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Wrightsville Beach, along with the county’s other beach towns, has its own land use plan to guide CAMA permitting for coastal development projects.
CAMA, the acronym for the state’s Coastal Area Management Act, is often seen as a dirty word to those in the coastal building industry, but a recent workshop sought to address where coastal environmental and development interests can find common ground.
Invited to speak during the Wednesday, Oct. 23 Regional Workshop on CAMA Land Use Planning panel discussion, Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens shared his experiences — both good and bad — with land use plans as a town manager for both Wrightsville and Carolina beaches.
“I think it does guide what you need to do in the future as a town,” Owens said.
He pointed out that between vague rules governing consistency and political pressure, municipalities can struggle under the requirement that local ordinances be in harmony with local land use plans. He also added that Wrightsville Beach’s land use planning process began in 2003 and took four years to receive certification from the state.
“That is entirely too long in my opinion,” Owens said. “By the time you get one done, it’s time to start again. There’s got to be a quicker way or more streamlined approach.”
Former New Hanover County assistant manager and current planning board member David Weaver had a different take on the lengthy process for municipalities to get plans and plan amendments approved by the Coastal Resources Commission.
“It does make the local government think about, ‘Do we really want to amend this plan and take it through all the hoops you have to jump through to get it amended?’” Weaver said. “There are some things that could be improved, that maybe are burdensome. But … [the county’s plan] has morphed into a joint plan with the City of Wilmington. Overall that has been a great thing, to be able to collaborate with the largest municipality in the county.”
Weaver was critical of what he called “very lousy public participation” in the process, pointing out that plans for individual neighborhoods are frequently better attended. He said he believed the tendency of residents to be more vested in their immediate backyards could provide a chance for improvement.
“Go toward making a land use plan … where it really becomes a compendium of neighborhood plans, of community plans,” Weaver said. “That way you’re going to create a whole lot more participation in the planning process.”
In the end, a plan is only as good as those who develop it. And to that extent, he said the environmental and development-oriented stakeholders had both been constructive in the CAMA process.
“I think everybody realizes that good economic development provides paychecks,” he said. “At the same time, I think the development community and everybody recognizes that coastal resources are what drive economic development. That’s why we have such good quality economic development in this county.”
Speaking at the beginning of the workshop, N.C. Coastal Federation Executive Director Todd Miller and Business Alliance for a Sound Economy CEO Donna Girardot praised each other’s organizations for their collaboration on issues that often find the two groups at odds.
In the coming year, the county’s planning department will collect citizen and community leader input to develop its comprehensive plan, for which an existing CAMA land use plan will serve as a framework.
Division of Coastal Management planning Director John Thayer said during the workshop that only a few coastal counties currently have a comprehensive plan.
“When cities and counties do comprehensive plans in addition to satisfying all the requirements that CAMA has for a [land use] plan, you can include more items that may be relevant to your specific community,” said Chris O’Keefe, the county’s director of planning and inspections, during an Oct. 25 interview. “We’re still forming a public engagement strategy, inventorying existing information about resources that are available, services that are provided and demographics. But starting early next year we’re going to be moving fast and furious.”
Jennifer Rigby, a long-range planner with the county, said New Hanover County has been selected by the American Planning Association as one of 10 communities nationwide to participate in a pilot program for comprehensive plan accreditation.
“They’re still in the process of creating this accreditation program — it’s not something that would necessarily be a requirement,” Rigby said. “But it would be something that communities would look to to receive accreditation for exemplary plans.”
Rigby added the planning department will be using themes that pertain to both CAMA and comprehensive land use plans, including livable built environment, harmony with nature, a resilient economy, interwoven equity, healthy communities and responsible regionalism.
Currently, the draft timeline for the comprehensive planning process shows the public launch beginning this winter, followed by citizen input meetings and advisory committees meeting to frame policy and determine future development scenarios. In January 2015, county staff plans to hold a public meeting to present policy recommendations for future land use.