Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Locked doors, earlier hearing cloud apartment complex approval

Just months after denying a comparable development in the same area, New Hanover commissioners went against the recommendation of the county’s planning board and approved an eight-building, 192-unit apartment complex off Market Street in the Porters Neck area.

“Lock this door after 5 p.m.” reads a note on the door at the New Hanover County Historic Courthouse, where commissioners met Tuesday. Locked doors kept some speakers from speaking in a public hearing on a contested apartment complex. Photo by Jonathan Spiers.

Two people who spoke in opposition to the project, which is located along Stephens Church Road near the convergence of Market and Interstate 140, noted the board had denied a larger apartment complex proposed for the area several months ago.

“Until the traffic pattern is changed,” said resident Pam Latter, “we don’t need any more traffic out there.”

Several other people appeared intent on speaking as well, but they did not arrive until sometime after the permit was decided. At the end of Tuesday’s regular meeting, which included a total of six public hearings, Chairman Jonathan Barfield acknowledged that “Somehow the doors to our building were locked and people who wanted to speak could not get in.”

Sheriff Ed McMahon, who had left the meeting hours before but returned out of uniform to discuss the issue with Barfield and County Manager Chris Coudriet, told the crowd there had been a miscommunication about when the building was to be locked.

McMahon apologized, as did Barfield, who also said he didn’t know that any more speakers could have said anything that would have changed the board’s opinion. “There’s no easy way to say I’m sorry, than to say I’m sorry,” Barfield said.

The two people who did speak noted, however, the hearing was held earlier in the meeting than indicated on the agenda, which lists approximate times for each item. The hearing for the apartment complex was last on the agenda, but it was pushed up ahead of two other hearings, prompting Latter and fellow opponent Matt Palese to note the change—and that others opposed to the project were on their way to the meeting.

The hearing started around 5 p.m., which is when the doors to the building are typically locked. Had it been held in the order of the agenda, it would have started later.

Asked why the hearing was pushed up in the agenda, Barfield said it had to do with who was present at the time, referring to the applicant and others involved. Noting the meeting had ended two hours earlier than anticipated, Barfield added the board can change the order of an agenda for the sake of expediency.

During the meeting—but after the hearing—those who arrived to find the hearing had been held appeared to be writing their names on a sheet in the lobby. “This is corruption,” one woman declared.

Commissioner Rick Catlin said he shared concerns about safety at the intersection of Stephens Church Road and Market Street, which features a “superstreet” design on that portion of road. Catlin said he saw the project causing backups for vehicles attempting to enter Market Street from Stephens Church Road, but a traffic engineer for the applicant said such backups would not exceed four or five vehicles at a time.

Despite his concerns, Catlin maintained the project is different than the other apartment complex that was denied before. That project would have involved a left turn onto Market and directed traffic toward Porters Neck, causing greater impacts, Catlin said. This latest project, located essentially across the road from the other, involves a right turn and less impact to Porters Neck, he said.

Catlin did acknowledge that the project impacts Stephens Church Road, and he proposed a condition for safety improvements at the intersection with Market.

Commissioner Jason Thompson spoke against the county’s process for special-use permits, contending that the quasi-judicial proceedings and testimony from experts always favor the applicant. Brian Berger agreed, adding later he hoped the public could be better informed of the process.

Jonathan Spiers can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com.

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