WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — It might not seem like a big deal for some people — an elected Board of Aldermen sitting as the appointed members of the Board of Adjustment. And while it is not illegal, it is unusual to appoint the same elected leaders to one of the few bodies with the power to overrule them outside of court.
In Wrightsville Beach, like so many other municipalities across the state, the Board of Adjustment is an appointed board that serves to review appeals, variances, and other zoning-related issues.
But unlike every other municipality in the county, Wrightsville Beach’s Board of Aldermen appoint themselves to the sole board that could undo a decision they themselves have made.
And this is not an accident.
When the town updated its charter back in 2006 and created the Board of Adjustment through appointment (it used to be in the charter that the Board of Aldermen would defacto serve as the Board of Adjustment), town leaders acknowledged this was a power they did not want to give up
“Alderman [Stephen] Whalen stated that he felt a responsibility to be on the Board of Adjustment because he had been elected by the people to represent them. He said that he did not think people realize the power a Board of Adjustment would have; almost more than the Board of Aldermen. He pointed out that the Board of Adjustment could approve a 70-foot building and the Board of Aldermen would have no say because it would go to the courts,” according to meeting minutes from 2006.
It was also suggested that the town add ‘alternate’ members (it is actually required by state statute to have these to ensure a majority in a vote). But then-Alderman David Cignotti had a problem with adding alternates as ‘they would not be held accountable,’ suggesting only elected officials are held accountable.
According to meeting minutes, “Alderman Cignotti stated that he had been struggling with this and he knew some people had difficulty taking on the role of Board of Adjustment because they might not get voted back in. He said that he had concerns with adding two seats with two people who were not elected and their votes could determine a decision but they would not be accountable.”
A motion was made to appoint the sitting Board of Aldermen as the Board of Adjustment and it passed, 4-1.
The Board of Adjustment members are appointed for three-year terms and currently consists of Mayor Daryll Mills, Former Alderman Elizabeth King, Former Mayor Bill Blair, Alderman Hank Miller, and Alderman Ken Dull.
At the upcoming Board of Aldermen meeting, on Wednesday, the meeting agenda shows the board will be appointing newly elected Alderman Jeff DeGroote to replace outgoing member King. The board will also reappoint Alderman Dull and appoint Alderman Partin as an alternate (it does not appear Blair is leaving the board now that he is no longer Mayor).
While it is clear this is an unusual practice when compared to other municipalities, the implications of a politicized Board of Adjustment is more difficult to see.
So what are the possible implications for residents and businesses?
Well, for one thing, lawsuits.
The Town of Wrightsville Beach has faced several lawsuits appealing the decisions of the Board of Adjustment — in fact — there are at least three lawsuits from the past year relating to the board.
Read more about the lawsuits the town is facing:
- Wrightsville Beach facing another lawsuit for using zoning ordinance to target certain businesses
- Deep dive: After years without issues, what made Wrightsville Beach go after a jet-ski rental company?
- Wrightsville Beach Board of Adjustment denies Red Dogs appeal
Recently, the town faced a federal lawsuit regarding its decision to issue citations to a jet-ski rental company using a public boat launch ramp owned by the state, located in town limits.
Despite not having jurisdiction over the property, as confirmed by the state, the town told the owner of the jet-ski company he was in violation of town zoning ordinance and began issuing him citations.
So how was he to go about appealing the citations he believed were illegally issued?
He had to appeal to the Board of Adjustment.
Now, citations would not typically be handled by the Board of Adjustment, however, the citations issued to the jet-ski rental business were for zoning violations — not criminal citations — and zoning appeals are handled by the Board of Adjustment.
So why does all of this matter?
Well, the issue with jet-ski rentals was not really a problem until residents spoke during Board of Aldermen meetings asking leaders to do something about the jet-skis. That board, in turn, asked the town manager to look into the issue and directed staff to see what could be done.
When the citations began, the owner of the rental company appealed them — essentially to the same people who asked staff to issue them.
And this is far from a one-off situation.
For Red Dog’s, a bar that has been a staple of the beach community for decades, the process has been the same.
Residents and town staff complained to the Board of Aldermen in public meetings asking them to do something about the bar. The board then directed staff to look into possible solutions which, again, was to issue zoning violations.
When the bar owners went to appeal the zoning violations, the board tasked with hearing their appeal was once again, the Board of Adjustment.
The Red Dog’s situation is a little bit different due to the fact that the lawsuit against the state was brought by the Town of Wrightsville Beach. The argument was that since the Board of Adjustment upheld the town’s decision claiming it was not in zoning compliance.
But the state still issued the bar an ABC permit, prompting anger from leaders — and the litigation.
Yet another lawsuit the town is facing stems from ‘zoning violations’ that the town’s Board of Adjustment upheld at the property located at 100 W. Salisbury Street — a property that has sat vacant for years with a dilapidated convenience store on it.
Property owners wanted to build a restaurant as well as a private pier with boat slips at the location, but according to the town, the property was not zoned for this use.
This was, again, after residents spoke out in opposition to the proposed use.
But property owners believe the property is zoned for this use, by right, however, in the end, the Board of Adjustment once again ruled to uphold the previous decision.
“The Wrightsville Beach Board of Adjustment unanimously found that town staff was correct in ruling that the C-3 zoning classification for 100 W. Salisbury St. didn’t allow for WB Watermen, LLC, to build a nine-slip dock into Lees Cut behind the property,” Lumina News reported.
When asked about the fairness of the Board of Adjustment being elected members of the Board of Aldermen (or if terms are unexpired, previously elected leaders), the town has remained silent.
On Monday, an email was sent to the Town Manager as well as the Board of Aldermen requesting comment on the unusual practice — but no response was given.
It is also worth noting that the town’s website was barren of any link for the Board of Adjustment, its members, or meeting agendas and schedules. When Port City Daily asked the town about this, the town did not respond, however, a link was then added on the town’s website for the Board of Adjustment.