Grayson Powell: New Hanover County Comprehensive Plan Stymies Economic Development


I applaud the New Hanover County Commissioners for their stated focus on economic development and their commitment to bring new jobs to our community. But I am concerned that their recent actions in relation to the county’s new Comprehensive Plan do not align with these goals.

The Comprehensive Plan has been underway since early 2014 and is intended to guide development in New Hanover County over the next 25 years. It addresses six themes: a livable built environment; harmony with nature; responsible regionalism; interwoven equity; healthy community; and a resilient economy.

I have three primary concerns about the new Comprehensive Plan:

  1. The business industry’s interests and concerns were not represented in the planning process.
  2. The plan is a gross overreach of county powers into areas already strictly regulated by state and federal government.
  3. The county and city have been creating comprehensive plans on parallel paths and are not working together to coordinate efforts.

The plan could effectively halt commercial and industrial development in New Hanover County. Either the county planning staff doesn’t fully understand the negative impact this will have on economic development, or they don’t want any new manufacturers to come to New Hanover County. Either way, we all lose. Industry and manufacturing are consistently the largest contributors to our tax base, which means more schools, more teachers, more roads and more parks – all of which lead to a better quality of life for county residents.

Business Not Represented

Citizens were invited to participate in voluntary committees on each of the plan’s six themes and their feedback was the basis for many of the recommendations outlined in the plan. Unfortunately, the vast majority of volunteers who participated were retirees and environmental advocates who have little to no experience in zoning, planning, economic development, commercial real estate or business. The business community was woefully underrepresented. The result is an impractical plan that grossly overreaches the planning staff’s mandate and could likely result in zoning changes that will have serious and negative consequences to future growth and development in New Hanover County.

Overreach of County Powers

Unfortunately, the plan is being approved by county commissioners chapter by chapter instead of in its entirety. Chapter 4, which was approved on January 19, includes the Future Land Use Map that breaks the county into areas of commerce, residential, mixed use and conservation. This map, which was created by the “citizens who were involved with The Plan” (as quoted on the New Hanover County website) will be the basis for planning staff’s updates to the county’s zoning regulations.

I find it troublesome that zoning updates may be influenced by volunteers with no professional experience in such matters, but even more troublesome is the Exceptional Resource Areas Map that acts as an overlay of the Future Land Use Map. The Exceptional Resources Map identifies environmental and flood hazard areas that are “valued and protected to ensure the longevity of New Hanover County’s natural environmental and safety of its citizens.” What this means is that planning staff will discourage and likely restrict any type of development in these areas.

To put this into perspective, the Exceptional Resource Areas Map details both potential wetlands and aquifer sensitivity areas up and down U.S. 421, the same route where county commissioners want to encourage industrial development and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is spending millions to connect water and sewer. If we were to follow the recommendations outlined in the plan, economic development would not be feasible on the U.S. 421 corridor.

County and City Cooperation

The city and county both undertook a comprehensive planning process around the same time, but unfortunately they have not worked together during the process. What if the plans do not align or complement one another? Inconsistencies could threaten our efforts to attract business to the region. To remedy this, Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE) is working hard to encourage the city and county to sit down together to see how the plans align, particularly where the city limits border the county’s unincorporated areas. The city’s Comprehensive Plan could be adopted as early as March 1, when a public hearing and resolution to adopt the plan is expected to be on city council’s agenda. And the county commissioners will soon review the fifth and final chapter of the Comprehensive Plan. Now is the time to meet to ensure both plans are working in the best interests of the Cape Fear region.

New Hanover County made a grievous error in 2011 when it passed the special use permit and created an onerous layer of regulation, uncertainty and cost to new industrial development. The county commissioners should think long and hard before they commit another grievous error. Although perhaps well-meaning, the county planning staff has yet again significantly overreached both its expertise and authority by making development recommendations in areas already strictly regulated by the Coastal Area Management Act (aquifers) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (wetlands). We ask that the county commissioners take the advice of BASE and reconsider many aspects of this plan before approval.

Grayson Powell is a Managing Partner at Coldwell Banker Commercial Sun Coast. CBCSC leverages the vast experience of highly skilled real estate professionals and developers and specialize in selling, leasing and managing retail, commercial, and investment property. To learn more about CBCSC, visit or call (910) 350-1200.

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