County board pushes industrial permit hearing back to planning committee

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With new leadership coming to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, the panel voted on Monday to postpone a scheduled public hearing on county industrial permitting that attracted a standing-room-only crowd. Discussions on Tuesday drew some officials closer to a consensus on the controversial policy and a potential schedule was set.

The crowd that came to the Monday meeting for the scheduled public hearing on the special use permit (SUP) went home after only a few minutes, when the board voted 4-1 to postpone the hearing. Only outgoing board chair Beth Dawson voted to go forward. The commissioners set the public hearing before the county’s planning board on Nov. 3 tabled the revised proposal on the SUP to give the controversial proposal more review. During the Dec. 5 meeting, newly elected commissioner Patricia Kusek will replace Dawson on the board.

The SUP requires that some industries meet certain requirements before being allowed to open facilities in New Hanover County. Critics say the current SUP is too restrictive and discourages industry from locating in the county, while supporters argue it is needed to keep heavy polluting industries from impacting the local environment.

After Monday’s meeting, members of the New Hanover County Planning Board met Tuesday with stakeholders in the process to discuss details. One of the most contentious was a section on external effects, where an applicant would have to disclose how the business could impact the environment.

Business advocates want the applicants to simply state what permits they seek, while environmental advocates argue the business should explain how the operation may impact the environment.

Hal Kitchin, a former chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, was part of the negotiations, and said businesses found the external effects section to be a burden, which is why they often don’t consider New Hanover County locations.

“There’s a general consensus on the planning board that that sort of requirement is too broad and subjective,” Kitchin said. “Listing the permits is the objective for an applicant to disclose these issues to the commissioners. The applicant still has to provide whatever information the commissioners deemed necessary to ensure that the business doesn’t endanger the public health.”  

But N.C. Coastal Federation advocate Mike Giles said there was no evidence that the requirement to disclose external effects was discouraging businesses.

“Most special use permits in North Carolina require applicants to reveal as much information as possible about proposed development, so commissioners can make an informed decision,” Giles said. “To take that out, it will weaken the process and open the door to a lack of information.”

The SUP was first adopted in the wake of Titan America’s efforts to bring a cement plant to the county in 2008, which critics said would worsen the air and water quality of the region. Titan pulled its air permit request earlier this year after a long court challenge, effectively ending efforts to open the plant. In the wake of the controversy, both business and environmental advocates have been negotiating a new SUP to provide more clarity to the process.

“It is time to move forward on the next steps, with commonsense, predictable direction in our ordinances for potential businesses to follow, and to know how to do business in New Hanover County,” said Dawson, who was leading her final meeting as chair. “This passionate discussion has gone on for many years now. I feel confident it is worthwhile to move forward on some of these commonsense directives for business.”

But other commissioners said they wanted to give the planning board time to fully consider the issue. The planning board has tentatively scheduled another work session in December and a public hearing in January 2017, paving the way for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners to consider it in February 2017.

“I want to make sure we get this one right,” newly re-elected county commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. said. “I have full confidence that the planning board, working with the planning staff, is going to bring back something that is good for our community.”

Some environmental advocates said the board should have moved forward with the hearing.

“They could have held the hearing and given all of these people their day,” said Tracy Skrabal, a coastal scientist for the N.C. Coastal Federation.

Jordyn Zimmerman brought her 6-year-old daughter, Mycah, to the hearing. She said it was their first public meeting, and they felt compelled to attend after participating in meetings of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

“It’s amazing to see this turnout,” Zimmerman said, adding that the result of last Tuesday’s national election motivated her to become more involved. “It can’t just be Facebook posts. It’s time to go to meetings, to talk to people about these issues and show the power of the local community.”

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