HAMPSTEAD — County commissioners earlier this week discussed reaching a compromise between developers looking to start new projects and residents who want to scale back growth, particularly along the coast, as county planners have slowed the process to implement changes to its land-use plan.
During a meeting earlier this week, commissioners discussed the importance of listening to the concerns of developers and large landowners before they appointed a local developer to the planning board on a four-to-one vote, with Jackie Newton of District 4 dissenting.
On Friday, Pender County Planning Director Kyle Breuer said his staff is no longer considering the creation of a Coastal Residential zoning district, but that certain provisions in the scrapped district will be folded into all residential zoning districts. These include tree preservation and mitigation requirements, impervious surface coverage limitations, the establishment of Resource Conservation Areas (RCAs), incentives for Low Impact Developments and RCA preservation, and development clustering.
Landowners and developers speak out
Local landowner Al Sidbury, who led opposition against a group seeking to incorporate Hampstead, urged commissioners to “put the breaks” on updates to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). He said the new proposed regulations would reduce the value of his developable land.
“If you have the intention of stopping growth and devaluing the county, this instrument is going to do that,” Sidbury told commissioners. “Also, this was drawn by planners who don’t have a dog in the fight, and we urge you to pull together a task force, a group, a committee of citizens within the county who this is going to affect.”
This followed comments made by Wilmington developer D. Logan at a public input meeting late September in which he predicted the UDO changes “will destroy your property values, it will destroy the tax base in Pender County,” according to Star News.
Logan had also claimed the UDO would “shut down 85 percent of the county” and would only allow an average of 15 percent of a 100-acre tract of land to be developed. At the time Breuer said his staff would prepare an analysis of how much land in the county falls with RCAs — floodplains, wetlands, vegetated stream buffers, and areas with CAMA setbacks — all land that would be limited in terms of development capabilities.
On Friday Breuer shared an estimate made from that assessment. He said those areas Logan was referencing account for approximately 50 to 60 percent of the county’s land, well under Logan’s claim. He noted the calculation was taken from data that is intended to be used only for planning purposes, and includes areas within the 100-year and 500-year floodplains and wetlands. He also said that when calculating the estimate, planners did not include game lands, county-owned properties, open water, and municipal and extraterritorial jurisdiction limits.
Breuer said his staff is working with the planning board and its consultant, Stuart Inc., to continue adapting the process in response to concerns raised by developers and large landowners, as well as all comments received during September’s public input meeting.
‘Some give and take on both sides’
The UDO update was put in place to implement Pender 2.0, a comprehensive land-use plan adopted in 2018 to adjust zoning requirements for recent high growth in the county, particularly along the Highway 17 corridor.
Jay McLeod, a senior planner with Stuart Inc., said certain provisions of the scrapped Coastal Residential district, like public trust water access and the preservation of wetlands and areas prone to flooding, will be incorporated into all residential zoning districts in a way that will both give developers more flexibility and also discourage development in vulnerable areas.
“They can incentivize development outside of those areas, and give more developer flexibility, plus bring development away from those sensitive areas,” McLeod said.
Sidbury, the local landowner, also told commissioners that the proposed regulations would affect the value of their own properties.
“Now there’s four people on the board who own enough property in Pender County that could be developed. This will definitely affect your property,” Sidbury said. “I have worked all my life to have what I got. And the property I’ve got, I wouldn’t be able to afford to develop. I would have to sell to a developer.”
Chairman Brown acknowledged how the new regulations — and how it would affect developers — had recently become a much-discussed issue. But he said it was important for county planners to listen the entire community to “be sure everybody’s voice is heard,” and along with other commissioners encouraged a slow, careful process vetted over time.
“I’m sure at some point somewhere out in the future we’ll be making a decision on some of these things,” Brown said.
Commissioner David Williams, whose district encompasses North Hampstead and Surf City, said that while some recent public concerns over the UDO changes are valid, others are presumptive.
“There are also some assumptions that have been made — the sky is not falling,” Williams said. “But then there were some legitimate concerns. You’ll see the staff will make recommendations after talking to some folks. There’s going to be some give and take on both sides.”
Certified planner passed up for local developer because of conflict of interest
Commissioners voted to appoint Jeff Beaudow, a local developer and an employee of a business software company, to the planning board to fill its technical position. The other applicant was Suzann Rhodes, a fellow at the American Institute of Certified Planners who resigned from the same position on the board in March because of her leadership of a committee looking to incorporate Hampstead. At the time, she said members of the opposition group Save Our Community, led by Sidbury, had successfully lobbied county commissioners to remove her from the board.
Newton was the only commissioner arguing for her reinstatement to the board, saying the incorporation issue — and any conflict of interest it presented for Rhodes — had been settled due to the committee’s failure to get the necessary petition signatures.
“The Hampstead incorporation issue has been put to bed, am I right?” Newton asked fellow commissioners. “Has it not failed to get the signatures?”
Newton said she had formerly worked with Rhodes, a former planning administrator at the Ohio DOT, on the county’s board of adjustment.
“I have found her to be highly professional with a deep knowledge of subject matter,” Newton said. “I think it would serve us well to have someone on the planning board who has [her] qualifications.”
Commissioner Williams said that although she was “eminently qualified” and that he had himself initially voted for her seat on the board, it soon became clear that she had become the face of the Hampstead incorporation push.
“And the county is not, nor should be, taking a position on that. And we have someone on one of the most important boards of the entire county who’s on that board and is the face of such a divisive issue. And it is a very divisive issue [in Hampstead].”
But in a letter to the board before the meeting, Rhodes argued that her prior role as a spokesperson for the Hampstead incorporation committee was not only completed, but at the time was also her right to free speech and to “pursue whatever political ideas and efforts [I] choose” as an American citizen.
After commissioners appointed Beaudow instead of herself, she spoke out about their decision.
“Just because Hampstead is not incorporated does not mean there are not people who are controlling what goes on here and how it is developed. The commissioners provided credence to that at last night’s commissioners meeting,” she said.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815