The special use permit for new industries in New Hanover County is being given a hard look, with the county planning board taking a major step toward approving controversial revisions in the zoning ordinance at its Jan. 9 meeting.
The final vote, following more than two and one-half hours of discussion, gives opponents of the revised language an additional month to provide input to the county’s planning department, which has worked closely with the county manager’s office since the first public review of the proposed changes at a Nov. 1, 2013, planning board work session.
The revisions were continued to the planning board’s next meeting. Language potentially limiting the county’s ability to request information, and the timeline for staff to certify an application is complete, will be reworked.
On Dec. 23, 2013, the county released an initial draft of the revised ordinance to the county planning board, commissioners and members of an economic steering committee tasked with oversight of the ongoing industry targeting initiative. The final draft was released to the public and the media Jan. 6.
During the planning board’s Jan. 9 meeting, Chairman Richard Collier opened the board’s discussion by saying he understood how some of the changes, which could limit the county’s ability to request information about issues already covered in state and federal permits, appear substantial.
That issue was a central point of contention between the dozens of people who packed the Historic County Courthouse in downtown Wilmington. County manager Chris Coudriet and county planning director Chris O’Keefe have insisted throughout the process the changes would be only procedural. In interviews and during the planning board’s work session, staff repeated that any policy changes would be made after the completion of the comprehensive review, an ongoing process expected to take two years.
Collier initially expressed a desire to vote for the changes, along with four of the other five board members present. Board member David Weaver was the sole voice arguing against the changes, which he said represented a major policy change. Weaver said the new language could prevent the county from requesting information related to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s groundwater supply, or could push the county into non-attainment, which he said would be a death knell for area industry.
During the public comment period, Mike Giles, an environmental advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation, also pointed to air quality non-attainment, one of the reasons the commissioners initiated the drafting of the new special use permit process in 2011.
“The proposed changes to the text create the presumption that the permit will be issued, and appear to be designed to limit staff’s and the public’s ability to require further analysis,” Giles said. “Even before 2011, when the county was getting ready to be designated as a non-attainment area for sulfur dioxide it was that potentiality that brought forth the special use permit process to being.”
Several members of the business community spoke in support of the revisions. Hal Kitchin, immediate past president of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, laid out the proponents’ argument, commending the county for language he said greatly clarified the local process with which new industrial companies would need to comply.
“We think there was good discussion tonight,” he said after the meeting. “What we’re saying is, let’s make it clearer. The planning board and the county commissioners will always have a right to say, ‘You are entitled to provide me with more information.’”