Monday, April 15, 2024

Pender County spends $168K to complete new 20-year development roadmap

Pender County signed a contract with a firm last week to create a new comprehensive plan, to revise the current land use plan on subjects such as zoning policy and regulation. (Courtesy photo)

PENDER COUNTY — One of the most expansive counties in the state will work with a national consulting firm to create a comprehensive land use plan for the next two decades of development.

At its Feb. 20 meeting, Pender County commissioners unanimously approved a $168,481 contract with Clarion Associates, LLC. The firm’s research and draft plan is estimated to take 14 to 20 months. Originally, $150,000 was allocated in the budget; Clarion proposed a $215,796 contract, negotiated down to the current amount.

In his presentation before commissioners, planning director Daniel Adams said staff received six submissions from contractors interested in the project since September; representatives from four applicants met with a staff selection committee in recent months.

“Through that selection process, Clarion really stood out,” Adams said. 

Clarion’s project application argued its past experience gives it a unique focus on cross jurisdictional issues for countywide plans in high-growth communities. It states the firm has worked on nearly 30 community plans in North Carolina, including Iredell and Buncombe County’s comprehensive development plans.

The contractor listed key questions it would focus on to generate community support for the new policy direction. They include:

  • What are the county’s economic strengths and opportunities that should be supported by the plan?
  • Where and how should the county support protection of important natural, coastal, and agricultural areas?
  • How will the county ensure adequate infrastructure amid growth pressures?
  • What should future growth look like?

Chair Brad George noted the new comprehensive plan would revise the current land use plan on subjects such as zoning policy and regulation, and involve “a lot of community input.”

“It’s organic in nature,” Adams added. “It’s really bottom-up. We want to get that vision from the public and there’s a substantial amount of public engagement as part of the development of this plan.”

George asked Adams if staff and Clarion would seek public engagement throughout the county to “give everyone a shot at their say.”

“Pender County geographically is a big county,” Adams responded. “So it’s difficult to imagine someone coming from, say, Atkinson to Surf City for a meeting. So we’ve talked about having several meetings and trying to meet people where they are, if you will. So rather than ask them to travel long distances, we’re going to try to go to them.”

At about 870 square miles, Pender is North Carolina’s fifth largest county by total area, followed by Brunswick County at 847 square miles. 

Staff’s proposal highlighted regionalism as a core focus; it notes pressures caused by rapidly growing metropolitan areas — such as southern and eastern parts of the county near the beach and Wilmington — should be analyzed to inform the different needs of urban and rural communities and create better connectivity between the county and its municipalities.

Vice chair Jackie Newton gave examples of issues citizens could address in public meetings, such as special zoning related to residential density or putting a travel trailer in a specific lot.

In its application, Clarion proposed conducting two, two-month community engagement periods — one as the listed plan is in initial stages of development and one after unveiling the draft. Each would be launched with a public community workshop and followed by a month of online engagement via the Konveio platform to gain further feedback. Clarion also suggested targeted meetings tailored to communities unlikely to attend workshops or participate online.

PCD reached out to Adams, commissioners, and 2024 commissioner candidates to ask if they had more details on specific issues they would raise for the land use plan.

George told PCD the land use plan was one of the first issues he brought to attention to fellow board members after being elected chair in February. He said Pender’s unified development ordinance had last been updated in 2010 and the last comprehensive plan was adopted in 2018, meaning it’s update process began in 2016.

“My hope that this revision will help add protections to those environmentally sensitive areas, help with controlling the lost of farm land, and protect our coastal resources,” George said. “My hope is it will provide a sensible plan that encourage controlled growth that matches our resources and infrastructure, so that everyone loves living, working and visiting Pender County.”

Republican candidate Brent Springer said he believes the ordinance and government’s role on regulating land use disagreements needs to be revisited. He raised an example of a recent board issue related to a resident’s right to have a barn on their private property without having a place of residency on the tract of land, which he thought should have been the jurisdiction of the homeowner’s association.

“I do anticipate that it will be imperative to hear, retain, understand, and ultimately try to adhere to the request of the citizens,” he told PCD. “I was astounded that it is going to take 14-20 months as you say to get a readily available comprehensive land use plan. The time has now come that we must identify long term growth solutions that are conducive to classroom learning.”

Republican candidate Joe Cina he believes the update is overdue.

“It’s is a shame that it has taken until now, during an election, to even become a topic,” Cina told PCD. “This should have been done years ago and reviewed yearly as our communities needs continue to change.”  

The Cape Fear Council of Governments — an organization designed to help plan and administer federal, state and local policies in the Cape Fear region —  will provide assistance to Clarion to ensure the final plan meets the Carolina Coastal Area Management Act’s environmental regulations. 

Pender County spokesperson Brandi Cobb previously told Port City Daily the recent federal and state changes to the definition of wetlands resulted in a lack of information about potential implications on development; the scope of work for Clarion’s contract notes analysis and recommended policy regarding wetland preservation as a key concern for the next land use plan. 

Clarion suggested creating a “fact book” with chapters addressing the availability and 20-year trajectory of the county’s healthcare, housing and transportation services.

In a chapter devoted to market dynamics and trends, the impact of tourism on the county’s economy and seasonal population increases will also be analyzed and subject to new policy recommendations. Pender’s tourism industry has grown rapidly in recent years, with a $189.7 million impact on the economy in 2022.

The fact book will be used to guide the creation of the comprehensive plan, which is expected to be presented before the planning board and commissioners within the next two years.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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