7/17/19: EDITORIAL: ‘POLITICS AS USUAL’ ONLY HURTS THE TOWN; COUNCIL’S FOCUS SHOULD BE ON LISTENING TO DIVERSE OPINIONS AND BUILDING CONSENSUS, WHICH THE PLANNING BOARD INDICATED TUESDAY IT WILL DO ON SPECIAL EVENTS, NONCONFORMING LOTS

SDogwood

As The Beacon previously reported, the Town Council voted 3-2 at its July 9 meeting to proceed with the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk design plans, as preliminarily drafted, and to put the construction contract out for bids. By the same margin, and with the same people casting “aye” and “nay” votes, the Council decided against sending a draft ordinance on special-event regulation to the Planning Board for further review.

Said Councilman Jim Conners, who voted last month with a unanimous Town Council to send a 2015 proposed (and rejected) Town Code amendment on special events to the Planning Board for its review and recommendation: “I think this whole thing needs to die.”

Confronted by heated public opposition—including hyperbolic commentary from non-residents who work in the tourism industry—Mr. Conners backed away from his previous position, as well as from the Town Planning Board, which had discussed special-event regulation at its June meeting, as directed, and prepared suggestions.

The manner in which the vote on the Dogwood Trail sidewalk transpired was an example, The Beacon believes, of how not to run an effective and inclusive municipal government, by which we mean a government that builds trust in ALL of its constituents—not just like-minded people associated with a ruling simple majority—that their opinions matter and will be considered.

We strongly believe that the means to an end are critical to preserving trust, and to ensuring integrity in, the government process. The means should be immune from political influence and personal bias.

Ironically, the Council’s vote on special events led to an illustration Tuesday night (July 15) by the Planning Board of how to run an effective and inclusive municipal government, one that builds trust in ALL of its constituents that their opinions matter.

‘SPECIAL EVENTS’ CONSENSUS-BUILDING

The Planning Board stepped in to do the job that the Town Council should have done: The Board intends to listen to homeowners and other stakeholders in the special-events “arena,” for lack of a better term, to discuss their viewpoints and to build consensus. The backdrop to the discussion will be the town’s well-being, not the special-interest politics that we witnessed July 9.

Councilmen Gary McDonald and Fred Newberry, the two dissenters in the votes highlighted here, wanted further discussion about special events to be held before the Planning Board, but the well-established simple majority of Mr. Conners, Mayor Tom Bennett, and Councilman Christopher Nason rejected their attempt at consensus-building.

Although Planning Board Chairperson Elizabeth Morey alluded in a brief report she gave the Council last week to the suggestions on special events that she, member Andy Ward, and Planning Director Wes Haskett came up with in consultation, she did not read them.

The Beacon would have liked to have seen a stronger presentation by Ms. Morey, who is to be congratulated for holding an open public discussion on the subject at the June Planning Board meeting.

If you have an interest in the possible regulation in Southern Shores of “special events,” such as weddings, corporate retreats, and other gatherings of a large number of people in rental properties, not personal residences, The Beacon advises you to attend the Planning Board’s Aug. 19 meeting.

Mr. Ward, who was elected vice chairperson of the FY 2019-20 Board Tuesday night, requested that special events be put on the Board’s August agenda and urged people to “get the word out and let’s talk about it some more.”

The Planning Board seeks a “Town Hall discussion” on special events, the goal being, Mr. Ward said, to determine a “balance” among interested stakeholders.

“We need to have some type of policy moving forward,” he noted.

Chairperson Morey increasingly has encouraged Town Hall-type discussions at Planning Board meetings that do not limit the speaking time of members from the community.

At the conclusion of such a discussion Tuesday about the town’s fill and building height requirements, Ms. Morey invited two local builders who spoke to submit draft language to amend the Town Code. She opened up the process of analyzing and possibly revising the Code, specifically, sections 36-171 (lot disturbance and stormwater management) and 36-202 (which addresses the RS-1 single-family residential district) to others.

The Board indicated that its consideration of fill and height requirements may take some time; the matter is back on its agenda in August. The Beacon is confident that the Board will entertain all viewpoints and not act simply to appease builders.

NONCONFORMING LOTS

In contrast to the Planning Board’s actions, last week’s Town Council meeting opened with a motion by Councilman Nason to table until December ZTA 18-09PB01, the latest zoning text amendment on nonconforming lots drafted and approved by the Planning Board. The motion, which was unanimously approved for different reasons among the five Council members, killed a public hearing that people had made a point of attending. (I spent a chunk of my day preparing for it.)

This was a missed opportunity for the Council, and for Planning Board members in the audience, to hear what constituents and other interested parties have to say about the Board’s effort, as well as for the public to hear, at some length, what the Council thinks.

