Thursday, September 28, 2023

Community information meetings, helping bridge the gap between developers and residents

Community meetings are a common tool for government and private interests, these sessions help bridge the gap between residents and those they would not normally get a chance to interact with. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Residents often complain about not being a part of the planning process for new developments or rezoning requests until it’s too late. Often times residents believe that planning boards and elected officials have already made up their minds on a project. Other times, residents might not even be allowed to speak out against a project or voice concerns because of the quasi-judicial nature of special use permits.

But there is a tool that the county (and the City of Wilmington) utilize for some, but not all new developments — that is, the community information meeting or CIM.

In New Hanover County, “The purpose of a community information meeting is to inform owners and residents of nearby lands about a proposed development application, and to provide the applicant an opportunity to hear comments and concerns about the development proposal as a means of resolving conflicts and outstanding issues, where possible,” according to the latest iteration of the Unified Development Ordinance.

While these meetings are open to the public, the public is not generally notified of the meetings (you can find a list of CIMs online, however, and in New Hanover County you can sign up for email alerts), instead, only residents who are within a certain radius of the proposed project are directly notified. During these meetings, residents have a chance to interact with the developer and their team, ask questions, voice concerns, and enter into meaningful dialogue.

Why they matter

CIMs can be found online and residents who want to be kept in the loop can be added to the county’s ‘sunshine list.’ (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

One of the benefits to this process is the fact that since these meetings occur prior to applications being submitted to the county for approval, developers might be more willing to listen to concerns and more open to negotiating, Robert Parr, a New Hanover County resident, and community activist said.

But not every development or use will require a CIM, in New Hanover County they are only required to be conducted prior to three different types of requests.

“[A] community information meeting that complies with the requirements in this section is required prior to submittal of any of the following applications: a. Conditional rezonings; b. Planned developments; and c. Special use permits for uses classified as intensive industry,” according to the county.

As previously stated, the general public is not typically notified of these meetings as they are hosted by applicants and developers — not the county. But there are a few ways the county makes sure residents are kept up to speed with planned projects.

First, is through the requirement to notify neighbors placed on applicants by the county.

“The applicant shall provide written notice by mail or other agreed-upon measures at least ten days prior to the date of the community information meeting. Notice shall be provided to the Planning Department and to each owner of record of land within 500 feet of and on the property subject to the application,” according to county ordinances.

The next way to get notified would be to have yourself placed on what is known as the ‘sunshine list,’ and finally, you can use the county planning department’s online list of community meetings.

As seen in previous community meetings and subsequent applications, summaries of CIMs must be provided by the applicant and while some projects see little to no turnout, others can bring hundreds of residents to hear about future plans for neighboring properties.

While these meetings are not considered governmental meetings and set no legal burdens for developers, it does give residents a chance to work one-on-one with the people they normally wouldn’t. In fact, by removing governmental oversight on these meetings, residents are often able to have constructive discussions with developers during these meetings, Parr said.

Once these meetings are completed applicants then have to submit evidence to the county that the meeting actually took place, and many developers are providing a full Q&A segment, explaining some of the questions and concerns heard at the meeting, and offering a response to them.

CIMs are a helpful tool for residents who want to stay informed with things happening in their neighborhood but also give developers a chance to rethink their plans before actually submitting an application and going through that planning process, which is time-consuming and costly.

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