County planning board to revisit special use permit changes

by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The New Hanover County Planning Board will consider changes to the county’s zoning ordinance, which holds major implications for the future of heavy industry in New Hanover County, during its next meeting.

The board, which will meet at 6 p.m. on Feb. 6 at the NHC Historic Courthouse, will be discussing revisions to the county’s special use permit process, which currently allows the county commissioners the ability to reject a company’s application on the basis of its compatibility with other interests in the county.

The process has been a controversial issue among local environmental and business interests for more than two years.

The environmental community applauded the board’s 2011 passage of the amendments to the county zoning ordinance, which created a local review process for intensive industries wishing to locate in the county, including the Titan Cement plant proposed for Castle Hayne.

Members of the business community have argued against the requirement, contending that they are scaring new industry away from the county. 

Helping lead the movement to make the permit process more industry-friendly is Hal Kitchin, the immediate past president of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

“What the outside site selection experts are telling us is that our process is so vague and ambiguous that site selectors are writing New Hanover County off the list right off the bat,” Kitchin said in a Nov. 1, 2013, interview, outside a planning board workshop during which changes to the special use permit were discussed.

Language changes proposed at the workshop were panned by business leaders, including Kitchin, as not going far enough to clarify the process for applicants.

After the November 2013 workshop, county manager Chris Coudriet said he began working during the next month and a half with planning director Chris O’Keefe on revisions that would satisfy the concerns of the business community.

“We’re not fiddling with the policy at all,” Coudriet said in a Jan. 8 interview. “When we set out to look at the process we wanted to make sure we had a tool that was easy to use and consistent in its application.”

Many speakers at a Jan. 9 planning board hearing argued against the new language, focusing on one particular change to the process that states:

“Once the petitioner has obtained a permit from a federal, state and/or local authority, it is presumed for county purposes that the petitioner has the requisite approval for the subject matter covered by the permit.”

Speaking during the Jan. 9 hearing, Mike Giles, an environmental advocate with the N.C. Coastal Federation, said that language represents a significant policy change. He added that county staff promised not to make such changes until the county’s long-range comprehensive plan is completed.

“The proposed changes … 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 nonattainment area for sulfur dioxide it was that potentiality that brought forth this special use permit process.”

In 2011, New Hanover was hovering near nonattainment for sulfur dioxide, a pollutant regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. Penalties for exceeding air standards for criteria pollutants can include sanctions of federal funds, prompting some of the commissioners to visit with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., to argue against the designation.

After the Jan. 9 meeting, Kitchin responded to Giles’ concern by pointing to language which allows for a third party challenging the approval to provide its own evidence.

Responding to a board member’s question during the meeting, assistant county attorney Sharon Huffman said the board was making a policy decision that could affect the county’s legal standing in a future lawsuit.

“There is nothing that denies you the ability to ask for additional information,” Huffman said Jan. 27, clarifying her comments at the board meeting. “The concern of legal staff would be that with that type of language in the ordinance, if you ask for additional information, and then use that additional information as a basis for denying the permit, then it may make us susceptible to litigation.”

The planning board continued two portions of the proposed revisions to its March 6 meeting, including the language addressing federal and state permits.

If the revisions pass, the county commissioners will have the final vote on whether to accept the amendments to the county zoning ordinance.

This story was updated Jan. 31 to reflect the change of date for the planning board's consideration of the zoning ordinance text amendments. The county announced Jan. 31 the revisions will likely be considered during the planning board's March 6 regular meeting.


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