Monday, July 15, 2024

Southport raises alarm on state bills changing development processes

The city’s board of aldermen held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss six proposed pieces of legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly. (PCD/file).

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Several state bills involving the planning and development of housing have set off sirens in Southport this week. 

The city’s board of aldermen held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss six proposed pieces of legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly. Almost all of the bills would take away some municipal authority over the planning process, which Mayor Joseph Hatem spoke against at the onset of the meeting.

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“Southport supports addressing critical housing shortages for firefighters, law enforcement officers, teachers, nurses, first responders and other vital workers and first-time home buyers,” Hatem read from a prepared statement. “We do not support losing municipal power over the planning process of home building and development, short-term rentals, and other planning issues.”

The most consequential bills involve the promotion of workforce housing and management of multi-jurisdictional property. 

“This is to allow for building, building, building,” aldermen Lowe Davis said. “It is simply erasing almost all the brakes on building.” 

Workforce housing 

Senate Bill 317: Addressing the Workforce Housing Crisis is bipartisan legislation with as many sponsors — including Pender County’s Brent Jackson — to pass a vote on it.

“This is a lot more — I’m going to use the word dangerous — to us than some of the other bills out there,” alderman Richard Alt said. “This is going to require us — us on this board, you out there — to do a lot more…stuff than we’ve ever done before. This has to be a full court press.” 

Aimed at reducing housing barriers for teachers, first responders, nurses, and first-time buyers, the bill prohibits local governments from applying dimensional standards or design requirements to any project that meets the workforce housing definition. Developments must be at least 10 acres of one- or two-family dwellings with at least 20% of the lots dedicated to workforce.

Of the 20%, half should be reserved for those making less than 80% of the area median income as provided by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rest must be available only to those making less than 100% of the area median income.

Southport City Planner Travis Henley, who explained each bill and answered aldermen questions at the meeting, said he could not find a reliable median income for Southport. 

“Somebody would have to figure that out,” he said when Alt asked about the number.  

According to the U.S. Census, it’s $68,301. The median income of Brunswick County is $77,500 per year. 

The proposal also states dwellings must be occupied by families with no more than three people not related to the owner of the property. 

“I don’t know how you could realistically regulate that unless you’re visiting every day,” Henley said. 

The bill largely limits a municipality’s approval authority; it states workforce housing shall be allowed in any district, no matter the zoning. Stormwater and floodplain regulation can only be mandated per state and federal rules. For example, Southport would not be able to impose a 3-feet elevation requirement in its zoning districts because the federal standard is base level. 

Municipalities may require up to a 20-feet vegetative buffer, but no other vegetation requirement, including Southport’s tree retention standards. 

“So we’re back to clearcutting everything,” Alt said. 

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Local governments are not allowed to impose stormwater or wastewater fees, wetlands requirements (although those are regulated by the state and fed), open space lottage, nor maximum density limits. 

“[I]t could be as many as the developer can reasonably get on the lot,” according to Henley. 

The developer of the workforce housing subdivision would not be required to connect to city utilities, either — even if the project is in city limits. Yet, the municipality also cannot deny a developer’s application for services unless it’s due to capacity issues or if the location of the nearest hookup is more than 3 miles away.

In the planning process, staff are only able to require a preliminary site plan and have a 45-day period to review the application, only extendable once to request changes. From there, the project must be approved or denied. At 60 days, the application is automatically approved if a written decision has not been disseminated.

If a developer is aggrieved by the decision, they are entitled to take the claim directly to superior court, sidestepping the usual board of adjustment process. 

S.B. 317 resides in the Senate Committee On Rules and Operations.

Multijurisdictional property

Another bill discussed by the alderman, House Bill 252, gives more freedom to developers proposing projects along municipal lines. Unless there is an agreement in place between the bordering locales, the property developer may choose which municipalities’ code to follow. 

Southport often has stricter development standards than its neighboring Brunswick County, such as its tree ordinance and lighting restrictions. A developer may be more inclined to follow the county’s rules if it straddles a border. 

“There would be no recourse for us to stop that, even though it’s in our planning jurisdiction,” Henley said. 

The bill passed the House on Thursday after debate from members, including Deb Butler (D-New Hanover). The legislator described the bill’s passage as “opening Pandora’s box” and said it would cause developers to take the easiest path possible, for better or worse. 

Despite pushback, the bill passed the House 77-32. Butler voted against it, but Ted Davis (R-New Hanover), Frank Iler (R-Brunswick), Charles Miller (R-New Hanover, Brunswick), and Carson Smith (R-Pender) were in favor. 

