My father always said that when you dig yourself a hole, you have to stop digging and figure out how to crawl out.
Last night the Southern Shores Town Council stopped digging in the hole known as the CodeWright Town Code of Ordinances “update” project, but it may not have figured out yet the best way to crawl out.
That is OK. As Dad knew, the most important thing to do, once you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. Your way out may not be immediately apparent without some trial and error.
For those of you who are new to town or otherwise unfamiliar with “CodeWright,” it is a reference to CodeWright Planners, a Durham-based company with which the Town of Southern Shores contracted in September 2015 to prepare an “updated” Town Code of Ordinances.
The Town Code codifies all of the Town’s legal regulations (ordinances) and also contains the Town Charter. It is a vitally important document that governs, among other things, how land is to be used and development is to occur and how we coexist amicably and safely in Southern Shores.
According to the 2015 contract, CodeWright principal Chad Meadows anticipated delivery of the Town Code “update” in 14 months.
See the CodeWright contract at https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/9-8-15-Signed-Town-Code-Update-Contract.pdf.
Last night, after nearly 5 ½ years, the Town Council unanimously voted at its regular monthly meeting (essentially) not to accept delivery of CodeWright’s product, because, frankly, folks, it is a big, bloated, confusing, user-unfriendly, distracting mess.
Of course, Councilman Matt Neal, who made the awkwardly worded motion to abandon CodeWright’s latest version of its Code rewrite, known as the Adoption Draft, did not actually say that. He is too diplomatic, polite, and friendly to be so blunt, but that is what he meant.
Instead, Mr. Neal said he likes the Town Code of Ordinances the way it is now, not the way Mr. Meadows has reinvented it, and he is concerned about what may have been left out of, or included in, the new Code that should or should not be there.
How did Mr. Neal propose in his unanimously approved motion that the Town “crawl out” of the CodeWright hole?
He instructed Town staff to “pull” from the Adoption Draft any “valuable elements” that they believe should be included in the current Town Code.
It will be up to Town Manager Cliff Ogburn and Town Planning Director/Deputy Town Manager Wes Haskett to decide what “to take out of the Adoption Draft and include in the existing code,” as Mr. Haskett stated—to the relief of anyone watching the livestream of the meeting, who may have been confused about Mr. Neal’s meaning.
We were not sure ourselves at first, and we have been in the trenches on the CodeWright fiasco from the beginning.
Considering how much Mr. Haskett and Mr. Ogburn have to do, this may not be the best use of their time. But it is one way to crawl out.
Former Town Manager Peter Rascoe defined and spearheaded the Code “update” project, starting with its introduction at the April, 21, 2015, fiscal year 2015-16 budget meeting, at which we first spoke out.
Mr. Rascoe, who resigned in August 2019, had the full support of Mayor Tom Bennett and Mr. Haskett, who identified CodeWright Planners as the contractor for the project.
We opposed the project when it was introduced because of concern that it shifted legislative authority away from the Town Council and the Town Planning Board to an outside planner and the Town Manager. We also thought it was a waste of money: A Town staff member or a local college student could do the Code “cleanup” that Mr. Rascoe was proposing. The “update” seemed an unnecessary and politically motivated undertaking.
In all of his public statements, including in Town newsletters, Mr. Rascoe described the purpose of the CodeWright project as the elimination of “confusion,” “ambiguity,” and “obsolescence” in the Code’s language and the update of ordinances so that they conformed with the latest federal and state law changes. He always spoke of clarification and consistency, not new substantive changes.
But a few other homeowners, including future Council member Fred Newberry, and I feared that ordinances—in particular, those related to zoning—would be rewritten, and that the existing Town Council majority would rubberstamp them. (Mr. Newberry served on the Town Council from December 2015 to December 2019.)
The 23 questions on CodeWright’s “Town of Southern Shores Code Update Project Citizen Survey,” conducted in December 2015-January 2016, convinced us that we were on the right track. At the same time, SAGA Realty & Construction was banging at the Town gates, wanting to build a 16-bedroom wedding-destination venue on the Southern Shores oceanfront.
Whether house size in town should be limited was one of the many zoning questions on the survey. See https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/TOSS-Citizen-Survey-Report-2-18-16.pdf. (The Town Council passed the current 6,000-square foot maximum house size ordinance in January 2016 by a 3-2 majority. Mayor Bennett and former Town Councilman Chris Nason opposed it.)
