7/30/20: THE MAKING OF A FIASCO: CODEWRIGHT’S ‘UPDATE’ OF THE SOUTHERN SHORES CODE OF ORDINANCES: A TAINTED PROJECT FROM ITS CONCEPTION.

Codewright
Although the acknowledgments page of CodeWright Planners’ draft of a new Southern Shores Town Code shows a copyright date of 2019, the draft actually dates to December 2018. The consultant’s website is no longer online. [Wordpress did not pick up our photo of the acknowledgments page. It appears on The Beacon’s Facebook page.]
The sore subject of the revision of the Southern Shores Town Code of Ordinances by CodeWright Planners, LLC, of Durham—a budgeted $100,000 project that began in the summer of 2015—came up at the July 21 workshop meeting of the Town Council, courtesy of the always-prepared and well-informed Councilman Matt Neal.

Thank you, Mr. Neal. It’s about time.

Misrepresented to the public by former Town Manager Peter Rascoe at the Town’s fiscal year 2015-16 budget hearings, and subsequently, as an “update” and an organizational cleanup, not the wholesale rewrite it is, CodeWright owner Chad Meadows’s draft of the proposed new Town Code has been in Town Attorney Ben Gallop’s hands since Jan. 31, 2019.

That’s 18 months, more than a year longer than we have been living with the coronavirus pandemic.

It is also 17 months longer than Mr. Meadows envisioned Mr. Gallop spending on his review of the entire bloated 381-page draft, not just the zoning code section to which the Town Attorney alluded last week.

Even more significantly, it has been more than 4 ½ years since more than 900 Southern Shores property owners and/or residents completed—in good faith—a citizens’ survey for the “update.” Survey topics included limiting maximum house size and maximum lot clearance for construction, controlling stormwater runoff, and regulating noise and outdoor lighting.

The survey was rightly criticized for bias in the framing of questions, upon which we will elaborate below. But, regardless, people trusted that their responses were being taken seriously by Mr. Meadows and the Town, and that results would flow. Such accountability and professionalism have proved too much to ask for.

(The Beacon critiqued Mr. Meadows’s draft Town Code on 2/1/19, giving it low marks.)

In response to Mr. Neal’s question at last week’s meeting about the status of the CodeWright project, Mr. Gallop said that he had the draft and could review the zoning provisions and make his recommendations, if he had “two non-stop days of work” to devote to it. He suggested that he might be able to finish the job by next Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, but we are not holding our breath.

In fact, The Beacon does not believe Mr. Gallop should bother. The Town should not spend another penny on this failed project, which produced, according to Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey, who had the misfortune to be on the Planning Board when it spent more than a year critiquing the draft, “an unacceptable work product.”

THE TOWN COUNCIL’S ROLE IN THE FIASCO

The Town Council “dumped the Code rewrite on us,” Ms. Morey told The Beacon in a telephone interview June 29, 2018, “and it doubled or tripled our workload.”

The Planning Board’s review, she continued, “was made more difficult by how the consultant presented the Code. . . . It was extremely difficult to determine what was old and what was new.”

Mr. Gallop referred to this same difficulty in explaining to the Town Council last week his labor-intensive task in reviewing the draft. Just the computer process involved, as he described it, is labyrinthine.

For The Beacon, Ms. Morey’s silence during the Town Council’s discussion about the CodeWright draft—which was driven by Mr. Neal—was conspicuous, and unfortunate. She knows what a mess the draft is and could have supported what Mr. Gallop said. She also could have suggested cutting off all of the heads of this hydra and killing it.

The obvious difficulty that both Ms. Morey and Mr. Gallop identified should have been corrected by the consultant after he submitted his draft assessment in December 2018, but no one in the Town government held Mr. Meadows or the Town staff who communicated with him on the project, accountable.

We would be surprised if any of the Town Council members, other than Ms. Morey and Mr. Neal, have looked at the draft—even though they, not Mr. Meadows, who is a professional planner, not an attorney, make policy and law in Southern Shores.

The Town Code of Ordinances is a compilation and codification of the town’s ordinances, which are enforceable regulations and policies.

When Councilman Jim Conners complained at the July 21 meeting about the “five or six years” that the “albatross” of the CodeWright draft has been “around the neck” of the Town Council, we wondered where he has been the past 18 months.

In office since December 2017, we do not recall Mr. Conners ever inquiring in a public meeting about the status of the project or seeking to follow it up, nor do we recall any other Town Council members doing so.