PCD reached out to each representative; Iler was the only member to respond by press. He offered a two word answer to why he voted in favor of H.B. 252. 

“Property rights,” he said. 

Building permits

The aldermen were briefed on four other bills concerning the planning process and short-term rentals. 

House Bill 332, with sister-bill Senate Bill 275, would limit building-permit reviews for commercial and multi-family developments to 21 days. The deadline can be extended 15 days upon a request for changes, or the timeline can be amended per a voluntary agreement signed by both parties. 

If a building permit is not issued in the timeframe, a developer can have a third party — such as a code enforcement officer, professional engineer, or licensed architect — review the plans and submit recommendations to the municipality. If the developer takes this route, the city has 72 hours to issue a permit, and it must waive or refund application fees. 

Henley explained this timeline is doable for Southport, as long as many projects or one big one isn’t submitted and slows down the permit process. 

The bills are in committee in both chambers. 

Accessory dwelling units

House Bill 409 — equal to Senate Bill 275 — restricts local government’s control over accessory dwelling units. Each municipality must allow for at least one ADU for each house within every residential zoning that allows for single-family housing.

Southport’s development code already allows this; however, the bill would remove the ability to put conditions on the accessory dwelling units. For example, Southport caps the accessory’s area at 800 square feet, but the bill allows for any size as long as it’s smaller than the main dwelling. 

The bill also stipulates there shall be no conditional zoning requirements imposed on the accessory. Southport requires a special unit permit, which Henley wasn’t sure would be able to continue if the bill passes.

A local government also may not implement parking requirements or prohibit connection to utilities nor charge an additional fee for services. It may impose a setback requirement, but only 5 feet, regardless of the accessory’s size. 

Both bills reside in committee in both chambers. 

North Carolina housing choice incentive 

Henley also presented House Bill 294 to Southport’s board of aldermen; the legislation establishes a $30 million grant program for communities to create and promote multi-family, “middle” housing and accessory dwelling units. The term refers to housing types between large apartment buildings and single-family homes, such as duplexes, townhomes and bungalows. 

The funds are available for water, sewer or transportation infrastructure for municipalities that qualify; Southport isn’t one.

Qualifications are broken down into two categories for municipalities with more than 100,000 people or those with less. Southport falls into the latter category; to qualify, it must have five zoning districts that allow for multi-family housing. Those districts must meet four of the seven following criteria: 

  • Minimum gross density of 15 units per acre
  • No age restrictions 
  • No parking minimums 
  • Allowance for setback waivers 
  • Allowance for accessory dwelling units 
  • Permissive building height requirements 
  • Allowance for residential development in areas not zoned for residential use

According to Henley, Southport has zero districts that check at least four boxes. While participation in the program is not required, Southport will not be eligible for these grants unless it amends its rules. 

The bill resides in committee. 

Short-term rentals 

Senate Bill 290 is the one bill discussed on Tuesday that would give local municipalities more power, not less, and it involves a hot-button issue in land development: short-term rentals. 

S.B. 290, currently in committee, states local governments can enforce max occupancy provision within vacation rentals. The bill caps visitors at four per bedroom, but municipalities could choose a stricter occupancy limit.

The bill would help assuage Cape Fear coastal communities’ concerns over short-term rentals after the North Carolina Court of Appeals unanimously ruled last year that registration provisions within Wilmington’s ordinance violated state law. The ruling established local governments are prohibited from requiring an owner of rental property to obtain a permit. 

The City of Wilmington was required to refund all applicants who had paid in, costing half-a-million dollars, and end its registration requirement. 

Southport began issuing refunds for its registry earlier this month. 

At the end of the meeting, all aldermen shared their thoughts on the legislation.

“I’m sure as a board we’re opposed to most of this and I hope we can begin the fight against it and take it somewhere because this is, frankly, absurd,” aldermen John Allen said. 

Alderman Robert Carroll echoed a similar sentiment. 

“I can’t believe this is the kind of stuff that we’re having to fight against to protect our little town,” he said. 

Mayor Hatem reported the board has already communicated the city’s concerns to its state representatives, Rep. Charles Miller and Sen. Bill Rabon. He also said the city is looking to collaborate with local mayors to oppose the pieces of legislation. 

The aldermen unanimously voted to draft a resolution in opposition to the loss of municipal power over local development. It will be sent to the state legislature.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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