ILM Planning Board Public Hearing
Thurs., 9/1, 5:30 p.m.
New Hanover County Courthouse
24 N. 3rd Street, Room 301
Register to attend through Stop Titan’s Facebook page, though not necessary.
When I moved to Wilmington in March, there were two things I immediately learned: the downtown farmers’ market takes place Saturday mornings and the Stop Titan Action Network (STAN) is always on the go, to be heard and garner support. Both obviously mean a lot to the community for very different reasons.
STAN (Best Environmental Group, encore reader’s poll 2011), without needing an extensive introduction, is the neighborhood coalition formed in efforts to prevent the corporation Titan America from building one of the largest cement plants in the U.S. in our own back yard. On August 4th, STAN put out a call to action at the downtown NHC court house for citizens to attend a public planning board meeting to discuss rezoning regulations in New Hanover County. Not simply out of interest in preventing Titan from easily building “intensive industries” where they wish—as opposed to what the opposition might argue—this was a meeting to plead for changes in outdated zoning regulations adopted in 1969.
To be clear, “intensive industry” includes the production of acetylene, cement, chlorine, corrosive acid, fertilizer, insecticides, poisons, explosives, petroleum products, coal and radioactive materials. This group also includes smelting, animal slaughtering, paper manufacturing and oil refining. As its name suggests, it is, well, pretty intense.
So, why are updates needed? Compared to neighboring counties like Brunswick, Wake, Pender, Durham and Guilford, NHC regulations are outdated for an area that has dramatically changed in the last 42 years. Revised regulations would require intensive industry to apply for and receive a special use permit (SUP) in order to build new facilities in the county. Seemingly, it’s a pretty reasonable request, especially if the industry in question is producing or using hazardous materials next to playgrounds, schools, homes and parks.
This SUP process would give citizens and elected officials an opportunity to learn about the facility and comment on the project in question. For example, if a company was seeking to build a large coal-fired cement kiln and mine on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River, citizens would be given a chance to weigh in on any looming issues.
Needless to say, there were plenty of interested citizens in attendance supporting such rezoning regulations. They jumped at the opportunity to have a voice in what goes on in and around their homes—a voice they absolutely have a right to fight for time and again. But citizens shouldn’t have to fight too hard, right? It seems reasonable to have a transparent and intensive application process to build any large, new or changing intensive industry so close to inhabited areas. So, why might it not be that simple?
Consider this: The changes in zoning and requiring the SUP will mean industry will have to explain what impacts their facilities will have on NHC residents—potentially resulting in somewhat of a cock-block for the industry in question. Some have argued (mostly industry heads and their wingmen) that giving citizens a say in the future of the county will convince future industry to reconsider building in NHC. Thus, the impact could hurt our economy. One person agreeing with this assumption is Bob Warwick, chairman of the Coalition for Economic Advancement, who also believes these same citizens have vendettas against economic growth and cars.
Here’s why Mr. Warwick and friends are mistaken about the supposed negative effects, according to those in support of the rezoning and SUP: NC is consistently ranked as one of the most business-friendly states in the U.S., with at least 42 other counties doing just fine with similar zoning adoptions. Also, Wilmington’s main industry is tourism, and anything threatening the reason people come here (a beautiful coastal environment just won’t be that scenic with smoke stacks) should probably be scrutinized thoroughly as to not further harm local economy in an attempt to boost it.
Finally, as in nature, if our livelihood and quality of life is threatened, then “fight or flight” instincts kick in. Right now people are fighting for a say; however, the same people can (and some will) move if their concerns as citizens are bypassed for industry interests. Hence, taking their businesses, families and money with them.
I am that citizen. I am many potential dollar bills for Wilmington in upcoming years. I am a twentysomething female finishing my master’s degree, looking to plant roots, get a job and start a family. This means buying a house, paying local taxes, shopping at local businesses and pouring money into building a life in this community—a life I will not start in a county that considers the success of potentially harmful industries over the well-being and opinions of its citizens.
Some may say, “Fine, we don’t need you here, so take your tree-hugging hippie ways somewhere else.” Fair enough—they have a right to voice their opinion. And I have mine. I’m not the only person who loves Wilmington, who is not willing to sacrifice my life or anyone else’s for a potential source of (dirty) money. A slow economy isn’t forever, and by all measures, it’s much easier to overcome than permanent health problems and even death.
Besides, the SUP is not an automatic denial process, it simply requires industry to explain itself and demonstrate how their facility is in the best interest of the community—for you, me and our children, present or future. It’s a no-brainer, right?
After both sides in favor and opposed to the zoning changes gave their arguments at last Thursday’s board meeting, it looked like there was a strong case for the board to recommend the changes. (Especially in the absence of a rebuttal from Mr. Warwick or the other two non-supporting speakers who represented Avista and Progress Energy.) However, some members, like Melissa Gott, still expressed concern for the effects of the changes to current industries in NHC.
As Gott questioned the new rezoning draft, it was unclear at one point what she was saying as she turned away from her microphone to speak to her peers. As an audience member called out and reminded Ms. Gott that it was a public hearing, she turned back and said, “It wasn’t a public comment,” then turned back around, proceeding to speak without acknowledging the high tensions in the room. What became clear to everyone in attendance was that this seemingly obvious decision was going to be tabled, yet again.
The planning board already required a work session, held long before this meeting, for elected officials and stakeholders to review the plans—where concessions were made to exempt existing industries from the zoning changes. Even still, despite those changes, the planning board now seemed to ignore the staff recommendations and citizen concerns, tabling the decision until September.
What surprised me was how committee members like Ms. Gott behaved, as if they just learned of this draft or just read it—as if no one knew anymore about it than I did (and I was literally hearing about it for the first time). Though I don’t claim to be an expert, I learned a great deal about zoning and SUPs in this session alone. I now know that currently businesses, such as daycare centers, veterinarians and restaurants, must comply with the county’s SUP process, while intensive industries like Titan America do not. I realize there are some people out there who do not see or understand the threat this industry may offer, intensive or not. Honestly, I don’t know how to explain it any better than the experts already have, but I can continue to attempt to wrap my head around the issues and act accordingly as a concerned citizen.
For now, I’m a paying resident of Wilmington who wants jobs here just as much as anyone (because I need one just as much as anyone). However, I’m not going to get a job at a cement plant or a slaughter house or another intensive industrial plant (I wouldn’t be qualified for one if I wanted it—would you?) that is not willing to take one extra step to show me it is a safe, responsible business that will not threaten my neighbors’ existence or my own.