Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Special use permits and the role of the city’s Planning Commission

Removing the Planning Commission from the Special Use Permit process would streamline the process for developers, but critics say it would also reduce public involvement and limit public notice of projects.

This week the Wilmington Planning Commission will hold public hearings for the 1-million-square-foot development; two commissioners worked on the project, but won't discuss possible conflicts of interest. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)
The role of the Planning Commission and special use permits is still up in the air after Tuesday’s City Council meeting (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — What role will the City of Wilmington’s Planning Commission play in the approval or denial of special use permits? That is the question that was asked Tuesday night during City Council’s first March meeting — but council could not come to an agreement, though they will possibly decide on in April.

Since January, the city has been considering removing the Planning Commission from the special use permit process, but not everyone could agree that this was the best move for the city.

Special use permits by nature are quasi-judicial and require applicants to meet four different development standards. If an applicant can prove the four points are met, the council has to approve the request; if it can be proven that at least one of the points is not met, denial can happen.

The four points are:

  1. That the use will not materially endanger the public health or safety if located where proposed and developed according to the plan as submitted and approved by the issuance of the special use permit
  2. That the use meets all required conditions and specifications
  3. That the use will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property, or that the use is a public necessity
  4. That the location and character of the use if developed according to the plan as submitted and approved will be in harmony with the area in which it is to be located and in general conformity with the city’s comprehensive plan, the CAMA plan, and adopted special area plans (i.e., corridor plans, neighborhood plans, Wilmington Vision 2020: A Waterfront Downtown Plan

Because of the way city code is written, the Planning Commission is currently expected to hear from applicants, and make a recommendation on the special use permit.

However, technically City Council can only make their decision based on the four points, not the recommendation of the Planning Commission which is why the city was considering pulling their involvement altogether.

Assistant Planning Director Ron Satterfield made a presentation to City Council Monday Tuesday, highlighting some proposed changes to the city’s code.

These included:

  • Eliminate review by Planning Commission from the special use permit process;
  • Require a community meeting to be held by the applicant before the City Council hears a special use permit request;
  • Increase the property owner notification requirement from properties within 100 feet of the subject site to properties within 300 feet of a site proposed for a special use permit and/or rezoning case;
  • Increase the expiration date of a special use permit to two (2) years; and
  • Authorize the City Manager to grant a maximum of two (2), 1-year extensions upon a written request from the property owner and a review and recommendation from the director of planning.

One of the problems with removing the Planning Commission from the process is that it limits the public’s involvement in the special use process.

After Monday’s agenda briefing where the council heard more in-depth information about the request, Satterfield along with City Attorney John Joye revised the proposed amendment to leave the Planning commission in the process — to an extent.

“I was asked to provide some alternate language should the Planning Commission remain in the process. While this doesn’t cover everything I believe it covers the main point. This particular section would have eliminated the Planning Commission in its entirety … this puts them back into the process,” he said.

The updated language would read, “The Planning Commission shall review applications for special use permits and shall conduct a quasi-judicial hearing in which it may provide its feedback at the hearing regarding the completeness and procedural appropriateness of any case presented to it by parties that it deems to have standing. The Planning Commission shall not make a recommendation to City Council on the merits of the case.”

Public comment

One of the issues City Council faces when it comes to these special use permits is the fact they are prohibited from discussing the request outside of a public hearing.

This can frustrate residents who might want to have their voices heard about a request — it also frustrates Mayor Bill Saffo.

“The applicant can talk to the neighbors, and the staff can talk to the applicant, but the applicant cannot speak to us. We’re the last ones to even be spoken to until the night they come before us. But everyone else has all this information and all of a sudden its thrown on us with no interaction … I think that’s unfair, I think everyone else is in the mix, everyone else is having a discussion but we’re not,” Saffo said during Monday’s agenda briefing.

He also claimed that during these hearings in the past people have purposefully misled council in an attempt to sway their vote.

Despite its perceived flaws, requiring the Planning Commission to hear the special use permit request allows for more public transparency.

If the Planning Commission were removed from the process the city would require an expanded notice and a community meeting — but those who would be notified would still only be in close proximity to the project.

The item was discussed at length and eventually continued until April.


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