The Town Council tasked the Planning Board nearly a year ago with determining which properties in town equitably merit exceptions to the nonconforming lots ordinance that the Council enacted last September to replace the previous inartfully worded nonconforming lots ordinance. (Town Code sec. 36-132)

It has turned out that many more people own nonconforming lots than was previously thought by decision-makers.

The Beacon has written extensively about this issue, which arose because of a trend by property owners on the oceanfront to demolish dwellings on 100-foot-wide parcels and sell the vacant land as two 50-foot-wide building lots, thus increasing the density of development.

A “nonconforming” lot is one that does not meet the dimensional requirements set forth in the Town Code for the residential district in which it is located. Lots in the RS-1 single-family residential district, where the overwhelming majority of us live, are required to be 100 feet in width and 20,000 square feet in area.

Mr. Nason contended that “a good deal more work needs to be done” on ZTA 18-09PB01, but his motion gave no direction or deadline to the Planning Board and “town staff,” which he said have to come up with “a more comprehensive rework.”

Councilman Conners tried at the Council’s March 5 meeting already to approve ZTA 18-09PB, a far less comprehensive version of the same amendment. His attempt failed 2-2, with Mayor Bennett voting with Mr. Conners, and Councilmen Newberry and McDonald opposing it. Mr. Nason did not vote because he had a financial interest in the outcome of the vote and was recused. (See https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/minutes-agendas-newsletters/Minutes_2019-03-05.pdf.)

Mr. Nason avoided having to be recused last week by postponing a vote on the latest ZTA until December, when he will be out of office. His term expires this year, and he is not running for reelection.  The Beacon thinks it’s likely that ZTA 18-09PB01 would have failed, 2-2. Mr. Newberry said at the meeting that it’s a “bad proposal” that unfairly discriminates among property owners. Mr. McDonald expressed concern for property owners of nonconforming lots who are not protected by ZTA 18-09PB01.

The politics are thick, and they not only hurt property owners who have been waiting since last September to get their exceptions, but they hurt property owners who have not been considered for exceptions. It also hurts the town. The uncertainty and lack of leadership on the issue have given rise to misinformation and doubt.

Southern Shores builder and homeowner Matt Neal, who is president of the Outer Banks Home Builders Assn., reported at the Planning Board meeting that a class-action lawsuit against the town is being contemplated.

Rather than tabling discussion, The Beacon believes the Town Council should have encouraged it.

Fortunately for the town, the Planning Board is prepared to take another look at nonconforming-lot scenarios from a different angle, starting from scratch, if necessary. Both Mr. Ward and member David Neal commented Tuesday that they are willing to work on the issue in a committee or “think-tank” (Mr. Neal’s term) type group.

The Beacon expects to see nonconforming lots on the Board’s August agenda, as well.

SOUTH DOGWOOD TRAIL SIDEWALK

Returning to the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk, we will quote for you the dialogue that occurred among Council members after the conclusion of the public hearing last week on the “proposed design” for the “walking trail” along South Dogwood Trail. After Town Attorney Ben Gallop closed the hearing, he turned the proceedings over to the Mayor:

MAYOR BENNETT: Thank you, Ben. Council, what’s your pleasure? Any further discussion?

COUNCILMAN CONNERS (reading from a prepared script): I’d like to move that the Council authorize advertising and receive formal bids based on the current design plans before us for the construction of a five-foot-wide concrete walking trail along the east side of South Dogwood Trail from the western end of the current East Dogwood Trail walking trail to the northern end of the current Town sidewalk at the Southern Shores cemetery.

Prior to bid advertising, the Town Manager, in his sole discretion, may authorize the Town Engineer to make final adjustments in the walking trail’s design alignment to balance the primary goal of providing for public safety with the additional goals of tree preservation and incorporating feedback from the South Dogwood Trail property owners.

COUNCILMAN NASON (quickly): I’ll second that.

MAYOR BENNETT: Thank you, Chris. Any further discussion, Council?

The Beacon’s question is: Does it matter?

When the mayor of a town asks the governing body if it would like to discuss an important $1 million project that will affect everyone who lives in that town, after having heard suggestions from members of the public about its design, and the response is the reading of a prepared text by one commissioner and a quick prepared “second” by another, what’s the point? Certainly not discussion. The discussion is moot. The hearing is perfunctory.

The Beacon finds a response like this to a public hearing insulting. It clearly did not matter to Mr. Conners what anyone had to say. In fact, his motion gave Town Manager Peter Rascoe, who is not an elected official, sole discretion, carte blanche, full unchecked authority and total freedom to “balance”—a word that is subject to many applied interpretations—broadly stated so-called “goals” that are little more than aspirations.

The approved motion reflects no commitment by the Town Council to any policy or practice. The Beacon considers it an abdication by the Council of its duty, responsibility, and accountability to the public. We didn’t elect Mr. Rascoe. We didn’t even hire him.

