Committee may fall short of consensus on industrial permit

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More than a year after a tie vote left the fate of rules for heavy industry to locate in New Hanover County in limbo, a task force put together by the North Carolina Coastal Federation is nearing the end of an effort to reach a compromise between business and environmental and health interests.

Partly as a result of public outcry over the proposed Titan Cement plant at Castle Hayne, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners voted in 2011 to require heavy industries to obtain a special-use permit before locating even in a designated industrial zone. There have been efforts to kill or modify the special-use permit since then, culminating in 2014 in a tie vote that left the issue unresolved, at least in the minds of some people.

The main concern echoed by some members of the business community is that the language of the permit ordinance was vague and leaves it unclear which industries would be subject to the special-use process. Some would prefer the permit requirement be deleted altogether.

The Coastal Federation obtained a $25,000 grant to establish a task force and attempt to clarify the requirement, with the goal being a meeting of the minds between supporters and opponents. The grant from the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust allowed the task force to hire a zoning consultant to find out what is working in other communities.

Members of the task force include local government staff, business representatives, environmental advocates and elected officials.

It was clear the ordinance as written “leaves a lot to be desired as to practical application,” said Tracy Skrabal, a coastal scientist with the federation and the person who coordinated the task force’s work.

One idea that has arisen is to lighten the regulatory burden on businesses that don’t fall under the definition of heavy industry. Those businesses would be able to bypass some steps and would be assured a timely review.

“We wanted to create incentives for the 98 percent of businesses we want to bring to the area,” Skrabal said.

For the industries identified as needing to go through the special-use permit process, a definitive timeline would be established so companies know how long to expect the public review to take, Skrabal said.

“We’re going to seek the support of the greater business community,” she said.

But the vote of the task force isn’t likely to be unanimous. Hal Kitchin, a Wilmington lawyer and past chairman of the chamber of commerce board of directors, said he can’t support the version that appears to have the most votes.

“The proposal their consultant came up with would not make the situation better, and in some cases may make it worse,” he said.

“The committee worked very hard to try to strike a balance between environmental concerns and economic concerns,” said Christopher White, spokesman for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and a member of the task force.  “I don’t know that the group has formed the consensus we had hoped for.”

Any perception of disadvantages or lack of clarity can disqualify a community from consideration by corporate site selectors, he said.

But Bruce Holsten, who spent years in the mining industry before moving into financial consulting, disputes the notion that opponents of the special-use permit speak for the entire business community.

“I’m a devout businessperson but I am also a devout environmentalist,” he said, adding he believes the permit requirement being considered is fair and would not unduly burden corporations.

Holsten said he is talking with at least two manufacturers that are considering locating here, and the special-use permit is not among their top concerns. It’s not out of line with covenants that would be required in many other communities, he said.

There’s also nothing wrong with New Hanover County deciding the types of industries that would and would not be a good fit, he said.

“We don’t want an oil refinery on the Cape Fear River,” he said.

To address the concern that businesses may have difficulty under the current ordinance determining whether the permit rule applies to them, the task force is looking to a comprehensive national system for coding all types of industries. Ideally, the ordinance would identify each industry and note whether or not it would be subject to the permit process — but that part would take time and would be delegated to the county planning staff.

Once the task force approves a recommendation, it would have to go through the county planning board and the board of commissioners. Ideally that will happen within the next few weeks, Skrabal said.

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