The Beacon has twice publicly brought up the CodeWright draft, most recently in February at the hearing for the new town manager search. We asked the Town Council to hire a town manager who would follow up on both the Codewright project and the land-use plan revision, which we will address in a future blog posting.

“I’m not blaming you,” Mr. Conners said to Mr. Gallop. “It’s the whole town. This thing has just languished forever.”

But who is “the whole town,” if not the Town Council? Who holds the Town Manager and the Interim Town Manager accountable, if not the Town Council? The Town Attorney reports to the Town Council.

Town Councilman Leo Holland was one of the Town “stakeholders” interviewed by Mr. Meadows for the project early on—along with three Council incumbents who were defeated for reelection two months after they were interviewed. (Property owners cried foul about this, but to no avail.)

Mr. Meadows also interviewed select building and real-estate professionals who would benefit from changes in the Southern Shores zoning code. The Town Manager and the Town Council made no attempt to identify stakeholders with a diversity of opinion.  (More foul-crying.)

Councilman Holland previously served on the Town Council from December 2013 to December 2017 before being re-elected for a new four-year term last November.

His contribution last week was to laugh about Mr. Gallop finishing his responsibility and putting “the monkey somewhere else.” Mr. Holland had more to say about the “monkey” on Mr. Gallop’s back than he did about the Code project.

Unlike Councilman Holland, we don’t find any of this funny.

DELIBERATE MISINFORMATION AND PUBLIC PROTEST

You may well ask how the CodeWright project arrived at this point. If you did not live in Southern Shores five years ago and/or if you did not participate in the citizens’ survey, which was administered on the Internet from Dec. 18, 2015 through Jan. 31, 2016, you may not be familiar with Chad Meadows and CodeWright.

We will bring you up to speed because you are governed locally by the Town Code of Ordinances: It directly affects how you live and how Southern Shores’ future will evolve. You should know something about the Town Code draft that Mr. Meadows authored and sometimes referred to in public as a “development code.”

There is little doubt that the current bloated draft that Mr. Gallop (understandably) has avoided for 18 months goes far beyond the Code cleanup that Town Manager Rascoe described in FY 2015-16 budget hearings: Mr. Meadows did not just “edit for consistency, clarity, and conformity with state and federal law,” as Mr. Rascoe told the public he would. (I attended every hearing.) He rewrote the Code and essentially created a new planning document for Southern Shores.

In June 2015, the Town Council approved an appropriation of $100,000 for what was called the “Town Code Update Project.” Serving then were Mayor Tom Bennett, Mr. Holland, and the three incumbents who were defeated that fall. (It is unclear from line-item fiscal-year budgets on the Town website how much of this $100,000 has been spent.)

Then-Planning Director Wes Haskett, who is now Deputy Town Manager and served as an acting/interim town manager for 10 months—from August 2019 until late June—identified Mr. Meadows as the professional consultant to hire for the job because he had worked with other Dare County towns.

Our recollection is that Mr. Meadows signed a contract with the Town in July or August 2015, but we are unable to confirm that recollection or pinpoint the date because we could not find the contract on the Town website or locate it among our files.

Besides interviewing all members of the 2011-15 Town Council, three of whom were out of office by the end of 2015, Mr. Meadows and his team early on sought “input” from other people he identified as “stakeholders,” including members of the Planning Board, Town Manager Rascoe, and other Town staff.

The so-called “project team” also relied on building-industry professionals as stakeholders, some of whom were not residents of Southern Shores and all of whom stood to gain financially from Town Code revisions, in determining town objectives and goals. Even the team’s technical advisory group had members who stood to gain financially from substantive changes to the Town Code.

Among them were architect Christopher Nason, who was elected to the Town Council in November 2015 and was on record for disparaging the then-current Town Code as both obsolete and disadvantageous to his clients; Gray Berryman, a real-estate agent and former Planning Board member who would later profit personally from confusion in the Town Code’s regulation of nonconforming lots; and Joseph Anlauf, a Kitty Hawk engineer who has enjoyed favor with the Town for years.

Many members of the public saw a development agenda being implemented, not a document being updated, corrected, and rendered more readable.

In its Dec. 22, 2015 holiday newsletter, the Town again insisted that the Codewright project team would be merely “correcting conflicting and ambiguous language in the Code, addressing recent changes in state and federal laws, and reorganiz[ing] some sections to make the Code more user-friendly and easier to understand.”

