Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Brunswick residents argue planning board has too much authority

Residents in one of North Carolina’s fastest growing counties have repeatedly argued the county’s planning board approval process disproportionately represents developer interests, noting board members charged with approving developments have donated to the commissioners who selected them. (Courtesy Brunswick County)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Residents in one of North Carolina’s fastest growing counties have repeatedly argued the county’s planning board approval process disproportionately represents developer interests, noting board members charged with approving developments have donated to the commissioners who selected them. 

READ MORE: Flooding, traffic a concern for residents as 550 homes are approved in Brunswick County

ALSO: Brunswick County developers face stricter traffic impact requirements at resident behest

Brunswick’s planning board has final authority to approve development applications unless they are appealed, then it goes to commissioners. The process differs from other counties in the Cape Fear. For instance, in New Hanover County the planning board recommends projects before commissioners carry out a secondary review and final decision.

PCD reached out to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners to ask how many counties statewide give the planning board authority to approve development requests but did not receive a response by press.

Planning director Kristie Dixon told Port City Daily all submitted proposals have been vetted by the technical review committee by the time they get to the planning board. She added many proposals do not make it past TRC review, but said reviews are focused on meeting technical standards through various departments — planning, engineering, fire, utilities — because property owners have the right to develop on land they own.

“The question isn’t really: ‘Do you want this development?’ The question is: ‘Do you meet the requirements to have this development?'” she said.

Dixon argued it is harder for an elected board to make fact-based decisions on whether a proposal meets technical requirements. 

“Brunswick County has always been into streamlining processes and taking away the red tape to development,” Dixon said. “You can have a development approved in 60 to 90 days here and in other places that might take you a year. But we have thorough processes in place to review things in a timely manner.”

According to Brunswick GIS, the planning board has approved 34,005 units since January 2021.

Shallotte resident and wetlands preservation activist Ash Ramos argued too many planning board members are involved in the development and real estate industries. She noted planning board members have donated to commissioners who selected them, and commissioners receive large donations from developers.

“There is no environmental or science-based representation on the planning board,” she told PCD.

Resident concerns regarding the planning board’s approval process led commissioners to enforce a new traffic impact analysis requirement for large developments in April. But many residents — Brunswick NAACP president Carl Parker Sr. — argue the measure is insufficient to ensure residents’ concerns are prioritized.

“I believe that you need some neutral people on those boards to watch and have some power before they make all those decisions,” Parker Sr. said. 

Tom Simmons — a former planning board member who is running against Mike Forte for commissioner — said he would raise a motion to restructure the approval process if elected.

“The planning board has too much power,” he said. “I think it works in reverse of how it should work. The planning board should just recommend to the county commissioners, and the commissioners should decide whether or not an application goes through.”

Port City Daily reached out to commissioners and planning board members to discuss residents’ concerns but did not receive a response by press.

Several planning board members have donated to commissioners who appointed them. Jason Gaver donated $500 to Mike Forte’s campaign in 2023, Joy Easley gave $450 to Pat Sykes’ campaign in 2018, and Richard Leary has donated at least $370 to Frank Williams since 2015. 

One of the planning board’s at-large members, William Bittenbender, has donated $635 to Williams and $300 to Sykes.

Brunswick FUTURE PAC — incorporated in May 2021 and closed in December 2023 — was a political action committee that facilitated donations and expenditures to current commissioners and planning board members. Its treasurer Joe Patton is currently the treasurer for Frank Williams.

Planning board member Ron Medlin — appointed by Commissioner Martin Cooke — is the owner of Medlin Construction. Medlin is a member of the North Carolina Home Builders Association and his company is a member of the Brunswick Home Builders Association. 

Brunswick HBA states its legislative and regulatory interests are represented by partnerships NCHBA and the Business Alliance for a Strong Economy. It cites BASE as its primary legislative liaison, including government affairs director Cameron Moore, who is a member of the New Hanover County planning board.

BASE has been an influential force on Brunswick’s development policy. CEO Tyler Newman — also a member of the City of Wilmington’s zoning board of adjustment — credited BASE’s influence on county staff in preventing proposed impact fees in June 2023:

“Without our involvement, ‘excessive’ fee increases would have gone into effect July 1 and immediately halted ongoing projects and new investment in Brunswick County.”

In a January BASE post, Newman addressed increased calls to “stop development” in the county. He argued continued housing development in Brunswick County is essential to address the county’s growing population.

Ramos countered activists are not against development but believe community input put forward in the Blueprint Brunswick 2040 survey is being ignored. Top resident requests included minimizing environmental degradation, keeping infrastructure apace with development, reducing traffic congestion, and improving the health and quality of life of residents.

Jonathan D’Amico — who is running against Frank Williams for commissioner — argued the planning board’s approval process is only one aspect of a broader problem.

“It seems a system is in place where there is always someone to point or redirect responsibility — reps in Raleigh, NCDOT, the commissioners, DEQ, the UDO, etc,” D’Amico said. “As long as there is someone or something else to point at, no one has to take ownership of anything and that just leaves all of our neighbors with mounting unanswered concerns while developers keep those profits rolling.”


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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