Saturday, September 23, 2023

Who can overrule Wrightsville Beach’s Board of Alderman? A board made up of those same elected leaders

The Town of Wrightsville Beach has an unusual setup to say the least when it comes to its Board of Adjustment (Port City Daily/File)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — The limiting of power to any one group or person in the government is typically known as the ‘balance of power,’ but in Wrightsville Beach, that power is not so balanced.

Local government is generally made up of several different boards and committees like city council, a planning board, a parks and recreation board, maybe even a tree commission. At the top, there are the elected officials that make up the city council, or in Wrightsville Beach, the Board of Aldermen.

The elected representatives are generally the only board with policy-making power; other boards like the planning board are made up of appointed representatives and serve in an advisory role only.

But when it comes to zoning and enforcing the unified development ordinance, another board has considerable power — in fact — it is a board with the power to overrule decisions of the Board of Aldermen.

It is the Board of Adjustment (BOA).

The BOA’s job is to hear appeals and review decisions of other boards of officials.

Wrightsville Beach Town Ordinance states, “The Board of Adjustment shall hear and decide appeals from and review any order, requirement, decision, or determination made by a public official or employee charged with the enforcement of this Ordinance.”

State Statute also directs the purview of Boards of Adjustment stating, “The zoning or unified development ordinance may provide that the board of adjustment hear and decide special and conditional use permits, requests for variances, and appeals of decisions of administrative officials charged with enforcement of the ordinance.”

The Board of Adjustment, for all intents and purposes, is the only place where property owners can appeal zoning decisions made by town staff or elected leaders within the town. It is also the only way those appealing the decisions can move their petition to Superior Court.

For example, when the Town of Carolina Beach’s Town Council granted a conditional use permit to the developers of Publix, neighboring developers representing Harris Teeter appealed the town council’s decision to the Board of Adjustment.

Despite the BOA’s upholding of the Town Council’s decision, Harris Teeter was given a fair chance to argue its points to another board.

But in the Town of Wrightsville Beach, things are a bit more oligarchical.

A self-appointed board

The Board of Aldermen has the sole authority over appointing Board of Adjustment members in Wrightsville Beach.

“The Board shall consist of five regular members and three alternate members. All members shall be residents of the Town and shall be appointed by the Board of Aldermen. Members of the Board of Aldermen may be appointed as members of the Board,” according to town code.

While elected leaders appointing board members is not unusual, appointing themselves to the only board that has the power to overturn their own decisions is. State statute does not forbid elected officials from serving on the Board of Adjustment, however, it is not common.

The Board of Adjustment in Wrightsville Beach has not always been an appointed committee.

The Town of Wrightsville Beach’s charter actually stated that the town board would serve as the Board of Adjustment, but in 2005, a bill was requested to change that. House Bill 1047 (2005) actually rewrote the town charter from 1989.

It changed the text, “…the Town Board shall serve as the Board of Adjustment and shall have and may exercise the same powers and duties as are granted by law to appointed boards of adjustment,” to read, “The Town Board shall appoint a board of adjustment that shall have and exercise the powers and duties provided in G.S. 160A-388.”

It is not clear why the request was made to the state — but it is clear that elected leaders had no desire to give up any power they held.

In 2006 the Board of Aldermen, led by former Mayor Robert O’Quinn, voted to appoint themselves to the BOA.

According to meeting minutes from the 2006 meeting that created the board, “Mayor O’Quinn opened the public hearing at 7:14 p.m. and stated that the Board of Aldermen currently serves as the Board of Adjustment. He said that it was unique but the Board thought it was appropriate.”

The meeting minutes continue,”[O’Quinn] stated that the Town had asked for a Local Bill to establish a Board of Adjustment, under the guidance of a prior Board, and that Bill was passed and it was now time to address the issue. He asked if the Board members wanted the Board of Aldermen to serve as the Board of Adjustment?”

There was some resistance to the limited balance of power.

According to meeting minutes, “Mr. Bill Sisson … stated that boards of adjustments are quasi-judicial and people have to be sworn in and the only appeal is to Superior Court. He said that in other towns, boards of adjustment have not traditionally been the Board of Aldermen because they wanted politics removed from the decisions. He stated that there was no limit to the number of members as long as there was an odd number. Mr. Sisson said that he would urge the Board if they wanted the Board of Aldermen to serve, that they think of expanding the Board of Adjustment from five to seven members so non-political people could weigh in the decision.”

That didn’t happen.

According to the minutes, “Mayor O’Quinn stated that he felt the Board of Aldermen should serve as the Board of Adjustment, therefore, he made the motion to adopt Ordinance No. (2006) 1491 that would create a Board of Adjustment and at the same time, that we appoint five members of the Board of Aldermen to serve as follows:

  1. Two three-year terms: Alderman Brunjes and Alderman Cignotti
  2. Two two-year terms: Alderman Whalen and Mayor O’Quinn
  3. One one-year term: Mayor Pro Tem Miastkowski”

The Board also voted to appoint two ‘alternates,’ that is, two members that can sit in place of an alderman in the event someone was unable to attend a meeting or hearing.

The current Board of Adjustment has three sitting elected officials — Mayor Darryl Mills, Mayor Pro-Tem Hank Miller, and Alderman Ken Dull — and three elected officials whose term recently expired — former Mayor Bill Blair and outgoing Alderwoman Elizabeth King. The town plans to appoint newly elected Alderman to the BOA soon.

It is worth noting that no other municipality in New Hanover County has a Board of Adjustment that consists of elected leaders.

Editor’s Note: Part two of this series will examine the implications of a self-appointed Board of Adjustment.

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