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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Judge’s order prompts county to issue permit for Porters Neck development

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They didn’t really have a choice, but on Monday the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners formally ratified a special use permit for a controversial Porters Neck mixed-use development the board had previously rejected.

Superior Court Judge Douglas Parsons of Sampson County found the commissioners erred when they rejected a special use permit to ACI Pine Ridge LLC, which plans to build a mixed-use development near the Lowe’s Home Improvement store at Porters Neck Road and Market Street.

Some residents of Porters Neck worried the 273 multifamily units and related buildings will worsen traffic problems in the area. In denying the permit, some commissioners also noted the project is in conflict with the county’s land-use plan, and there was no guarantee the commercial portion of the mixed-use development would ever be built. The tract is zoned for business uses, so a special use permit is needed to authorize residential development.

But Parsons ruled Feb. 26 the Greensboro-based developer provided sufficient proof the project satisfies the requirement for a special use permit, and evidence offered by opponents was insufficient to justify denying the permit. He ordered the county to issue the permit, which it did last month.

The commissioners’ vote Monday was just a formality, but it prompted broader concerns about local authority over development matters. Commissioner Beth Dawson, the board’s vice chair, said the judge’s ruling calls into question the county’s ability to defend its ordinances and land use plan. She said she is “very concerned” about the ability of local decisions to be appealed and overturned.

Commissioner Woody White agreed.

“This does expose some real deficiencies in the ordinances,” he said.

Several of the commissioners agreed it is time to review the rules with an eye on making sure the board’s decisions will be upheld if challenged in court. To that end, county manager Chris Coudriet suggested scheduling a joint meeting with the planning staff and planning board.

The board of commissioners rejected the permit request on a tie vote resulting from the absence of former Commissioner Brian Berger. Both the planning staff and planning board had recommended approval.

A special use permit is issued after a quasi-judicial hearing requiring sworn testimony and presentation of objective evidence in support or opposition. The public is welcome to comment, but the commissioners may only consider whether the applicant satisfies all of the legal requirements for a permit.

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