We were falsely assured that a rewrite was not the Town’s intention or CodeWright’s goal, but once we saw the survey questions, we no longer had any doubts. Mr. Rascoe deliberately misled the public.

In a Jan. 4, 2016 letter to Mayor Bennett and the Town Council, 44 informed resident homeowners asked that our elected officials immediately suspend the consultant’s authority. (I was one of the signees.)

The letter strongly objected to the “organization, conduct, and activities to date of the Town Code Update Project,” and said that the “project’s now-apparent power and purpose far exceed that which Town Manager Peter Rascoe, the mayor, and the previous sitting town council described in response to repeated resident inquiries about the project before, during, and after the 2015-16 budget hearings.”

The truth was that, from the outset, Mr. Meadows and his team had been substantively assessing the Town Code for the purpose of drafting new policies and laws to propose to the Town for codification, the most important and controversial of which concerned zoning restrictions on new construction.

BIASED CITIZENS’ SURVEY, RESULTS RELEASED FEB. 18, 2016

You may retrieve the “Town of Southern Shores Code Update Project Citizen Survey Summary Report” at https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/TOSS-Citizen-Survey-Report-2-18-16.pdf.

According to the summary, Codewright received 932 responses, including six in hard-copy form, but it excluded 137 of them from tabulation because the respondents did not provide their street addresses. That’s an exclusion rate of 15 percent.

For most of the survey’s 23 questions, the 795 respondents answered whether they strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree, or don’t care about basic statements that covered such issues as:

*Regulating “excess light” and “light pollution” from exterior residential fixtures;

*Regulating noise from private homes or vacation rentals;

*Regulating new home size [This was before the Town Council enacted in January 2016, by a 3-2 vote, the 6,000-square-foot maximum house size, in response to SAGA’s plan to build a 16-bedroom wedding-destination venue on the Southern Shores oceanfront; Town Councilmen Fred Newberry, Gary McDonald, and Leo Holland were in the majority; Mayor Bennett and Councilman Nason opposed the size limitation.];

*Reducing the maximum number of occupants in proposed new homes [This matter was dealt with last year in response to SAGA’s two “mini-hotels” at 98 and 134 Ocean Blvd.; after considerable effort by the Town Planning Board, which received much assistance from Mr. Neal, the Town Council enacted an ordinance that limits overnight occupancy in vacation homes to 14 persons.];

*Regulating stormwater runoff between properties and into the road [The Town Council has yet to address this important concern, despite advocacy by the Southern Shores Civic Assn. and serious concerns expressed publicly by homeowners, and its own acknowledgment of the problems.];

*Regulating tree removal as part of house construction;

*Regulating deer “overpopulation”;

*Regulating design standards for commercial development;

*Increasing the allowable residential building height [This matter has been taken up by the Planning Board and settled for the time being by the Town Council.];

*Increasing the maximum allowable lot coverage for single-family homes [This matter also has been settled. Former Town Councilman Nason pushed hard to increase the allowable lot coverage by changing the means of calculating it, but he was defeated. Lot coverage is limited to 30 percent.]

The most obviously biased questions were those that juxtaposed two unrelated issues that were not mutually exclusive and asked the respondent which was the “most important for the Town Code to address?” This exercise in illogical thinking included:

*“Design controls to make sure new businesses ‘fit in’ aesthetically with the rest of Town” versus “Encouraging new businesses to open in the Town.”

*“Making it easier for cars to move around town” versus “Making it safer and easier to bike and walk about town.” (Take note, those of you who live on the cut-through route.)

*“Preserving trees” versus “Keeping our streets safe to drive, bike, and walk on.” (Can’t we easily do both?)

*“Streets with controlled or limited access with added enforcement paid for by increased taxes or fees” [The bias in that statement is as subtle as a kick in the face.] versus “Streets with full access (current conditions).” (Another alert for cut-through route homeowners.)

Needless to say, public opinion ran high on many of these issues and still does. But, as we noted, a number have been resolved since the survey.

In October 2016, Mr. Meadows prepared a “Code Assessment” that purportedly summarized the “input” he received from the old Town Council; the Planning Board; the Town Manager and other Town staff; the technical advisory group; and the citizens’ survey.

