An evenly divided, even-numbered board of New Hanover County commissioners resulted in no clear decisions Monday on two high-profile items of business: a planned mixed-use development in the Porters Neck area, and proposed revisions to the county’s process for awarding special-use permits for industrial uses.
And in a way, Commissioner Brian Berger could be to blame.
To be fair, the missing-in-action commissioner was not in attendance Monday night, as he has not been for any regular board meeting since his arrest last December on impaired driving charges. But his absence since then—and refusal to step down, as requested by the board—has not been felt as fully as it was Monday night, when the remaining four members split evenly on the most controversial items of the meeting—arguably two of the most controversial of the year.
In a meeting that stretched four and a half hours and culminated with a particularly testy exchange between Chairman Woody White and Vice Chairwoman Beth Dawson, commissioners voted 2-2 on both items, resulting in the failure of the board’s respective motions.
Facing a standing-room-only, overflow crowd that saw some attendees lining a back wall shoulder-to-shoulder, Commissioner Tom Wolfe motioned to approve the special-use permit revisions, which he contended—following comments from more than two dozen speakers in a related hearing—were not meant to address heavy industry specifically, but rather to attract more businesses of all kinds.
White seconded the motion, describing the revisions as a “shot clock” that gave prospective industries a clearer expectation in terms of the timing involved in applying for a permit. Dawson and Commissioner Jonathan Barfield opposed, reiterating some speakers’ concerns that the changes would diminish local oversight.
“I believe it is the responsibility of our local officials to have local oversight over what comes in our community,” Dawson said, later adding, addressing the audience: “As responsible elected officials, I feel that we need to take our responsibility to you seriously. I will not be supporting these changes tonight.”
It was that last comment that prompted criticism from White, who said they all take their responsibilities seriously and told Dawson her statement inferred that they wouldn’t be if they voted in support of the changes. That statement aroused vocal reactions from the crowd.
Earlier, the board likewise voted 2-2 on the Porters Neck development, which was likewise continued from a meeting months earlier. A similar public hearing saw comments from some residents who reiterated concerns about traffic and congestion, and White later said he remained unconvinced that the project as proposed would not add to both concerns.
In that case, however, the split vote resulted from Wolfe and Barfield voting in favor of the project, while White and Dawson sided in opposition. The tie vote meant the motion failed as a result.
By the end of the unusually lengthy meeting, White and Dawson turned testy against one another, with White appearing frustrated with Dawson’s insistence on stipulating how the membership of a committee related to the recent Garner Economics report would be established.
Dawson maintained she wanted to make sure board members and citizens had ample opportunity to serve on the committee. White said that is a given with any committee.
“I don’t know what your point is, Ms. Dawson,” White said. “Obviously you feel like you’ve been left out…”
Dawson took issue with White’s comments before the meeting was eventually adjourned. The two exchanged words on their way around the dais before White followed Dawson out of the room.