An open house to kick off the update project of the Southern Shores Land Use Plan will be held Tuesday, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the Pitts Center. The event is being publicized by the Town as an information session with the consultant hired to manage the update, Stewart Inc. of Raleigh, and an opportunity for residents to share their “thoughts and perspectives”—presumably about the update process and the town’s future, which is the focus of the update.
The open house will cap an eventful day during which the consultant will meet in the Pitts Center with the Town Council and Planning Board in a joint session (10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.) and with the Town staff (11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.) and then tour the community (1:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.) to visit sites that “document character images, recent successes, and future challenges and opportunities,” according to the day’s agenda on the Town website.
The meetings with the government bodies and the staff are open to the public.
The N.C. Coastal Area Management Act—familiarly known as CAMA—requires the state’s 20 coastal counties to adopt land use plans (LUP) in accordance with guidelines established by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission (CRC). CAMA does not require coastal towns to have such plans, but Southern Shores has had one since 1980 and has updated it four times.
All Dare County towns have land use plans. Stewart assisted the towns of Duck and Manteo with their recent updates. The Town has an $80,000 contract with Stewart to perform its update, which is expected to take more than a year.
WHAT IS A LAND USE PLAN? WHAT FORCE DOES IT HAVE?
A CAMA land use plan is “a collection of policies and maps that serves as a community’s blueprint for growth,” according to the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, the state department that oversees the CRC.
We think of a land use plan as both a blueprint and a vision for a community’s future growth. Local governments must adhere to rules established by the CRC in developing and adopting their plans. The CRC’s required format, set of issues, and other elements of a plan are very specific and may be found in the N.C. Administrative Code, chapter 15A, subchapter 07B: subchapter b rules.pdf (state.nc.us)
Needless to say, the protection of natural resources is a paramount element of a coastal community’s plan.
The most recent Southern Shores Land Use Plan was certified by the CRC in 2012, but it actually was submitted to the Dept. of Coastal Management, whose staff works with the CRC, in August 2008. Because of questions the State had about the Town’s plan, and the Town’s slow response to those questions, there was substantial delay in the LUP’s certification.
A note by the CRC on the first page of the LUP states that the plan is to be considered a 2008 update. “The data in this Plan reflects the circumstances at the time of the initial submission [August 2008],” the Commission observes.
We consider the LUP to be 15 years old. Certainly, the public has not had an opportunity in a group setting to identify community issues and concerns about the town’s development and to participate in formulating a community vision statement for the plan in at least 15 years.
The last gathering of the public to discuss what became the current Land Use Plan was in March 2007 at the Duck Woods Country Club for a workshop called “Speak Out for Southern Shores.”
Despite the tremendous growth and the major changes in Southern Shores during the past 15 years, past Town Councils dragged their heels on updating the LUP, even once doing an about-face on approving an update: A Council member elected in November 2017 joined the previous minority of two, who did not want to update the LUP, to un-do what had been approved.
The reasons given by former Town Council members for not updating the LUP always struck us as fuzzy and ill-informed. They principally boiled down to: We’re not required to update the plan, and we don’t think it’s necessary that we do. This approach contradicted advice by Planning Director Wes Haskett, who now also serves as deputy town manager, that the Town update the LUP.
Perhaps if the Town had initiated an update five years ago, we wouldn’t now have two mini-hotels on the Southern Shores oceanfront or houses built, or being built, on 50-foot-wide lots. Public concern about both would have flagged both of these issues.
The LUP “playing field” changed last year, however, when the N.C. General Assembly intruded into municipal zoning business with new State legislation that made the need for an LUP more urgent. Any remaining Town Council resistance to an update dissipated.
As of July 1, 2022, all local governments are required by the new N.C. law to have a “reasonably maintained” comprehensive plan or a land use plan in order to retain authority to adopt and enforce zoning regulations.
The new law does not define “reasonably maintained,” but according to Adam Lovelady, an associate professor at the UNC School of Government, “[P]rofessional practice calls for community plans to be updated every five to ten years.”
See Professor Loveland’s article, “Comprehensive Plans and Land Use Plans Required for Zoning,” at https://canons.sog.unc.edu/2021/08/comprehensive- plans-and-land-use-plans-required-for-zoning/.
It would appear that, even with the erroneous update year of 2012, the current Southern Shores Land Use Plan has not been reasonably maintained.
Land use plans adopted in response to the new law, which is in section 160D of the N.C. General Statutes, are advisory in nature, not regulatory.
Similarly, most of the provisions of a CAMA Land Use Plan are policies intended to serve as guidelines for actions and decision-making, not as regulations.
The Division of Coastal Management uses the LUP in making CAMA permit decisions and federal consistency determinations, according to the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality. Proposed projects and activities must be consistent with the policies of a local LUP or the DCM will not allow them to go forward.
The Town of Southern Shores should refer to the LUP in evaluating individual development projects and a wide range of policy issues, including the enactment of regulatory ordinances, but it is not strictly bound by the plan.
CONTENTS OF THE LAND USE PLAN; PUBLIC PARTICIPATION
Perhaps the most often locally invoked component of the Land Use Plan is the Vision Statement, to which the Planning Board and Town Council refer when deliberating over Town Code changes, especially those to the Zoning Ordinance. Town officials and staff are sensitive to complying with the Vision Statement.
The current Vision Statement reads: “The Town of Southern Shores (TOSS) is a quiet seaside residential community comprised primarily of small low density neighborhoods consisting of single family homes primarily on large lots (i.e., at least 20,000 sq ft) interspersed with recreational facilities (e.g., marinas, tennis facilities, athletic fields, and parks), beach accesses, walkways and open spaces. These neighborhoods are served by picturesque local roads (rather than wide through streets) along the beach, in the dunes or in the sound-side maritime forest. The scale and architecture of new development and re-development is compatible with existing homes. The community is served by a small commercial district, located on the southern edge of town, which focuses on convenience shopping and services. The desired plan for the future is to maintain the existing community appearance and form.”
The CRC requires a community vision to be part of a section in the LUP titled “Community Concerns and Aspirations.” It defines this element as follows:
“A community vision: The vision shall describe the general physical appearance and form that represents the local government’s plan for the future. It shall include objectives to be achieved by the plan and identify changes that may be needed to achieve the planning vision as determined by the local government.”
This is where the public’s input is especially important. For the local government to determine a planning vision, it must survey the local population and incorporate public views into its conclusion. In the past, Southern Shores residents participated in in-person workshops and written surveys. We will no doubt learn on Tuesday how residents’ views and opinions will be heard and considered in the 2022-23 update.
In an Oct. 17 press release, Town Manager Cliff Ogburn listed some of the growth issues that will be addressed during the update process. They include:
*The pattern of desired growth and development and civic design, including the location, distribution, and characteristics of future land uses.
*Acceptable levels of public services and infrastructure to support development, including plans and policies for provision of and financing for public infrastructure.
*Recreation and open spaces.
*Mitigation of natural hazards such as flooding, winds, wildfires, and unstable lands.
*Protection of the environment and natural resources, including water and air quality.
*Protection of significant architectural, scenic, cultural historical, or archaeological resources.
You may access the current Land Use Plan here: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/sites/default/files/fileattachments/planning/page/2431/8-30-12certifiedadoptedlanduseplan.pdf. The update will adhere to the same format.
We will keep you informed on the update process. See you Tuesday.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 11/12/22