The Planning Board began its review of Mr. Meadows’s Code draft, which was organized into several “modules,” in April 2017. It did not surface again for public consideration until December 2018. (See Ms. Morey’s comments, above.)

The Town Planning Board, under former Chairman Sam Williams, spent many tedious months painstakingly scrutinizing the CodeWright draft, before the public had a chance to examine a revised version and Mr. Gallop received it.

The draft that Mr. Meadows presented at the January 2019 public forum, and which Mr. Gallop has, did not look the same as the version that the Planning Board toiled over, but it still suffered in content and presentation.

You may access it here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/TOSS-Town-Code-12-31-18.pdf.

LAST PUBLIC WORD FROM CODEWRIGHT’S MEADOWS

At the Jan. 31, 2019 public forum, Mr. Meadows advised the audience that the Town Attorney would review the draft in February and the Planning Board would consider it in March and April, with an eye toward recommending those chapters that Mr. Meadows said the Board is required by North Carolina law to recommend. They include chapters 22 (zoning); 26 (subdivisions); 28 (flood damage prevention); and parts of chapters two (administration) and four (definitions).

Only after the Planning Board makes its final recommendations would the draft Code—presumed to be an “adoptable” document—reach the Town Council, where, we feel certain that Councilman Neal (and perhaps Mayor Pro Tem Morey) would give it the attention a local lawmaker should give it.

No elected Town official should approve something as vital and important to a town and its future as a code of ordinances without reading it thoroughly first.

Mr. Meadows considers his draft basically complete, according to Mr. Neal, but he is operating in a different reality than the one that the Town Attorney, Town Manager, and Town Council should operate in. He stands by his work; the Town does not have to.

Those property owners who still remained engaged by the Town Code project—more than three years after they participated in the citizens’ survey—keyed in during the January 2019 forum on sections of the proposed new ordinances pertaining to exterior lighting, street parking, and noise.

Read aloud at the meeting, these sections left little doubt that they needed substantial change. They were confusing, not illuminating. They made the language of the current Code seem precise. Indeed, Mr. Meadows himself referred to the language of the proposed new noise ordinance as “loosey-goosey.”

The Beacon objected to CodeWright’s revised page layout, the new graphics and illustrations, and, most of all, to the excess verbiage that obscures the core substantive content. We described the draft as bloated. We did not find it user-friendly, just overblown and annoying.

We are not fans of the font size, the “navigational aids,” the heading text, etc., that Mr. Meadows refers to as “technical changes” and justifies as “modern.” We think they, as well as illustrations and graphics (for example, flow charts, summary tables), just get in the way of important business. They make the Town Code of Ordinances appear busy, distracting, and even frivolous.

We prefer precise and unambiguous words and straightforward language to all of the excess in the CodeWright draft.

We also believe Mr. Meadows should be required to prepare a summary of all of the substantive changes that he integrated into the current Town Code—which already has changed in a number of significant sections, such as those on nonconforming lots, since December 2018.

What key regulations, or sections thereof did Mr. Meadows delete, revise, or add? These should be readily identifiable.

As the draft is now, you have to go painstakingly through it, finding the new number for the chapter you’re interested in and then perusing a lot of verbiage, much of it unnecessary, to find what you’re looking for.

While doing such perusing, we had the same thought that Ms. Morey expressed in June 2018, but no one in a responsible Town position has insisted upon: “The consultant needs to do a better job.”

If this monstrosity goes forward, we encourage all property owners at least to peruse chapter 22, which is the new zoning chapter.

MOVING FORWARD

Mr. Gallop suggested last week that the best way to deal with updating or rewriting sections of the Town Code may be by making “smaller incremental changes,” as is done when the Planning Board considers and the Town Council rejects or approves proposed zoning text amendments, or when the Town Council takes up other proposed Code amendments over which it has sole authority.

We agree with the Town Attorney. This wholesale revision is a nightmare.

Mr. Gallop also suggested adopting parts of Mr. Meadows’s work product, but not all of it. This could be accomplished with the advice and counsel of Town Manager Cliff Ogburn, Mr. Haskett, and Mr. Gallop, who together could identify those parts that are problem-free and ready for adoption.

If the Town Council rejects Mr. Gallop’s suggestions and does not kill the hydra, we trust that its members will invest the necessary time to ensure that they know and approve all significant changes within the proposed draft and communicate them to Southern Shores property owners. They were not elected to be mere rubber-stampers.

It is long past time for public accountability.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 7/30/20

 

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