Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Wilmington City Council cuts Planning Commission out of city’s SUP process

In a business-friendly move, with public-friendly complications, Wilmington City Council approved removing Wilmington Planning Commission from the Special Use Permit process.

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 — In a move that streamlines the development process, but reduces opportunities for public input, Wilmington City Council approved removing the Planning Commission from the Special Use Permit process.

The decision, which passed 4-2, means Special Use Permits (SUP) can be obtained with less complications.

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

Councilmembers Clifford Barnett and Kevin O’Grady voted against the code amendment at the Tuesday Council meeting.

With SUPs, Council must only consider evidentiary information from those with legal “standing.” Meaning, in some cases, even if a public commenter at a public hearing is neighbors with a SUP petitioner, Council cannot consider their input if sufficient evidence is not provided.

Due to the quasi-judicial style of the SUP process, it’s difficult for public input to make it into Council’s approval equation. Now, with Planning Commission out, it’s more difficult for public input to make it before Council, given the complexities of the process and pace at which a project can now be approved.

However, the change is a win for businesses and petitioners seeking SUPs, endorsed by Natalie English, Wilmington’s Chamber of Commerce president.

Reason behind the change

Margaret Haynes, Wilmington’s Mayor pro-tem, explained the reasoning behind the change at the meeting.

“In taking Planning [Commission] out of the process because they have no legal ability to rule on it, you would have to have someone other than laypeople deal with applicants and with the public,” she said.

Haynes’ comments, based on staff meeting an consultation with the city’s legal staff, focused on making sure every applicant received consistent treatment, and concerns that the Planning Commission could be inconsistent or give inaccurate information or advice. By increasing professionalism in the process, Haynes said the idea is to ensure each applicant gets the same information. Also, she said, it could reduce the number of SUPs requested, and increase conditional rezonings instead.

“If you came and had a meeting before Planning [Commission], they’re all laypeople,” she said. “They might not give the same type of information every time to the next person.”

Intended to cut down on “marathon meetings,” Wilmington City Attorney John Joye said city staff is still working on a handbook of sorts that would help make the process easier to understand. “I can’t tell you the particulars of that process — we’re still working on it,” he said.

An accompanying explanatory document for the public, though proposed, was not put to a vote.

Other changes

Joye’s provision to the amendment did not pick up support at the meeting, though Councilman Kevin O’Grady motioned to approve it. The attorney’s tweaks would have kept Planning Commission in the loop, but cut out Council’s consideration of feedback the Commission may have chosen to provide. O’Grady said keeping Planning Commission would have required petitioners to “show their cards” ahead of a Council meeting.

But keeping Planning Commission around could present a legal liability. That’s according to Joye, who after being questioned by Mayor Bill Saffo, admitted it’s possible the Commission could provide improper advice to a petitioner.

In addition to removing Wilmington Planning Commission’s oversight, the amendment increased time limits for SUP extensions from six months to one year. It also increased the minimum number of adjacent property owners required to be notified — from a 100-foot to a 300-foot radius around the petitioned area — for rezoning and SUPs.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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