Planning board endorses revised special-use process, industry requirements

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A turnout comparable to the board's meeting in January returned to learn the fate of proposed changes to New Hanover's process for awarding special-use permits. Photo by Jonathan Spiers.
A turnout comparable to the board’s meeting in January returned to learn the fate of proposed changes to New Hanover’s process for awarding special-use permits. Photo by Jonathan Spiers.

Despite opposition and repeated requests for delay, the New Hanover County Planning Board voted unanimously Thursday night to recommend adoption of proposed changes to the county’s process for awarding special-use permits, including those required for industrial uses.

After two hours’ worth of discussion that included a hearing continued from its January meeting, the board endorsed changes that included the removal of a provision requiring applicants to list significant impacts their industry could cause on the community and the environment.

Board members agreed the requirement was too broad and should be left up to staff to require at its discretion. Industry advocates had said the requirement and other parts of the ordinance made it unclear what was expected of applicants, prompting prospective businesses to look to locate elsewhere.

But environmental advocates and others who spoke in opposition to the changes said the removal lessened the level of scrutiny intended when the process was revised in 2011. Board member David Weaver shared that opinion, requesting that the ordinance specify the requirement.

Ultimately, however, Weaver voted along with the rest of the board, recommending changes that included additional revisions offered by member Ted Shipley, who said his amendments further clarified such things as the time period applicants could expect for review and how staff determines if an application is complete.

The board also specified additional information could be requested from staff, the planning board and commissioners; that state agencies can be asked to provide additional info to clarify an applicant’s particular industry; that a list of permits anticipated for a project must be included in an application; and that applicants “shall” hold public meetings to inform the community of their plans, among other tweaks suggested by staff.

Several speakers requested that the board hold off its decision, contending the revisions should be considered as part of the larger effort to develop the county’s first comprehensive plan. Others reiterated concerns that the changes would open the door to undesirable industry, with less opportunity for public scrutiny.

“I think this is poor timing,” said Lloyd Smith, chairman of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council. “This should be synchronized with the comprehensive plan.”

Industry advocates maintained the intent of the special-use process has effectively prevented prospective industries from locating here, noting that since the process was revised in 2011, not one permit for industry has been issued.

“The SUP as adopted in 2011 has been a hindrance to economic development,” said Scott Sullivan, chairman of the local Coalition for Economic Advancement. “The special-use permit as written today is telling people we’re not open for business, point blank.”

Doug Springer, who had spoken against the changes in January, said he still had concerns with how the changes were proposed but considered the revisions a good compromise.

“We should not have had to bring this up to you. This text change was huge,” Springer told the board. Thanking staff for their efforts on the revisions, Springer added: “I see it as a compromise, and personally I’m willing to live with it.”

The amendments now go to the county board of commissioners, which is slated to consider adopting them in April.

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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