Thursday, February 29, 2024

City Council says no to public role in early stages of development agreements

As Wilmington considers more large development agreements, council asked staff to draft a policy providing for more transparency and public input. But when it came to including a public comment period early in the negotiation project, city council voted 'no.'

City Council voted to set a policy regarding development agreements, but couldn't agree on when public input should be heard (Port City Daily photo/FILE)
City Council voted to set a policy regarding development agreements, but couldn’t agree on when public input should be heard (Port City Daily / FILE PHOTO)

WILMINGTON — The Wilmington City Council has approved a new policy that will affect how future developments in the city take shape, but the vote left council members divided when it comes to public input.

The policy was developed after council asked staff to prepare guidelines to address the transparency of development agreements; that request grew out of concerns over a change in how the city handled The Avenue project. The approved policy sets standards for the future use of development agreements — the type of agreements used for large projects, like Riverplace, the North Riverwalk and RiverLights.

According to the new policy, “(a) Development Agreement is a unique tool that may be useful for large projects that will be built over a period of years. A Development Agreement provides the developer a level of certainty about what it can build and what mitigation measures will be required, if agreement is reached.”

But when it comes to public input during the process of approving a development agreement, Councilman Kevin O’Grady had some concerns.

When does public comment fit into the process?

Since development agreements take some time, the policy breaks them down into several phases. And although public hearings are included, they are not required until after city staff has already negotiated with developers.

Because of this, O’Grady suggested adding an amendment to the policy that would call for public input at a City Council meeting prior to negotiations.

“…My reasoning is this, when I was a lawyer, I never went and negotiated for a client without speaking to them.” —Councilman kevin O’grady

Four of the seven council members, including Mayor Bill Saffo, Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes, Councilman Charlie Rivenbark, and Councilman Neil Anderson voted against the amendment. Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes was the only council member to respond to a request for comment.

When asked about her vote against the amendment, Haynes said, “I did not vote against allowing the public to voice their opinions prior to legal negotiations. I voted against a substitute motion to add an additional public hearing to an already open process.”

Haynes is correct in that the policy does already require at least one public hearing, but not until negotiations between staff and developers have already concluded.

Community meetings

According to the new policy, phase one does require a community meeting prior to negotiations.

However, a community meeting is not the same thing as a public hearing.

The community meeting is to be organized by the developer and only one city staff member is required to be present. The only people who will receive notice of the community meeting are property owners and other organizations “entitled to notice consistent with the City Code regarding re-zoning notice.”

A re-zoning notice requires property owners within 100-feet of the development to receive notice.

City Council will require public hearings, but only after the city and developer have concluded negotiations (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY WILMINGTON)
City Council will require public hearings, but only after the city and developer have concluded negotiations (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY WILMINGTON)

After the community meeting, the policy dictates that “(a) written report and presentation shall be provided to City Council at a public meeting in order to share community comments and to give City Council an opportunity to provide direction to City staff.”

This is where O’Grady asked to add two amendments to the policy.

First, O’Grady requested the addition of the phrase, “Hear public input at the meeting, and to provide direction to city staff,” to the previous statement regarding the written report and presentation. This amendment would have given council a chance to hear directly from residents, prior to entering into negotiations.

The second adjustment O’Grady requested was to change the language to clarify when the presentation would be given to council.

As approved, the presentation from the community meeting can be given to council during any public meeting, including an agenda review, which take place at 8:30 a.m. on Monday’s before a council meeting. These meetings do not generally offer a chance for public discussion, only offer an audio broadcast, and are not heavily attended by the public.

Haynes said that, while she voted against O’Grady’s amendments, “There is nothing that says public comment, or perhaps a work session, would be at an Agenda Briefing. I have never felt it is appropriate to work through issues in that setting, and I’ve stated that publicly.”

For O’Grady, having a public hearing prior to negotiations just makes sense. (Listen below: 34 seconds)

“At the meeting where this report is being presented we give the public an opportunity to step up to the microphone and comment about it … So, we go into negotiations having heard what the public thinks about what we are about to negotiate. My reasoning is this, when I was a lawyer, I never went and negotiated for a client without speaking to them,” O’Grady said.


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