Morehead City’s Town Council decision Tuesday to delay, for the second time, a vote on the future of 23 acres on N.C. Highway 24 between the busy entries into Walmart, was a disappointment for the parties involved and was a delaying tactic for what really needs to be done- a comprehensive review of the town’s land use plan.
If the town moves forward with plans to consider both the rezoning request and a requisite land use plan amendment simultaneously they will be creating a major problem that could potentially be costly in money, time and emotional capital to correct.
In February, Starling Marine received approval from the Morehead City Planning Board to rezone a 23-acre lot in the Spooners Creek development from R-20 residential to conditional highway commercial, allowing for a marine sales, service and storage facility, and an independent senior living facility, to be co-located on the property. Despite safety concerns provided by residents both in and around the residential community, arguing against the zoning change request, the planning board voted 4 to 2 to approve.
The planning board had apparently not consulted the town’s land use plan, or if they did, they ignored the fact that the zoning change is out of compliance with the ordinance. Since that board’s duties are advisory, it presented the recommendations, albeit flawed, to the town board for final approval, which was planned for the council’s regularly scheduled March 9 meeting.
Days before the March meeting, the council discovered the planning board’s error, cancelling a planned public hearing. The town council rescheduled the zoning hearing and added a land use plan amendment hearing to correct the planning board’s error for April 13. Just hours before this week’s meeting, the council voted to delay the hearings until May 19 due to “significant interest received to provide public comment and limited space in the council chambers” for public participation.
This decision to conduct both hearings is in itself flawed. A good land use plan takes time and should include extensive public input that involves numerous drafts for review. This is not something that should be done on the fly as is being proposed for the May hearing.
Zoning and rezoning are subsets of a land use plan. To conflate these two activities and decisions diminishes the importance and long-term impact of the bigger issue - land use. A land use plan establishes long range, a minimum of 10 years if not longer, how a community or region is to be developed.
An effective land use plan takes into account a wide variety of factors such as current and future traffic flow, available from the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT), along with economic studies from the state’s commerce department. All of this information is then shared with the residents and property owners within the community, resulting in public input and a final plan. From this plan zoning and building codes are created to guide development and economic growth for the designated community.
The county and its eleven municipalities are experiencing consistent growth due to quality of life factors and the attraction of the natural resources. With the anticipated conclusion the of I-42 highway project which will terminate somewhere in the vicinity of Newport and Morehead City, the growth for the county and particularly Morehead City will accelerate exponentially. The proof can be seen in Wilmington, which was ill-prepared for the growth resulting from the termination of I-40, causing immense traffic congestion that is only now being alleviated by a highway bypass.
Unlike Wilmington, Morehead City is surrounded by water and so there is no bypass opportunity in the city’s future. And since that is a fact, the town needs to immediately review its entire land use plan to prepare for what will be a massive influx of highway traffic that will subsequently result in significant commercial and residential growth within the next ten years.
The DOT has already advised the county and the four towns on N.C. 24 that it is planning to create a super-street on that highway which involves replacing the fifth, or center, turning lane with a solid median. Since these plans are already in the DOT’s plans, Morehead City, along with Bogue, Cape Carteret and Cedar Point, need to address how land along the highway is to be developed in order to avoid conflicts in the near future. This is just one of the many issues that need to be considered in a land use plan which should not be delayed any longer.
There is no question that the rezoning issue of the Spooners Creek property has been difficult for both the petitioner and the nearby property owners. The continued delay has been costly but any quick decision by the town without thoughtful long range planning will be even more costly. The Morehead City Town Council needs to refrain from spot zoning and spot land planning and begin now to engage in an aggressive review of its land use plan to prepare for what will be a permanent change in the community.