In his May 5, 2015 summary for the proposed fiscal year 2015-16 operating budget—which few members of the public read—Mr. Rascoe unequivocally wrote: “The projected budget recommends an expenditure this year for the updating and rewriting of the entire Town Code, including it’s [sic] zoning provisions. The current Code has retained ambiguous and duplicating provisions that have become irrelevant and difficult to administer and enforce as modern circumstances and conditions have evolved since the Town’s incorporation in 1979. This effort will be conducted by an outside firm, with input from the Town Planner, the Town Attorney, and the public.”
Please read the thorough account we wrote 7/30/20 about the CodeWright project history, so we do not have to repeat ourselves any further here: https://southernshoresbeacon.com/2020/07/30/7-30-20-the-making- of-a-fiasco-codewrights-update-of-the-southern-shores-code-of-ordinances-a-tainted-project-from-its-conception/.
We weighed in on CodeWright’s work (“big, bloated”) in a 1/30/19 critique of its December 2018 Town Code final draft and in a 7/29/20 analysis titled “The Making of a Fiasco: Codewright’s ‘Update’ of the Southern Shores Code of Ordinances: A Tainted Project From its Conception.”
Mr. Meadows’s new Code reformats, reorganizes, pictorializes, and footnotes the current Code without making it easier to use or understand.
Last year we called for the Town Council to cut its losses before Town Attorney Ben Gallop, who “sat” on his legal review of the December 2018 final draft for nearly two years, took it up. Ironically, Mr. Gallop’s delay may have proved beneficial.
During the past five-plus years, the Planning Board, whose recommendations have been enacted into law by the Town Council, has protected property owners on a number of zoning matters (building height and fill requirements, maximum vacation home occupancy, regulation of nonconforming lots, permissible lot coverage, etc.) that might have been settled differently by CodeWright.
Last night Mr. Meadows, who appeared by Zoom to give the Town Council a superficial “overview” of the changes in his Adoption Draft, said he had received 16 zoning text amendments (ZTAs) to integrate into his draft. The number seems excessive to us, but, regardless, with many newly enacted changes already in the current Code, it makes sense to reverse the direction of integration, as the Town Council did, so that the current Code is the primary document and the Adoption Draft augments it.
Mr. Neal (as a private citizen), Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey (as a Planning Board member and chairperson), and Planning Board Chairman Andy Ward (as a private citizen and Planning Board member) all contributed to the good government-public exchange that led to some of these ZTAs, and all referred to this progress last night.
A meeting last Friday among these three and Mr. Haskett led, according to Mr. Neal, to their consensus about how to stop digging the CodeWright hole and crawl out.
“We think our [current] Code is pretty good,” said Ms. Morey.
During her tenure on the Planning Board, Ms. Morey participated in the review of CodeWright’s December 2018 “final” draft, which she told The Beacon in a June 2018 interview was an “unacceptable work product.”
Then chaired by Sam Williams, the Planning Board spent more than a year reviewing the revised Code chapters that were under its legal purview.
This delay, like Mr. Gallop’s, was immensely helpful to legislative processes that resulted in both the enactment of beneficial zoning changes and in the defeat of detrimental changes, such as a new method for calculating the 30-percent lot coverage building restriction that former Councilman Nason, an architect, twice sought to pass.
Mr. Ward, who complimented the Town Council last night after its vote for making “a wise decision,” has been struggling with his Board’s review of most of the same Code chapters in the Adoption Draft that the previous Board addressed in its review.
At the Planning Board’s February meeting, during which it critiqued the new definitions section, Mr. Ward understatedly said that the Adoption Draft “is not an easy read.”
He also said, “We don’t want to go looking for trouble if we don’t have to,” clearly recognizing that as the Board got into the Code zoning and subdivision chapters, it could encounter more than a few editing and rewrite woes.
The Planning Board had been scheduled to take up the all-important zoning chapter, Chapter 22, at its March 15 meeting. Now Mr. Ward and the Planning Board are mercifully off the hook.
So is The Beacon.
We look forward to crawling out.
You may access the redline version of CodeWright’s Adoption Draft here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/TOSS-Town-Code-Adoption-Draft-11-24-20-REDLINE.pdf
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/3/21