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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Environmentalists push for community input on industrial development

Commissioners direct staff to review options

Castle Hayne resident Kayne Darrell is one of many residents who have spoken out urging commissioners to require community input meetings for development in light industrial districts.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — At least eight organizations representing thousands of residents have asked the county for more transparency regarding land uses in a certain district currently not required to hold community input meetings.

READ MORE: More gas stations fly South as city considers change in design standards

According to a letter sent to commissioners May 31, Cape Fear River Watch, New Hanover County NAACP, Coastal Plain Conservation Group, League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear, Cape Fear Sierra Club, Brunswick Environmental Action Team, Del Webb Riverlights-Local Issues and the North Carolina Coastal Federal want to see light industrial, or I-1 districts, be required the same public feedback as conditional rezonings, planned developments and intensive industrial special-use permits.

The organizations wrote that citizen input is vital to well-informed planning in the area and provides an opportunity to address concerns prior to a development coming to fruition. They want to ensure all environmental concerns are addressed before building.

“Importantly, Planning Board and County Commission members may be forced to make complex decisions, based on possibly incomplete data supplied only by the Industrial applicant,” the letter states. “Community members, including local experts, may raise important issues that may add to the Planning Department’s analyses.”

Light industrial, or I-1 districts, are suitable for assembly, fabrication, packaging and transport operations. They’re intended to support the development of commerce and employment clusters; heavy industrial is not appropriate in these areas.

“A good industry can elevate our county’s brand value locally and nationally, resulting in an increase in short and long-term job opportunities, while a harmful industry can potentially drive away future businesses, residents, visitors, and stall career and job growth,” the letter continues.

In February, county staff began reviewing its requirements and recommendations for community input meetings. The county requires community meetings be held as a first step for applicants requesting certain land use changes.The ordinance was initially added in 2007 to address public concerns about the proposed Riverlights development.

Monday, New Hanover County commissioners unanimously approved language updates to its unified development ordinance clarifying meeting requirements; it also approved a motion for county staff to look at adding light industrial districts to the mix.

The organizations seeking the addition to the ordinance represent people in the region working “toward solutions that lead to stewardship and resiliency of our coast.”

“We believe in local authority and adequate public participation to determine what are, and what are not, appropriate industrial uses within New Hanover County,” the letter indicates. “Through this process, we are looking to promote environmentally sustainable economic development recruitment and business practices to help our community thrive and prosper; we need new businesses that will support our entire community and not hinder any further development or harm already existing businesses.”

The same groups who penned the correspondence spoke at Monday’s public hearing.

Castle Hayne resident Kayne Darrell urged commissioners to consider altering the ordinance by showcasing an example. A sand mine was proposed along U.S. 421 nearly a decade ago, adjacent to GE.

She recounted Monday that when she told county staff there was an EPA-classified hazardous waste site at the back corner of the property, it was the first they had heard of it. The toxic chemicals would have leached into surrounding water and land if mined.

“Because of the initiative and efforts of a few ordinary citizens, the permit to allow toxic sand to be mined was revoked,” Darrell explained, “leaving our community’s air, groundwater, property values and quality of life safe from toxins.”

ALSO: Uranium, chromium, and more: Sand-mine proposal returns, along with toxic-waste worries for Castle Hayne residents

Robert Parr, also taking the mic Monday, noted other “near-misses,” including Titan Cement, Hugo Nue, downtown oil refineries — “all threatened air quality with direct impacts on public health, quality of life and future growth but were avoided by citizen action.”

A local physician, Parr told Port City Daily industries coming in to churn out steel, rubber, chemicals and glass, for instance, should be held accountable in the building process by those they impact. This is especially true when located near parks and neighborhoods.

Cape Fear riverkeeper Kemp Burdette urged commissioners that public input builds trust and leads to better community interests. Having the opportunity for residents with relevant expertise to help the county make well-informed decisions is vital to the planning process, he explained.

“Community input meetings are not limited by the time constraints of the planning board or commissioners’ meetings,” Burdette added.

The meetings, held by developers prior to submitting plans, are required to be at least an hour. The informal forum allows attendees to engage in more open discussion, voice concerns and gather information. 

In contrast, the public hearings during planning board and commissioners meetings are limited to 15 minutes total and don’t provide adequate time to express feedback, the residents argued.

However, since the recommended changes were not presented to stakeholders prior to Monday’s meeting or presented at commissioners’ requests, it could not be considered at this time.

Commissioner Rob Zapple made a motion to direct county staff to consider including community information meetings for special use permits in light industrial districts. It was unanimously approved. County staff will bring back findings to the commissioners at a later date for consideration.

The commissioners did sign off on staff’s other recommended changes to meeting requirements. According to staff, some applicants have expressed concerns the forums become a complaints collection as opposed to a source of upfront information.

The new regulations ensure applicants no longer have the option to submit a report on why a meeting wasn’t held. Prior, applicants could provide an explanation in lieu of hosting one.

For example, a recent application did not host a public meeting, indicating adjacent property owners were already aware of the project due to other public hearings. Staff did not accept that as adequate, thus holding up the planning process.

Now, a meeting is mandatory before submission.

“We were unable to identify a situation where someone could move forward without holding one,” planning director Rebekah Roth explained to commissioners Monday.

The amendment clarifies what is required, what is recommended and ensures accessibility to residents.

Staff noted it has received comments for years about why some notices have certain information and others do not; also there was some confusion over the timeline of when notices were received. The county requires a notice be sent by mail or in person 10 days prior to the meeting.

In May, the planning board recommended approval of the language, also unanimously agreed upon by commissioners.

Changes include:

  • Options for in-person, digital or hybrid meetings
  • Mandatory rescheduling of meetings that may need to be canceled due to technical issues beyond the control of the applicant or isolated storm events; it also gives some leeway to the applicant to submit their meeting report within three business days after the application deadline to still be heard at the next planning board agenda
  • No report can be submitted in lieu of a meeting
  • Applicants shall provide written or personal delivered notice at least 10 days prior to the date of the meeting to all owners within 500 feet of the tax parcel; notice also must be sent to the planning board
  • A list of invitees and copies of returned mailings must be given to county staff

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