WILMINGTON—This week Wilmington’s Planning Commission will vote on the massive CenterPoint development, but questions remain about how two commissioners who worked on the project have handled conflicts of interest.
The million-square-foot CenterPoint development is one of several large projects proposed along the Military Cutoff corridor, second only to The Avenue in size. The Swain and Associates development was engineered by McKim and Creed with architectural engineering from Bowman Murray Hemingway group.
The consulting architect for the project was Planning Commissioner Bruce Bowman. The regional manager for McKim and Cree is Richard Collier, the vice-chairman of the planning commission. Collier is also the co-applicant, along with developer Jason Swain, on the special use permit (SUP) and rezoning applications that the Planning Commission will vote on this Wednesday, June 6.
Neither Bowman and Collier returned emails or phone calls to ask about how this conflict of interest would be handled.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Deb Hays did respond to say that, because of the quasi-judicial nature of a SUP hearing, she could not comment outside of Wednesday’s meeting.
As several members of Wilmington’s City Council and Planning Commission have recently pointed out, the SUP process places tight restrictions on council and commission members ability to discuss, or even privately research, an application outside of a formal hearing, which is conducted in many ways like a courtroom procedure.
When asked how the Planning Commission would handle Bowman and Collier’s conflict of interest, Hays referred all questions to Wilmington’s Assistant City Attorney Amy Schaefer.
Recused? Handling conflicts of interest
The Planning Commission is made up of members chosen for their knowledge of real estate, engineering and architecture–so it stands to reason conflicts will occur. And there is a relatively routine way in which some conflicts of interest are handled.
Commissioners–like city council members–are required to recuse themselves when they have a vested interested in the project, whether that means they have a financial investment in it, are employed with some aspect of the project’s design, management or construction, or-as in the case of Councilman Kevin O’Grady and River Place-they have signed a contract to live in a finished development.
For another example, Vice-Chairman Collier recently recused himself from a Planning Commission vote on the Airlie at Wrightsville Sound project, because his company McKim and Creed, handled engineering for the development.
It’s worth pointing out that Collier did, however, speak on behalf State Street Companies, the developer of the project. Collier answered concerns about stormwater drainage from the property.
So, though Bowman and Collier wouldn’t comment, it seems likely they will recuse themselves on Wednesday’s vote.
But are those the limits of conflict of interest?
How far does conflict of interest go?
A conflict of interest means a council member or commissioner has to recuse themselves from a vote. However, it is unclear whatever steps they should take to avoid a conflict.
For example: does the planning commission, and the city’s planning office, have regulations on discussions? That is, could Collier or Bowman discuss CenterPoint with planning staff or their fellow commissioners? Chairman Hays wouldn’t say.
Another question: what about voting on projects that, while technically separate, involve overlapping concerns such as traffic?
Take for example the planning commission’s recent vote to approve a rezoning and special use permit for The Avenue, the Carroll Companies’ 44-acre project on Military Cutoff Road.
Because CenterPoint is proposed for the intersection of Military Cutoff and Eastwood roads, it has become a part of the discussion about development–viewed by some as overdevelopment–along the Military Cutoff corridor, a stretch of road that is badly overtaxed.
During last month’s Planning Commission hearing on The Avenue, several speakers pointed to the aggregate effect of developments along the corridor: the two Arboretum Projects, The Avenue, Renaissance Market and CenterPoint.
During the hearing for the rezoning request, Collier asked State Senator Michael Lee, who represents The Avenue, and Michael Davenport, who performed the traffic impact analysis (TIA), several questions about how the development’s impact was estimated.
Collier asked if The Avenue had taken the Arboretum developments into account but didn’t ask about CenterPoint; neither Collier or Bowman mentioned the project they are both involved with, and which is located just one-mile-and-a-half down the road.
Unlike SUP hearing, the rezoning hearing,which allowed the Carroll Companies to turn a mobile home park into a mixed-used development, does not restrict commissioners from considering only sworn-testimony and evidence. So, even though the CenterPoint proposal had not yet been heard when Collier and Bowman both voted to approve The Avenue, it was certainly public knowledge.
As the manager of CenterPoint’s engineering firm, Collier likely would have been familiar with the development’s estimated traffic impact, as a draft TIA was published at the end of March.
So, were Collier and Bowman obligated to ask about it? Or should they have recused themselves, since the fate of The Avenue could potentially impact the fate of their own project, CenterPoint?
Without comment from the commissioners, or Chairwoman Hays, it remains difficult to know.
The Wilmington Planning Commission will hold public hearings for the conditional rezoning and special use permit applications from CenterPoint on Wednesday, June 6. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers.
Wilmington City Council will hold public hearings for conditional rezoning and special use permit applications from The Avenue on Tuesday, June 5, at 6:30 p.m in City Council Chambers.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001