The three-year terms of four Planning Board members, including those of Chairman Sam Williams and full member David Neal, and two alternate seats, expire June 30, according to documentation on the Town of Southern Shores website.
One of the two alternate positions has been vacant since April 3, when the Town Council appointed then-alternate Glenn Wyder to the Board to fill an unexpired term. The other position is held by Carlos Gomez.
The Town Code (sec. 24-24(a)) requires the five Planning Board members and two alternates to be appointed by the Town Council, for staggered terms of three years. It further requires the Town Council to fill vacancies occurring for reasons other than term expiration as they occur, for the period of the unexpired term.
The Town Council appointed Mr. Wyder to the Board during its regular April meeting, but failed to fill his vacated alternate seat for the remaining three months of his term. Alternates are non-voting members of the Planning Board who may be called upon to participate and vote on Board business in the absence of a regular member.
The Planning Board advises the Town Council by making recommendations on matters pertaining to the physical development of Southern Shores. It is the front-line watchdog or enforcer of the Town’s land-use plan, which supports “small low-density neighborhoods,” achieved by “single-family homes primarily on large lots.”
The Planning Board does not make law; the Town Council does.
Since April 1, 2014, the Planning Board has served in a dual capacity as the Town’s Board of Adjustment (BOA), whose decisions are subject to court appeal, not to Town Council approval. The BOA is a quasi-judicial body that has legal representation and conducts due-process hearings. (See Code sec. 36-365.)
Among its duties, the BOA has the power to grant variances from dimensional lot requirements, such as the side-setback variances that it granted during the past two years to Southern Shores property owners of 50-foot-wide nonconforming lots. (The Beacon has covered these cases extensively. See last month’s blog posts.)
According to the minutes of the Town Council’s April 1, 2014 meeting, Town Planner Wes Haskett recommended the abolition of the Town’s separate Board of Adjustment and its consolidation with the Planning Board, pursuant to action by the N.C. General Assembly that took effect in October 2013. The separate BOA reportedly had not met since Nov. 20, 2008.
Mayor Tom Bennett and Council members Jodi Hess, David Sanders, Larry Lawhon, and Leo Holland unanimously approved ZTA 14-01, which consolidated the two boards and specified the BOA’s powers, duties, hearing requirements, review standards, etc. This ZTA became Article XII of the Town Code’s Chapter 36, which is about zoning.
According to the Planning Board records online, Mr. Williams has been Board chairman since his July 1, 2009-June 30, 2012 term, reelected by the full Board each year.
The Town Code requires the Planning Board to elect a chairman and vice-chairman, subject to the approval of the Town Council, for one year; it also provides that a chairman may be reelected. (Sec. 24-24(c)) There are no term limits for the chairman or for any Planning Board members. Board member Joe McGraw is listed on the Town website as vice-chairman.
Mr. Neal is finishing his first term, as is Mr. Gomez, and The Beacon believes both should be reappointed. They are thoughtful, open-minded, and conscientious public servants with experience in the building industry.
Mr. Williams has served on the Board since March 25, 2008, the past nine years as chairman. While The Beacon believes Mr. Williams has been an asset to the Planning Board and the Town, and merits reappointment, we also believe that a change in chairmanship is overdue. We hope the other Planning Board members will consider the advantages of bringing a “fresh eye” to the chairmanship.
Municipal planning boards, whose members are usually appointed, not elected, should not be dominated by one individual, whose personal leadership style, land-use and development perspectives and priorities, and even personal and professional relationships within the municipality inevitably affect the Board’s business and its recommendations. Any one of the current Planning Board members, who include Elizabeth Morey in addition to Mssrs. Wyder, McGraw, and Neal, would do an excellent job as chairman and should be given an opportunity.
I have often heard Town officials and staff lament that Town residents do not apply for Planning Board vacancies, and recruitment is difficult. Judging from my online research about municipal planning boards and boards of adjustment nationwide, this lament is common. I do not know how much actual recruitment is done in Southern Shores, but I will do my part here in digging up the application, which can be hard to find on the Town website. Here it is:
Please consider serving your town, your neighbors, and the greater Outer Banks community by applying for a position. Regardless of how the Town Council handles the expiring terms of Mssrs. Williams, Neal, and Gomez, there is a vacant alternate seat, with no obvious candidate. You must submit your completed application to Town Manager Peter Rascoe, who will forward it to the Town Council.
Finally, in light of the flurry of activity before the Board of Adjustment in recent years, The Beacon would like to suggest that the Planning Board take time to review and evaluate its performance as the BOA, as well as Article XII of Town Code Chapter 36, especially the language on the standard of review for granting a variance. Questions about “hardship” to a variance applicant proved somewhat confusing in hearings.
The Beacon also would like to know if the Planning Board, which unanimously recommended ZTA 14-01 to the Town Council, still believes the consolidation of the two boards is in the best interest of Southern Shores. Besides variance requests, the BOA is responsible for hearing appeals of certain administrative decisions.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, June 2, 2018