Wednesday, July 17, 2024

In response to Pender County growth, officials start updating policy to impact development

As Pender County continues to grow at a rapid rate, commissioners and planning board are looking at updating the county’s comprehensive land use plan. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

PENDER COUNTY — Though no decisions were made this week, county leaders are suggesting some major changes to its processes and policies, which they called outdated and not in line with growth the county is seeing. 

READ MORE: Low impact? Grassroots group wary of flooding issues with Scotts Hill development

ALSO: LGC signs off on $11M loan for Pender’s new water tank, wells

Between 2019 and 2020, Pender County’s population ballooned by almost 2.5%. This also means development followed suit. 

The Pender County Board of Commissioners and Pender County Planning Board met for a joint meeting Tuesday night to launch preparations to amend its comprehensive land use plan, last updated in 2018, to properly manage expansion. They will consider ditching special-use permits and adding in overlays, which allows the boards to take more community input into consideration.

“This is a changing community,” planning and community development director Daniel Adams said at the meeting.

He also noted people are not going to stop moving to Pender County, with a nearly 1.3% population increase annually. 

“So, we’re trying to figure out how to adapt, work and create processes to allow for smart growth,” Adams said.

Commissioner chair Jackie Newton pointed to the consideration of how vastly diverse the east side and west side — mostly agricultural — of the county are. Most of the growth is occurring in the east, so each area faces different challenges and should be accounted for in the new plan.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all county,” she said.

One suggestion to assist with the different needs is to consider an overlay district along U.S. 17, which would impose added restrictions on growth in that area.

County attorney Trey Thurman used Wilmington’s historic district as an example. It advises on specific architectural elements and is more restrictive than base zoning.

Adams added an overlay district could require additional bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure — something the county is currently advocating for — changes to density allowances and setbacks.

“It’s a way to say, ‘This area we want to regulate differently from others,’” he said.

Planning board member Jeff Beaudoin pointed out it would be especially beneficial along U.S. 17 where there is no architectural standard. He recommended a façade program, launched using county funds, to encourage businesses already grandfathered in to update their exterior buildings. Having an overlay would encourage a more uniform design but buildings already in place would not face the same requirements.

Thurman confirmed an overlay district would be a policy decision adopted by commissioners and would not require a referendum vote. If additional taxes were to be implemented, it would need to be included on the ballot.

Planning board member Damien Buchanan said an overlay is necessary.

“The county is too large,” he said and added controlling sewer and water infrastructure is another way to manage growth.

Capacity for water and sewer has been limited and the county is currently undergoing multiple projects to increase how many people it can serve. The county finally identified usable land to build a reverse osmosis plant after searching for years for an appropriate location.

New water tanks and elevated wells, for $13.5 million, are under construction in Scotts Hill as well, set to be completed by spring of next year.

Newton urged the two boards to be conscientious of environmental factors, such as clear-cutting trees and resiliency with the changing definition of wetlands. Recent legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly ties the state’s definition of wetlands to the federal definition, which disregards protections for any wet areas not connected to U.S. waters.

“We talk about over development,” planning board member Ken Teachy said. “If you pave over every piece of land, the water’s not going to go down. It’s going to stay up here and flood.”

Concerns of increased water pooling are a hot topic at many planning board and commissioners meetings in the tri-county region when it comes to development. Residents often speak out in public hearings in fear of increased impervious surface prohibiting stormwater runoff, especially when infill is a popular route to use, increasing density and housing options.

Beaudoin pointed to amenities being needed in the county to assist with all the growth, “such as sidewalks, safe ways to get around.”

“As the population has grown, people are looking for that next level,” he said.

That includes bringing more commercial activity closer to Hampstead, so fewer people have to travel the congested roads to Wilmington, Mayfaire and other retail hubs.

Planning board member Damien Buchanan agreed commercial growth is something needed in Pender County, specifically for the tax base removing the burden from taxpayers

“It also increases sales tax revenues, which goes to beaches and nourishment, and keeps traffic off the roads,” he said.

Economic growth adds more opportunity for entrepreneurs to develop properties, he added.

Conditional rezoning

The Pender County commissioners and planning board also discussed general rezonings — where an applicant converts the district from commercial to residential, for example, but does not need to show a site plan — versus conditional rezoning. The latter imposes certain regulations agreed upon by an applicant and the board, specifically to address community concerns.

Adams pointed out while general rezonings give developers flexibility, conditional rezonings put more control in the hands of county boards.

Deputy planning director Justin Bratnley added, while an oversimplification, commissioners can deny a conditional rezoning “because they don’t like it.”

“It gives you a better playing field,” Buchanan added.

For general rezonings, the planning board relies on the comprehensive plan, future land use map and other county documents to determine if an application is consistent.

“We’re just the referee playing by the rules,” Buchanan said.

Whereas conditional rezonings allow the planning board to ask more specific questions about access, lighting, stormwater and take into account neighbors’ thoughts. Most conditions come into play from the community. The added requirements are a meet-in-the-middle negotiation, as a developer’s application may be approved but it also eases the minds of neighbors’.

A developer seeking a conditional rezoning is required to host a community meeting before applying and often alter their plans based on feedback. General rezonings don’t require a community meeting be held but do call for notice of all neighbors living within 500 feet of a proposed plan.

Since a site plan is required as well, it allows the county to know exactly what will be built, as is, once approved.

The consensus was to encourage more conditional rezonings for future development.

Special-use permits

County attorney Patrick Buffkin shifted the conversation to special-use permits and recommended taking the burden of their approval off commissioners and instead having the board of adjustment be responsible for voting.

“It’s a unique rezoning approval that restricts the ability of elected officials to do what they naturally do,” Buffkin said, referring to representing constituents and addressing their concerns.

The special-use permit process is quasi-judicial in nature, meaning commissioners must listen to the fact-based evidence provided and not take their own feelings or experiences into consideration.

“It forces elected officials to do something unnatural and not talk to constituents, not form their own opinions,” Buffkin said.

If the responsibility shifted to the board of adjustments, commissioners could then participate in the process by hiring an outside attorney to represent them and supply facts in the case.

Buffkin confirmed it would strip the board of some of its decision-making.

Newton called the whole special-use permit process “not fair” and said it would appear the board is “passing the buck.” She also pointed out the board of adjustment has had high turnover and therefore doesn’t have long-standing members with knowledge on county policies.

Brantley suggested doing away with special-use permits entirely, since no one seemed to be on board with the process. Commissioners don’t want to avoid community feedback and the planning board doesn’t have the ability to make quasi-judicial decisions.

“Everything could be a conditional rezoning,” he said.

The only application the board might consider retaining a special-use permit for is certain industrial uses that might require additional scrutiny, Brantley said.

The planning board and commissioners will host another joint meeting to continue hashing out its plans, which will be finessed by staff in the coming months. The planning board will have to review the updated plan before it reaches commissioners for a public hearing and vote for adoption.

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