Residents think planning boards too connected to developers

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Some people say the rapidly growing population in New Hanover County is a good problem to have. But if you've been stuck in standstill traffic trying to get around Wilmington, or if your child's school is hundreds of students over capacity, you might question the wisdom of continuing to allow so much development here.

And then there are the residents of Echo Farms, who are facing the real possibility of having the golf course that serves as the centerpiece of their community redeveloped into dense residential housing.

Conflict of Interest?

Frustration with what they consider to be out-of-control development prompted one Echo Farms resident to email us asking us to take a closer look at who is serving on the Wilmington Planning Commission.

That commission recently approved plans to redevelop the Echo Farms Golf Course, and the viewer suggested the planning commission members are a little too cozy with the development industry.

The planning commission volunteers vet requests from developers and then advise city council if the request is in keeping with the city's land use plans. New Hanover County has a similar committee called the New Hanover County Planning Board.

These planning boards and commissions are made up exclusively of people connected to the development industry. The Wilmington Planning Commission has two real estate agents, two construction consultants, two architects and a manager for an engineering and land surveying company.

The New Hanover County Planning Board is similarly comprised of industry insiders, and County Commission Chair Woody White said that is by design.

"It's not that anybody couldn't learn how to do that, but a lot of these people go to school, get degrees in administration and land management and ordinance interpretation, so those are the folks that primarily you want on there dealing with the very complicated technicalities of land use," White said of why they typically choose people to serve on the planning board who are connected to the development industry.

While there are some exceptions, our city council and the county commissioners routinely follow the recommendations of their planning boards, especially when the advice aligns with the recommendation of the city or county's paid planning staff.

Even though they are chosen for their technical expertise, some Echo Farms residents still question the planning board members' objectivity, arguing their industry benefits if the projects these boards are considering get approved.

The woman who approached us with those specific concerns did not respond to our request for an interview, but insisted that there is a need for at-large members on these boards who consider the needs of others who live in the community that may be negatively impacted by more development.

John Hirchak, a member of Save Echo Farms board, said he appreciated the time of everyone who stepped up to serve on a board, but also voiced the need for more diversity among the decision makers.

"It's a huge concern. It cannot just be the developers and real estate agents and those type of interests. It does need to be other community members… taking a look at the larger picture," Hirchak said. "The problems with these committees and these commissions is they look at a small piece of property, and they don't consider the larger implications, roadways, schools."

A WECT analysis of planning board applicants for the city and the county over the last five years found that industry outsiders are trying to serve on these boards, but are not being picked.

A number of environmentalists have sought appointment as well as retired military members, a restaurant manager and an investment advisor. Several of them cited the need for balancing economic development with protecting the environment and quality of life for residents on their applications.

Council and commissioners consistently opt for other applicants with real estate and development experience.

Looking at the big picture

Commissioner White dismissed as "offensive" concerns that planning commissioners approve projects for the purpose of benefiting their own industry, but recognized the frustration that may have prompted that accusation, and the need for a big picture approach.

He said the county is in the final stages of adopting a Uniform Development Ordinance. It's the first time since the 1970s that New Hanover County has revisited land use guidelines in a comprehensive manner. Instead, they've been reviewing requests for rezoning and development one parcel at a time for the last 40 years.

Some parts of the county that were envisioned as industrial decades ago are now largely residential, so the county is deciding if the current zoning designations of vacant property are appropriate, or if rezoning is necessary.

"This is actually a good thing because it leads to predictability. It leads to expectations of what you can and can't do," White said of developing the UDO. "Right now there's a lot of uncertainty."

Similarly, the City of Wilmington has a comprehensive plan adopted last year with citizen input that officials reference when making decisions about development requests.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo says the Echo Farms situation is a unique problem between private property owners that took many people by surprise.

"I'd have never thought Echo Farms was going to be redeveloped," Saffo said of the dilemma. "I thought the homeowners owned the golf course, but they obviously did not. I think it was a shock to all of us."

Complicating matters for Echo Farms residents, the golf course is already zoned for residential development. The company that owns the course is simply seeking to develop it as current zoning allows, because operating it as a golf course has become unprofitable.

What’s popular vs. what’s legal

While elected officials often hear loud and clear from residents opposed to a particular development, they also must consider the developer's legal right to use their property the way it's zoned.

"They have an expectation of using it in a certain way. You go and change that and you are taking something from that property owner," White said of the legal implications of rezoning someone's land against their wishes. He said judges have overturned the zoning decisions local elected bodies have made before when they felt it infringed on a land owner's property rights.

Mayor Saffo agrees that appeasing an angry crowd at the expense of a property owner's legal rights can create a liability.

"Whatever action we take as a board could potentially involve the entire city, and every citizen in the city if we're sued, and we have to take that into consideration," Saffo said.

In the same way, Saffo says they have to consider the needs of all their constituents when deciding complicated issues like Echo Farms.

While the city is entertaining the possibility of purchasing that community's golf course to be used as a park instead, that purchase would come at a considerable cost to all taxpayers, including those who don't live anywhere near Echo Farms.

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