Coastal group assembles, economic development approaches

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An effort to foster cooperation and pursue economic development policies that can be embraced by all sectors of the local community is underway.

Organized by the N.C. Coastal Federation, a group of community representatives met for the first time Jan. 16 to discuss ways the county can direct economic development, including the current practice of awarding special use permits as well as alternatives to the special use permit.

Coastal advocate Mike Giles said the federation began working to develop a cooperative path following a June 2014 meeting of the New Hanover County Commissioners, where the board split in a 2-2 vote on proposed changes to the special use permit. The special use permit, added to the county zoning ordinance in 2011 as a tool to guide growth and development, has been criticized as vague and uninviting to business.

Using a $25,000 grant from the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, the federation hired planner Bill Duston from Charlotte-based N-Focus Planning and Design to research approaches used by other communities to manage heavy industrial development, listen to concerns and perspectives shared by the team of community representatives, and suggest a model development process to submit for consideration by county management.

The federation assembled a team of a dozen people, including elected officials from county municipalities and business leaders, to come to the table.

“What we looked for when we asked people to join this effort is not folks that were way on one side or the other. We looked for people with an open mind who would be willing to discuss some contentious issues and saw the need for the county to come up with a process that works for everyone,” Giles said.

Wrightsville Beach Alderwoman Lisa Weeks is one of the participating members of the model industrial development team. She said she was motivated to join the conversation by her personal connection to the community.

“First and foremost, I’m a native to the area. I’ve seen changes: some good, some bad. Certainly having deep roots in the area, I want our area to provide and be successful,” Weeks said. A friend of hers from school, she continued, hopes to move home as soon a job becomes available — a process taking longer than expected.

“The job market’s been challenging in the area. From that perspective, having a thriving economy certainly benefits us, but you’ve got to strike a balance,” Weeks said.

The group met in closed session but Giles said the group heard a presentation from Duston about alternate approaches and discussing ideas and thoughts on the special use permit and agreed on the importance of identifying desirable industries with few or no external impacts to recruit with a quick, clear process to gain county approval. For more complicated, potentially polluting industries seeking to locate in the light and heavy industrial zoning districts, the group plans to outline a detailed process that gives county planning staff plenty of time to understand the potential impacts.

“We want to provide that tool for county leaders to make informed decisions about these very few, very large, very intensive manufacturing [businesses]that might want to come here,” Giles said.

The resulting conversation was interesting, informed, and at times lively, Giles said, but respectful.

“It wasn’t mean-spirited. It wasn’t pointed or personal, but we had some good discussion about a few points in the current SUP,” Giles said.

The consultant will consider that discussion and propose possible solutions or compromises for the team to consider during its next meeting, he added.

The team will meet one or two more times to distill ideas and recommendations into a plan to share with county management in March.

email miriah@luminanews.com

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