factors into her decisions about growth as a county commissioner. (Photo by Summer Lambert)
“I will tell you that my real estate experience is by far not the biggest contributor to my understanding and dealings as a county commissioner; my public service is,” Deb Hays said.
Winning her 2020 bid for a seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, Hays has a decades-long career with Intracoastal Realty, collecting accolades and recognition locally, regionally and nationally along the way. While her tenure has made her a better leader, the most relevant lesson has been to always factor in “quality of life” for any decision she makes on behalf of a client, or in this case, on behalf of NHC residents.
“(Quality of life) is paramount to me because that is paramount to every citizen,” she said. “For me, county decisions are based on facts, and they’re based on what’s good for all.”
Hays’ community involvement has snowballed just as consistently as her career in real estate. She has served on several boards of directors, including Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry, Wilmington Downtown Inc. and the Airlie Gardens Foundation, as well as serving as a Wilmington Chamber of Commerce Board of Advisors member. As former chair of the Wilmington Planning Commission and member of the Wilmington Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, Hays is well-versed in planning and development across New Hanover County.
Nevertheless, only a few months into her four-year term, Hays’ day-to-day is mostly filled with local distribution efforts of the COVID-19 vaccine. A frustrating endeavor, to say the least, as Hays notes the county’s capacity to vaccinate 10,000 people a week has at times been thwarted by limited vaccines coming into New Hanover.
“At the forefront of everything I do when I wake up every morning is the COVID vaccine and what can we do to get more vaccines,” she said.
“We’re all very, very frustrated with that. But there are so many other things that are going on too.”
Growth and development are also hot topics for Wilmington residents, with overdevelopment and the loss of natural resources being among the chief concerns of residents who might cringe at each new car wash or storage facility erected. To an extent, Hays shares those concerns and “fought so hard as chair of the planning commission against a couple of these in the city.”
On the other hand, Hays said, while “growth” can have a negative connotation, responsible growth is what she envisions for the county: improving public transit; working with the county school board to provide quality education to all; adding more blueways and greenways while preserving, protecting and showcasing active outdoor communities.
“(Growth) can be very positive because, truthfully, if we’re not growing, we’re dying – or we’re moving backward, and we certainly don’t want to go back to the ’70s,” Hays said. “We have a thriving, vibrant downtown. We have a thriving, vibrant riverfront. We have multiple thriving, vibrant areas of our community beaches; all those types of things come together to make us incredibly attractive. And we certainly want to continue to be attractive, not just for new people coming in but for our current citizens.”
Hays acknowledges concerns about density (as Wilmington was ranked the No. 1 city in 2020 for inbound moves in the United States by a United Van Lines study), as well as tree canopy loss, all of which come into play when balancing community resources and planning with preservation and longevity in mind. And Hays knows not everyone is going to agree with her on what that looks like.
“You know, Mayfaire was fought really hard,” she said. “And it has come to be not only one of our most recognizable areas but also one of the most well-connected communities in our county. … But I will always listen because I want to hear what that other side is, and I want to understand what their perspective is, and I want to discuss it with them. And I certainly will not make any decision based upon getting re-elected.”
Hays said she is firm on making evidence-based decisions while at her post for the next four years, citing the ongoing potential development site on Hooker Road, where the Timberlynn Village mobile home park once stood. The owners made two unsuccessful bids: one for a 106-unit townhome development in early 2019, then another for 86 single-family units later in the year. Eventually approved for less than 60 units, Hays said residents’ articulate opposition early made a difference.
“They were not objectionable. They were OK with it being developed, but they wanted it to be developed in a similar fashion (as the rest of the area) and not something that was totally in opposition to surrounding neighborhoods,” Hays said. “They made strong, good, supportive comments about what they felt was positive for their area and that’s a big part of planning, is to ensure that there’s continuity.”
A large part of 2021 and beyond will include updating information on which planning decisions are often based. With the county planning department and new director, Rebekah Roth, Hays said the county is focused on getting updated data. For example, county soil surveys date back to the 1970s, and those can impact how stormwater runoff is managed. “
You can do the math – that’s a lot of years ago,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re using up-to-date information and work with that in order to make the best decisions possible. And I can tell you that our planning department is on it.”
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