9/12/19: MEETING ANALYSIS: TOWN COUNCIL STUCK, CONFUSED ABOUT NONCONFORMING LOTS REGULATION; MAYOR SHOWS BIAS IN PROMOTING MONTHS-LONG DELAY IN SEARCH FOR NEW TOWN MANAGER; Long-Range Planning Meeting Sept. 17 Is Loaded: At Top Is Beach Nourishment

treestump
Much of the roadside “debris” in town is impressive in size.

The confusion was evident Tuesday evening in their questions, in their facial expressions, and in the unanimous decision they made to instruct the Town Planning Board to continue to look for “further exceptions” to the nonconforming lots ordinance they enacted Sept. 5, 2018: The Southern Shores Town Council still does not have a grasp on how the Town Code currently deals with nonconforming lots and whether its regulation reflects good land-use planning, in light of how the town was platted and lots were sold.

The intent of the Town’s nonconforming lots ordinance, which is Code sec. 36-132 (“Regulation of Structures and Uses Nonconforming”), is to restrict the number of lots being developed that do not conform to the Town’s minimum dimensional requirements. In the RS-1 single family residential district, where most of us live, Town Code sec. 36-202(d) specifies that the minimum required lot area is 20,000 square feet, and the minimum required lot width is 100 feet.

Unfortunately, while these dimensions readily apply to oceanfront lots and other lots on Ocean Boulevard, they do not comport with standard-size lots in sections of the town that were platted and developed later.

There has long been regulation in Southern Shores of nonconforming lots. Last September the Town Council did not enact a new ordinance; it enacted a replacement ordinance. As Town Attorney Ben Gallop explained Tuesday (yet again), the previous sec. 36-132 contained “loopholes.” The language of the ordinance, he said, “was loose.”

While The Beacon has disagreed with Mr. Gallop’s interpretation of the previous ordinance, we agree that it was not clearly and unambiguously written.

When the Town Council unanimously voted Tuesday to approve ZTA 18-09PB01, which carves out exceptions to the replacement Town Code sec. 36-132, it did so to alleviate “hardships” experienced by property owners, as Councilman Fred Newberry noted. The Beacon supported relief for all such owners who do not own oceanfront property.

Each of the exceptions enumerated in ZTA 18-09PB01 could be, and has been, identified in public meetings by the last name of the property owner who was disadvantaged by replacement Town Code sec. 36-132, which tightened up the preexisting 36-132: Hurd, Ausband, Love, Roughton. Those of us who have followed the Planning Board’s deliberations know which of the measure’s provisions is “the Hurd exception” or “the Love exception.”

Planning Board Chairperson Elizabeth Morey told the Town Council Tuesday that her Board’s intent with ZTA 18-09PB01 was to create a “very targeted list of exceptions.” The Planning Board deliberately identified “which lots we wanted to give exceptions to,” she said, based on “conditions that we were aware of.”

Ms. Morey indicated that the Planning Board would be willing to consider drafting more zoning text amendments to create more exceptions to sec. 36-132.

The Beacon believes that taking such an approach would be a major mistake.

You may view and hear the Town Council’s September 10 meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5u2CdmEQR4

GOING FORWARD

The Beacon asks: Why is the Town Council stuck on this issue and metaphorically running in place? Why are members continuing to consider the issue of regulating nonconforming lots as a matter of carving out exceptions to the rule, rather than examining the equities of the rule? Where is the wholistic view? The big-picture approach?

Perhaps it is the legal language of Town Code section 36-132 and the legal language of proposed amendments to the section that confound Mayor Tom Bennett and the four Town Council members. Or perhaps it is a lack of preparation, follow-through, and comprehension on the part of individual members of the Council.

Certainly the Town Council has not “owned” the issue by showing initiative and leadership. That one member, Councilman Christopher Nason, who voted against the replacement nonconforming lots ordinance enacted last September, has had a business and personal relationship with a well-known property owner who would like to develop a nonconforming 50-foot-wide oceanfront lot certainly has not furthered thoughtful discussion among them. Nor has that property owner’s decision to have his attorney, Starkey Sharp, speak in his behalf at Planning Board and Town Council meetings.

On Tuesday night, Council members not only went over old ground, they asked Interim Town Manager/Planning Director Wes Haskett to do an assessment of nonconforming lots in Southern Shores—a task that he has already done, and the results of which he has already submitted and posted on the Town website.

After a months-long effort, undertaken pursuant to a Feb. 5 request by the Town Council. Mr. Haskett presented the results of a survey he compiled with the help of Town Permit Officer Dabni Shelton and the Dare County Register of Deeds office at a special April 23 meeting of the Planning Board. He reported its completion to the Town Council at its May 7 meeting. (These dates are contained in a staff report prepared by Mr. Haskett, which was included in the Council’s Sept. 10 meeting packet.) This information is readily available online:

Lots that are less than 20,000 sq. ft. in area: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/southern-shores-planning-board-meet-april-15-2019/copy-of-4-23-19-less-than-20000-nonconforming-lots-list/

Map of lots that are less than 20,000 sq. ft. in area: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/southern-shores-planning-board-meet-april-15-2019/4-23-19-nonconforming-less-than-20000-map/

“Multiple nonconforming lots” which are combinations of lots that, individually, do not meet the 100-foot width requirement: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/southern-shores-planning-board-meet-april-15-2019/copy-of-4-23-19-multiple-nonconforming-lots-list/

Map of the multiple nonconforming lots: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/southern-shores-planning-board-meet-april-15-2019/4-23-19-multiple-nonconforming-lots-map/

The Beacon is not going to hazard a guess as to how many Town Council members have accessed and studied these data.

