Concerns precede hearing on special-use-permit revisions for New Hanover

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Proposed revisions to the process for awarding special-use permits in New Hanover County are continuing to draw concerns from observers, some of whom contend the changes will make it easier for industry to be permitted while diminishing the public’s involvement in the process.

Several dozen attendees gathered for a planning board workshop on proposed revisions to New Hanover County's industrial zoning ordinance and special-use permitting process Friday morning. Photos by Jonathan Spiers.
Several dozen attendees crowded a planning board workshop held in November on proposed revisions to New Hanover County’s industrial zoning ordinance and special-use permitting process. The revisions are slated for adoption tonight, following a required public hearing. File photo by Jonathan Spiers.

County planners have said the changes are meant to make the process easier to follow, not easier to allow one land use or another. But observers including Mike Giles, an advocate with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, say the changes as proposed would complicate the process and go against the intent of the special-use process.

“It takes away from the environmental and community safeguards,” Giles said, referring to revisions that he said were expanded from those discussed at a workshop in November.

Those revisions, which detail the process for applying for, reviewing and awarding special-use permits, are up for review by the county planning board at its regular meeting tonight. A public hearing on the changes is scheduled for that meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. at the New Hanover County Historic Courthouse.

Planning Director Chris O’Keefe said the changes were expanded in response to feedback received at the November workshop, which drew a considerable crowd that included Giles and fellow environmental advocates, as well as members of the local Coalition for Economic Advancement.

Members of that group have said they are likewise concerned that the process is unclear, but for different reasons. Hal Kitchin, then-chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said the process needs to be clarified for industries looking to possibly locate here, in terms of what is expected to apply for a permit.

Previous story: Proposed changes for industrial zoning, permitting draw crowd to county workshop

Special-use permits are awarded to allow a particular land use that would otherwise not be allowed through traditional zoning. A notable example of a use that would require a special-use permit is the Carolinas Cement plant proposed at Castle Hayne. O’Keefe said the revisions would not alter that requirement for that project or others; just clarify the process.

O’Keefe said the changes are meant to make that process easier to follow—both for applicants and for stakeholders, including the public. If the changes are unclear, he said, or perceptions are that they facilitate industry, the county wants to hear such concerns in Thursday’s public hearing.

Giles, who plans to attend that hearing, cited certain sections of the revisions that he said are confusing—specifically, requirements that would allow for modifications to existing industries, among other sections.

“If you look at modifications or expansions of existing industries, that language is, number one, hard to understand; number two, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Giles said. “Some of the exceptions are, if you have one or both of the following exceptions, you do not have to apply for a special-use permit. What does that mean—one or both?

“We met with members of the chamber and talked about these issues before these changes came out, and they assured us that all they want is something that spells out what the application process is for industry,” Giles said. “And of course industry needs to be possible.

“This process is meant for local officials and the public to be able to be informed about the potential impacts of heavy industry,” he said. “And if you look at sections in this document, there’s (language) that just doesn’t make any sense. It’s very poorly written and very hard to understand.”

Giles said the planning board should hold off adopting the revisions until the public is fully aware of them and the changes are better clarified. Late this morning, however, the Coalition for Economic Advancement issued a statement supporting the revisions and encouraging the planning board to adopt them tonight.

“The Coalition for Economic Advancement applauds the county for amending the special use permit (SUP) to ensure it protects our community but does not deter new business and industry from coming to New Hanover County,” the statement said.

“Although the amended SUP does not make as many changes as we would like, it goes a long way in clarifying the process and removing the arbitrary and political components that crippled the original SUP.”

Issued by Scott Sullivan, the coalition’s chairman, the statement says the new process “specifies the documents required for an application and time frame for approval, and limits county staff’s ability to request additional information beyond the initial checklist.”

The statement said a substantial change is the elimination of a “review of external effects” on air and water quality, odor, and sound.

“It is our contention that this type of environmental impact analysis is more appropriately done at the state and federal level by regulators with specialized scientific expertise and permitting authority. Our local planning board and county commissioners are simply not equipped to make scientific judgments on how a proposed manufacturer will impact our community. That should be left to qualified state and federal regulators,” the statement said.

Regarding modifications and expansions of industries, the statement said the revisions allow them if the use was compliant as of Oct. 2, 2011—the date the original process was adopted.

“This type of flexibility is critical in allowing our existing industry to adapt, grow and expand,” the statement said. “Heavy process industries comprise the bulk of our industrial base—and the county’s tax coffers—including the top four county taxpayers: Duke Energy, GE, Corning and Fortron. These industries are under significant competitive pressure, as evidenced by recent job losses at DAK, Invista and Corning, and do not need the additional burden of an overly restrictive SUP.

“To thrive, New Hanover County needs a diverse economy comprised of industry, film production, technology, service, tourism and other businesses. The amended SUP is a good first step in helping to retain existing industry and attract new industry to New Hanover County,” the statement concludes.

Tonight’s meeting will be held in the chambers room of the historic courthouse, located in downtown Wilmington.

Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers

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