Swansboro officials are taking a close look at the way the town issues permits, primarily for new business. Some consider the process not only undemocratic but also onerous, to the point that the town has lost business to other communities.

But there has been some disagreement between the board of commissioners and the planning board. The two panels – after volleying with the special-use permit process – met jointly on Feb. 13 for discussion and settled on a plan.

A couple of members from each board – Commissioners Jeff Conaway and Pat Turner, and Ed McHale and Christina Ramsey of the planning board – were asked to study and suggest changes with the help of Andrea Correll, town planner, and other staff, within 30 days.

“After discussion it was still unclear exactly what the board wants,” Paula Webb, town manager, said of the Feb. 13 meeting. That led to the creation of the committee. “We will work towards a review of the table of permitted/special uses and then make a recommendation on how to proceed with the review of special uses.”

When the joint meeting opened, Correll responded to the notion – if one existed – that the special-use process be eliminated altogether.

With a special-use format, local governments consider a request for a building permit with the option of imposing conditions. Uses that are simply permitted do not undergo that level of scrutiny.

Correll mentioned an experience she had with a solar farm. The highly reflective panels could create an unhealthy situation in some neighborhoods, meaning the town should reserve the right to have some control, she explained.

“It’s allowed as a special-use,” Correll said. “I don’t think we should allow it as a permitted use.”

Commissioners decided to seek a change following a lengthy and often cantankerous consideration of a downtown commercial dock, along with the apparent loss of a potential restaurant.

Commissioner Frank Tursi suggested the town revise its special-use process and remove the town commissioners from the process.

There are legal challenges, according to comments by Tursi during the Feb. 13 meeting.

Commissioners must go through a quasi-judicial process in reaching a decision for an SUP and that requires accepting testimony only from those “with standing” in the case. Opinions of other town residents are not considered.

Also, Tursi said he believed the process chased off the owners of a restaurant due to trouble associated with negotiating a special-use permit.

“I think it’s a burdensome process,” he said.

Turner also shared her reasons for considering a change to the SUP process.

A longtime member of the planning board before being elected commissioner, Turner traced the town’s decision to establish a more comprehensive system of  special uses to the decision to allow a Walmart more than five years ago.

“That was a knee-jerk reaction … and that’s not the way to go,” she said.

The special-use need more nuances, according to Turner. She used succession of use as an example. Now, if a restaurant building is out of use for 180 days or more, a special-use is needed even if it is to reopen as a restaurant.

In previous comments on the process, Tursi said he has evolved since the post-Walmart decision.

“I was on the board when we changed … and went to the current special-use process,” he has said.

At that time he used the process to allow a Starbucks in town as an example.

“In my mind that is far overboard,” Tursi said. “I think we have skewed the process and made it more prone to approval.”

Scott Chadwick, chairman of the planning board, was serving as mayor when the town established its current special-use permit process.

In his comments at the joint meeting, Chadwick pointed out that he has long advocated for locally owned business, to the point that he hoped the SUP process could help limit the existence of national chain stores locating in Swansboro.

In conversation after the meeting, Chadwick provided a fuller response to Tursi and Turner.

“While I see their points, I don’t agree with them entirely,” he said. “I feel like special-use permits afford the town of Swansboro a more active and authoritative role in deciding what comes to Swansboro and particularly along Corbett Avenue.

“I have stated many times that Swansboro’s ‘charm’ and ‘uniqueness’ are in part due to the ‘mom and pop’ small businesses and that I don’t believe the citizens of Swansboro want Corbett Avenue to look like Western Boulevard in Jacksonville.”

In his comments at the meeting, Ed McHale, planning board member, said that the board of commissioners’ original request for an SUP revision was without adequate background.

“Give us some guidance and we’ll do the work,” he said.

Similarly, Christina Ramsey, planning board member, sought clarification.

“Are we trying to fix something that is not working?” she asked. Or would it be better to shift the task of SUP consideration to another board, the board of adjustment, presumably. “Do we want to go through the list? I have no problem going through the list.” But she added, “That is a different issue.”

It was Tursi, back in November, who suggested the joint meeting with the planning board

“We haven’t given much direction to the planning board,” he admitted. (See related story.)

In response to the comments from Tursi and Mayor John Davis about the restrictions of the quasi-judicial process, Chadwick said the task currently falls to commissioners and the commissioners could assign that task to the Swansboro Board of Adjustment.

As to the process being too onerous – and apparently speaking directly to the loss that locally owned restaurant to which Tursi referred – other factors, the financial burden, played a role, Chadwick said.

The former mayor further defended the need for the special-use process.

“If we allow every restaurant in town that wants to come, what controls do we have?” he asked.

On that point, Correll pushed back, just a little. She said the town must follow the state rules in considering an application and that limits what controls the town has, even with an SUP process.

“That’s one thing I can’t guarantee, that you are not going to have franchises,” she said.

Correll also pointed out that the “triggers” for a special-use permit process extend beyond choosing who can set up shop in town. They also include factors such as traffic generated and appearance requirements.

Certain businesses might generate traffic that rises to the level of requiring road improvements, according to Correll.

Davis asked Correll how the town should permit restaurants along N.C. 24 from the west edge of town to the river, an known as the Swansboro Corridor. The area on the two sides of the high are primarily zoned Busiess-1, or highway business.

“I think we should allow restaurants in B-1,” Correll responded.

But she also mentioned the other concerns, traffic for example.

Commissioner Larry Philpott said there are certain things that would need to be addressed with any new business or with any substantial change of a business. He mentioned anything in the Swansboro Historic District and he mentioned appearance.

“We’ve always had the desire to maintain appearance,” he said, and that has led to the need for the special-use process rather than a simple permit.

“The reason …is we want some control over what goes on our corridor,” he said.

Philpott said that he would be amenable to allowing more simple permits, provided protections on appearance and such were built into the town ordinances.

To that, Correll added, traffic also makes a difference and should trigger a special-use look.

“I think the triggers are important,” Tursi said. “And traffic is certainly one of them.”

He suggested taking a look at those aspects.

“We could start looking,” Correll said.

At that point, Chadwick suggested taking two members from each board, along with Correll, to form a committee that could go go through the town zoning rules and determine how the SUP process might be streamlined.

“I’m willing to put in the time,” Chadwick, speaking for the planning board, said. “We’ll come up with something we can suggest to you.”

Davis agreed. “We can’t solve this tonight,” he said. Let the small group get the work done.

A motion by Philpott to establish that committee was approved unanimously.

Following the meeting Chadwick said limiting it to two members from each panel allowed more flexibility because there is no requirement for public notice.

“The committee can now meet informally and once they have completed the task, bring it back to a public meeting for scrutiny and approval,” Chadwick said. “They set a very ambitious goal of 30 days to come back to us. I would be thrilled with 90 days.”

As to the time limit, Tursi had a similar response.

“They have 30 days, though I suspect we will have to extend the deadline,” he said.

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

Purchase a copy of the March 1, 2023, Tideland for more on this story.

(2) comments

Shore Service

Long overdue. Only in Swansboro does practically every project trigger the Special Use Permit process, which can be overly onerous and extremely costly. Politicians should not place themselves in the SUBJECTIVE position to "judge" which businesses are "worthy" of opening in Swansboro, rather Town regulations should ONLY ensure that such business comply with a PRESCRIPTIVE requirements (landscaping, traffic, parking, allowable square footage, etc). Such prescriptive requirements can be easily be administered by Town STAFF (as opposed to Commissioners) and need not trigger the "quasi judicial" Special Use process, in my view.

David Collins

Hate to say this but it reads like a bit of blame shifting mixed with I don’t have a clue .

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