We first reported the survey results on 4/24/19 and have referenced them subsequently in other postings. We also have repeatedly credited local builder and Southern Shores native Matt Neal, who is running for Town Council, with presenting maps and lot information to the Planning Board and the Town Council, starting many months ago, that should have informed both boards about where the nonconforming lots are and why.

The fact is, most current nonconforming lots were platted that way. Lot-size standards differed from area to area, as Southern Shores was developed. There are apples and oranges throughout town.

Mr. Haskett reported in April that there are 3,037 total lots in Southern Shores, 846 of which—or about 28 percent—are less than 20,000 square feet in area. He also reported that, of the 3,037 lots, 241 of them, or about 8 percent, are 50-foot-wide lots that are part of parcels consisting of two or more lots. Of these 241 lots, 28 are vacant: They represent less than 1 percent of the total number of lots in Southern Shores

Perhaps it “all boils down to,” as Councilman Gary McDonald said during the Town Council’s discussion Tuesday, a lack of planning by the Council itself.

“This Board needs a plan to go forward with,” Mr. McDonald said, after noting that it is up to the Council to determine “what the town wants.”

The Planning Board and the Town Council have been kicking around the problem of developing nonconforming lots in town for at least 17 months. It arose because property owners on and near the oceanfront were demolishing structures that were built on 100-foot-wide parcels and selling off the land as two 50-foot-wide lots, each of which could be developed, thus doubling the number of houses. The replacement Code sec. 36-132 stopped this trend, but its regulatory mechanism extended too far.

Councilmen Nason and McDonald delved Tuesday into changing what Mr. McDonald called “zoning districts” in order to reflect the realities of how Southern Shores was platted and developed. The Beacon believes this is thinking oriented in the right direction. If the minimum dimensional requirements imposed by the Town Code according to residential district do not reflect the realities of Southern Shores, then changes must occur.

It is unfortunate that the Town Council seems incapable of giving even basic informed direction to the Town Planning Board about such changes. In concluding the Council’s discussion on nonconforming lots, Mayor Bennett spoke of “pass[ing] this venture to the Planning Board” for “further ordinance consideration.”

DELAY OF TOWN MANAGER HIRING

Mayor Bennett also chose to delay any action in the search process for a new town manager until the new Town Council is seated in December.

By the time the first step in the selection process is initiated, it is likely to be January, nearly six months after former Town Manager Peter Rascoe announced his retirement.

Councilmen Gary McDonald and Fred Newberry protested this delay, but to no avail. A motion made by the Mayor to have the new Town Council, which will be seated in December, handle all aspects of the town-manager hiring, even the selection of the search firm that the Town will use, was seconded by Mr. Conners and supported by him and Mr. Nason in a 3-2 vote.

Per the Town Council’s request last month, Interim Town Manager/Planning Director Wes Haskett compiled a list of four search firms (aka recruiters) for the Town Council to consider. They are N-Focus of Kannapolis; Developmental Associates, LLC, of Chapel Hill; The Mercer Group, Inc., of Raleigh; and Hartwell Wright of Raleigh. Mr. Haskett did not explain how he happened to choose these four, nor did any Council members inquire.

Mr. Newberry questioned the Mayor’s motion—pointing out all of the steps that must be taken in the hiring process, from selecting the search firm, to advertising the position, to reviewing applicants, interviewing attractive applicants, etc. He then asked him why he would deliberately delay the process, to which Mr. Bennett replied: “What’s the harm?”

Mr Bennett followed up with a statement that The Beacon considers very biased: “We have a manager in place, and he’s doing a fine job.”

“That’s not the issue,” Mr. Newberry replied, making the case for opening up the search for the benefit of the public, who might like more choices in, and a voice in choosing, who runs the everyday operations of the Town.

“We owe it to the public,” Mr. Newberry said, to “give them that opportunity.”

Councilman Nason, who clearly was the swing vote in this decision, expressed concern over the “qualities” that he might seek in a new town manager versus the qualities that the new Town Council might seek.

“I don’t want to saddle the new Council with my opinions,” he said.

The Beacon doubts that people would disagree much, if any, over the necessary qualifications for a good town manager. That wheel has already been invented. We also do not see how interviewing the four firms; selecting one from among them; and having that firm advertise the position would do anything but assist the new Town Council in the search process. The hiring decision rightfully belongs to the new Council.

