Staff photo by Cole Dittmer
A throng of New Hanover County citizens attended the New Hanover County Planning Commission public hearing on Thursday, March 6, to voice concerns about the Special Use Permit process for industrial sites.
Following a two-hour discussion and several additional changes, text amendments to the special use permit zoning ordinances will head before the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners for a final decision.
New Hanover County Planning Board Member Ted Shipley wrote his own draft, differing from the staff’s revised draft of the text amendment.
Shipley’s draft was made available shortly before the meeting and was approved unanimously, 5-0, after multiple revisions by planning staff and board members during the end of the first March 6 meeting agenda item.
Many called the revisions a compromise and an improvement, compared to the controversial wording presented during the New Hanover County Planning Board’s Jan. 9 meeting.
The amendments include an additional 86 permitted uses, create a 55-day timeline, call for public meetings and allow the planning board and commissioners to consider “competent, substantial and material evidence” presented by the applicant, planning staff or any other party, after an applicant has obtained a permit from a federal, state and/or local authority.
The Historic County Courthouse had a full crowd in attendance, with five speaking in favor of the text amendments and 10 against.
“The folks who showed up here for the job versus the environment debate, you’re in the wrong room,” Shipley said. “This is all about process. … If you don’t want a particular use in your county go to the table of permitted uses and ask your county commissioners through this process to remove that use from the table.”
Planning board member David Weaver asked several questions to ensure planning staff and board members will know if an applicant poses significant environmental impacts.
“I know for a fact that everybody on the planning board is very concerned about being able to bring in new industry to the county,” Weaver said. “… The type of industry that is brought in needs to be carefully considered and looked at.”
In 2011, commissioners approved county zoning ordinance amendments, creating a local review process for intensive industries looking to locate in the county.
The two-hour March 6 discussion followed up on two and one-half hours of discussion about the previous controversial wording on Jan. 9.
The county released the initial draft zoning revisions to the planning board, commissioners and economic steering committee members on Dec. 23, 2013. Those revisions were publicly released Jan. 6, three days before the planning board’s Jan. 9 meeting.
Following the January meeting, a written comment period opened the floor for about 105 comments.
“The vast majority of those comments were, for the most part, in favor of keeping the ordinance as it is adopted,” said Chris O’Keefe, county planning director. “… The majority of people were not in favor of lines 397 to 415 of the draft, which talk about federal and state and local permitting. There were many comments just reiterating how important it is that we do have a special use permitting process for heavy industrial uses.”
Those speaking in favor of the amendments March 6 stressed the importance of changes from the 2011 special use permit as being more welcoming to business.
“I’ve spent over 20 years in economic development in Wilmington, and this special use permit as written today is telling people that we’re not open for business,” said Scott Sullivan, chairman of the Coalition for Economic Advancement. “… All of the amendments that have come forward are a little bit better than what’s on the books.”
Those opposed spoke against the timing of the revisions coming before the county’s comprehensive plan has been completed. They also spoke out against a lack of local government oversight for potential heavy industry applicants.
“New Hanover County is special,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear River Watch executive director and Riverkeeper. “We’re surrounded by water, we’re extremely densely populated, our groundwater is very close to the surface and very fragile. Our air quality is already poor, frequently the poorest in the state. And our economy is based on our natural resources and the people they draw here. For these reasons, we need to have local control over zoning. The argument that we should just let the state decide what industry is safe for our community is irresponsible.”