HAMPSTEAD — County commissioners voted against the revocation of Hampstead Marina’s special use permit (SUP) after it was found to now be in compliance with stormwater regulation requirements.
The initial complaint was made by the marina’s neighbor to the south, Commissioner David Piepmeyer, who had recused himself from the matter and was not present during Tuesday evening’s vote.
RELATED: Hampstead Marina faces revocation of special use permit due to erosion, complaint tied to commissioner
Before the vote, an attorney for the property owners, Samuel Franck of the Wilmington law firm Ward and Smith, spoke to commissioners about what he called the “subjective” nature of Piepmeyer’s allegation and the ensuing inspection and notice of violation. The complaint was based on two floodlights that illuminated Piepmeyer’s property, as well as the erosion of the parking lot’s grass, causing sediments to be carried over to his property during heavy rainfall.
“Setting aside the source of the complaint and the nature of the facts that led to this investigation and the allegation in the first place, the substantive topics included in that allegation boiled down to two things,” Franck told commissioners. “One, a light that had been in exactly the same location, and directed exactly the same way for 15 years, was deemed to no longer be compliant. And two, vegetative ground cover that had recently been decimated by the rains of Hurricane Florence, just like all the rest of the land in this county, was deemed to no longer be adequate.”
Last November, Piepmeyer said the lights had been replaced after Florence, were excessively bright, and because of their 360-degree illumination, shone onto his front and back yard.
The marina is owned by Wooten Holding Company, represented by Henry and Joyce Wooten. The Wootens received a first violation notice in November 2018, several months after Florence struck the region and caused widespread flooding along the coast. A final notice of violation was issued in March 2019, followed by a request for a court-ordered compliance submitted in August and a notice in October that the county would move forward in a process to revoke its permit.
At a December board meeting, a vote was tabled until Tuesday night to provide the Wooten family an opportunity to work with county staff to get back into compliance. The property lies in a Residential Performance district, intended to allow various residential land uses while limiting commercial activities. A special use permit allows the property to operate as a marina.
‘You’re not getting singled out’
In late November, after it was determined that the neighbor who made the complaint was Piepmeyer, the commissioner responded by saying the county was obligated to enforce compliance with all properties that have SUPs.
“Unfortunately, the county enforcement is currently complaint-driven which can certainly lead to problems between neighbors,” Piepmeyer wrote in a November email. “Clearly the county does not want to end up at this stage of the process but it has been almost a year since these [notice of violations] were sent to the Hampstead Marina owners (which should be more than enough time to resolve these violations).”
He also noted that the SUP requirements were established in 2004, ten years before he was elected commissioner.
“Certainly the owners should understand the conditions they signed up for and be willing to fully comply with all these conditions as long as they continue to run a business in a residential zoned neighborhood,” Piepmeyer said.
In Piepmeyer’s absence, Chairman George Brown said that because the county does not have the necessary staff or funds to pursue violations proactively, it is a complaint-driven process. And commissioners, just like all citizens, have the right to submit a complaint against a neighbor.
“We never wanted anyone to lose their business — I hope you understand that,” Brown said. That’s not what this was about. I have a heartburn myself over thinking that one commissioner was the reason for all these problems.”
He referenced a letter sent to the marina’s customers that pointed to the Wootens as the victims and Piepmeyer as the “bad guy.”
“Now I don’t know what goes on with the history [between the two neighbors], that’s of no concern to me here,” Brown said. “But going forward, a commissioner has a right to file a complaint just like anyone else does. Any citizen has a right to file a complaint.”
Commissioner David Williams said that long before he was elected commissioner, infractions had always been handled on an “as-reported basis” due to the extensive amount of rural and remote areas of the county.
He also claimed that before the Hampstead Marina issue came to light, commissioners and county staff had already been discussing a full inspection of all SUPs issued after 2015.
“We’re going back to the files to look at everyone … You’re not getting singled out,” Williams said.
According to Brown, there will be monthly or quarterly inspections going forward to ensure the marina is still in compliance.
Attorney: communication before a notice of violation
On Wednesday morning, Franck said the vote to dismiss the revocation action brought closure to the matter after inspections found the property to be in compliance.
“The Wooten family and I appreciate the consideration and appropriate action by those commissioners who were present to take that action,” Franck said.
The prior evening, he also urged commissioners to “capture this moment in time” to avoid any issues that may arise in the future — and to avoid drawn-out investigations over simple compliance issues.
“The county has taken a very, very thorough look at this site to determine whether it is compliant, and concluded that it is,” Franck said.
Additionally, he argued that because a complaint resting on the illumination from floodlights and the parking lot’s grass coverage is more subjective than something more concrete — like setback requirements — a discussion between a landowner and county staff should have taken place before sending a notice of violation.
“There was an opportunity for cooperation between the citizens and the staff that was missed here,” Franck said. “And I have to believe that the beginning of that dialogue, the way that conversation started, had something to do with how it finished. So I respectfully ask for you to consider to make that part of your procedure.”
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