After the vote was taken, Councilman McDonald persisted in his protest of it, saying to the Mayor: “I personally feel that this is just delaying the process. You were not in favor of going forward with this process at the last meeting. This is just a delay tactic, Tom.”

Annoyed, Mr. Bennett terminated all further discussion, citing the vote, and saying, “That’s pretty much the end of it.”

That we have a mayor who thinks he can anoint the next town manager, according to his own personal preference (Wes is “doing a fine job”), is appalling to The Beacon. He is only doing a disservice to Mr. Haskett, who deserves to earn the job competitively.

We also wonder how Mr. Haskett can adequately serve as both town manager and planning director for six months. Doesn’t the Town need both? Mayor Bennett said nothing about the workload that Mr. Haskett will be shouldering until a new town manager is hired or, if he is promoted, until a new planning director is hired.

The Town paid Mr. Rascoe $206,913 in total salary and benefits for FY 2018-19 and had budgeted $214,902 for his salary and benefits in FY 2019-20. Mr. Rascoe was the highest paid town manager on the Outer Banks. (The Beacon has salary data from the other beach towns and still intends to write a story.)

As deputy town manager/planning director, Mr. Haskett earned $108,260 in total salary and benefits in FY 2018-19 and is slated to earn $112,613 in FY 2019-20. He is receiving only $1,000 more per month ($250/week) for taking over Mr. Rascoe’s job.

It would seem that the Mayor’s delay decision may prove the expendability of a staff position. Certainly, it saves taxpayers money.

IN OTHER NEWS FROM TUESDAY’S MEETING: 

DEBRIS REMOVAL: In his Town Manager’s report, Mr. Haskett said that he hopes to be able to announce the Town’s debris removal schedule and protocols by the end of the week. There will be only one debris pickup, he said, “one pass through the town,” so you must have your debris in the right-of-way and ready for pickup when your time arrives. The Town will send a special announcement by email to its newsletter subscribers and post a notice on its Facebook page when the schedule is known.

If the storm is declared to be ineligible for FEMA assistance, Mr. Haskett said, there may be restrictions on pickups from private streets in town.

SOUTH DOGWOOD TRAIL SIDEWALK CONTRACT BID OPENING DELAYED; ADA COMPLIANCE TO BE DETERMINED: Mr. Haskett also reported that the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk bid opening that was scheduled for Sept. 5 has been postponed to Oct. 3 at 10 a.m., in order to give the Town time to ensure that the sidewalk design complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to Mr. Haskett, the Town will “have a small number of sections of the path [design] evaluated” for ADA compliance prior to the opening of the bids. If redesign of the walkway is necessary, there may be cost added to the contract.

Homeowner Al Ewerling of South Dogwood Trail has adamantly insisted at Council meetings that the Town Engineer’s sidewalk design comply with the ADA.

In public comments Tuesday, Mr. Ewerling expressed appreciation for the Town’s decision to evaluate the sidewalk design with the ADA in mind, but he also advised that “The Town seems to be doing [things] backwards,” by building a sidewalk before it addresses the Town’s traffic problems, especially on South Dogwood Trail.

CUT-THROUGH TRAFFIC: As for the traffic, The Beacon gave an update on the petition to dead-end Hickory Trail at Hillcrest Drive and on the Town Council-sanctioned traffic committee yesterday. We will further mention only that Lauren Van Riper, of Hillcrest Drive, made quite an impression when she told the Town Council that she has twice been hit by moving cars when she has retrieved her mail at the road! Ms. Van Ripen also described being stuck in her home during summer weekends, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., because of traffic backups on Hillcrest Drive, and having drivers honk at her when she tries to pull out of her driveway.

Norman St. Laurent of Hickory Trail repeated his urgent request for police enforcement of the 25-mile-an-hour speed limit on his street.

UPDATE FROM LIBRARY COMMITTEE: Chairperson Michael Fletcher reported that the Exploratory Committee for a Potential Branch Library in Southern Shores has eight members on it, including non-voting members. The committee has done a “property suitability” study of “four or five” potential library sites, he said, and one of them, which he would not identify, is “very promising.”

Mr. Fletcher also said the committee would be generating a survey to distribute to surrounding communities to determine “their potential use of the library.” He concluded by saying that he was “optimistic” that the committee’s work would be “done in the next few months.”

“We’re making pretty good progress,” he said.

COMING UP NEXT:

The Planning Board meets Monday, Sept. 16, at 5:30 p.m. for its regular monthly meeting in the Pitts Center.

BEACH NOURISHMENT: The Town Council will meet for a special long-range planning session Sept. 17 at 5:30 p.m., also in the Pitts Center. The agenda for this special meeting is loaded. At the top of it are a presentation by the coastal engineering consultant of the latest beach survey results and the Council’s consideration of beach nourishment. Additional topics, which merit their own exclusive forums, include: seasonal cut-through traffic, stormwater runoff, rehabilitation/replacement of town buildings, an update of the Town’s land-use plan, and more.

See the agenda at: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/SEPTEMBER-17-2019-1-SPECIAL-MEETING.pdf.

The Beacon will preview the special planning meeting on Monday.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 9/12/19

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