Nowhere in the N.C. statute enumerating the powers and duties of town managers does The Beacon read the words, “sole discretion.” In fact N.C. General Statutes sec. 160A-148, upon which Town Code sec. 2-22 is based, contemplates that a town council will direct and control a town manager. The Council may authorize Mr. Rascoe to perform specific duties, but the motion passed by the simple majority does not spell out any duties.

At the July 9 meeting, Mr. Rascoe said the town staff had met one-on-one with 20 property owners on South Dogwood Trail, but he did not divulge what was discussed in these meetings.

The right of way on South Dogwood Trail belongs to the public, not to the private-property owners who reside on it. Living on Hickory Trail and owning property elsewhere in town, I can be as aggrieved by what the town does on South Dogwood Trail as someone who looks up from her breakfast table and sees a backhoe in her front yard.

The Beacon further would like to remind the simple majority that the intent of the RS-1 single-family residential district in which South Dogwood Trail is located is to:

“provide for the low-density development of single-family detached dwellings in an environment which preserves . . . coastal forests . . . and other unique natural features of the coastal area. The district is intended to promote stable, permanent neighborhoods characterized by low vehicular traffic flows . . . and low impact of development on the natural environment . . . .” (Code sec. 36-202(a))

A sidewalk is development. The Town Code and our land-use plan protect the maritime forest.

Mr. Conners staged a similar public-hearing coup at the Nov. 7, 2018 special meeting on large, high-occupancy houses after that hearing ended. (See The Beacon’s meeting coverage, Nov. 7-8, 2019.)

At this meeting, too, he disregarded all of the suggestions and solutions offered by members of the public who spoke and read a prepared motion to enact his solution to the problem: the creation of an ocean overlay district and zoning regulations within it.

This concept had as much traction as a threadbare tire—Ms. Morey later called a draft ordinance implementing it “regulatory overreaching”—but Mr. Conners got his quick “second” from Mr. Nason, and the third vote came from the Mayor. Just like last week.

Last November the same three elected officials rejected Councilman McDonald’s motion to explore simultaneously an “option” that would have a “more immediate” impact on the high-occupancy, large-house problem than the plan proposed by Mr. Conners.

Mr. McDonald suggested that the Town Planning Board look into amending the Town zoning ordinances to redefine the living space included in calculating house size as “total enclosed area,” a definition used in the N.C. Coastal Area Management Act, rather than “enclosed living space,” and to put restrictions on septic capacity and parking spaces.

Mr. Conners’s ocean overlay idea died before it reached the Planning Board, which unanimously rejected it when it did.

In May, the Town Council unanimously enacted a 14-person septic-capacity restriction on all dwellings and a 14-percent overnight-occupancy restriction on vacation cottages.

Perhaps the Planning Board will look at parking spaces next.

Councilmen Newberry and McDonald expressed support last week for a South Dogwood Trail sidewalk, but they disagreed with aspects of engineer Joe Anlauf’s proposed design and with paying for the sidewalk with $1 million in undesignated funds set aside to be used principally for emergencies.

The simple majority would not discuss any of the design aspects, which included such items as the width of the sidewalk; the type of concrete used; and the color of the concrete. It rejected without comment a suggestion that two Town Council members walk the street with Mr. Anlauf and review his design plans.

There was no real discussion; no attempt to build consensus.

ROAD-IMPROVEMENT PRIORITIES

In yet another disagreement, Councilman Conners resisted a suggestion by Councilman Newberry to reverse the order of the top two projects on a list of priority targets prepared by the Capital Infrastructure Improvement Planning (CIIP) Committee for FY 2019-20.

The CIIP Committee, which Councilman Conners and Mayor Bennett co-chair, and effectively control, voted to designate the top two projects as follows:

  1. Hillcrest Drive: from the intersection of Hickory Trail to the SSCA tennis courts, a length of 3,700 (+/-) linear feet. During this project, the width at the hilltop once known as Lookout Point would be reduced.
  2. East Dogwood Trail: from N.C. Hwy. 12 east to Ocean Blvd., a length of 670 LF (+/-), including stormwater improvements.

The Town has $662,340 in its FY 2019-20 budget to spend on capital improvements. This amount should cover both projects, so the order is largely academic, except insofar as a starting time on the construction is concerned.

Councilman Newberry made a motion to switch the order, arguing that East Dogwood Trail is in a far worse state of disrepair, and is traveled more often, than Hillcrest Drive.

Mayor Bennett and Mr. Conners voted against the switch, but offered no reason other than that it did not conform with the committee’s recommendations.

Councilman Nason cast the deciding vote in favor of Mr. Newberry’s motion, wisely seeing no justification for opposing his colleague. By a 3-2 vote, East Dogwood Trail earned the top spot on the priority list.

The Beacon may write further in the next week about the Town Council’s July 9 meeting. We thank you for your patience.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 7/17/19

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