Moratorium Idea Has Towns Studying Law
The premise of a development moratorium is to give a town or city an opportunity to take a "drastic step" to address a problem.
That is the view of Richard D. Ducker, an attorney and land-use regulation expert with the School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
"Normally, a moratorium is fairly drastic," Ducker said, although he added that there are many types of moratoriums.
Two Moore County towns are in the process of possibly imposing moratoriums, and several others have already done so.
In Moore County, the issue boils down to growth. Municipalities use moratoriums to address zoning issues, make changes to ordinances or adopt long-range plans. However, the overall issue remains growth.
In 2005, state law was changed to require that municipalities provide justification for a development moratorium before imposing one. A town has to state the conditions that require a moratorium, the steps it has already taken to address the problems, an expiration date and what it hopes to accomplish through the moratorium, Ducker said.
There is no cap on how long a moratorium can be in effect, but Ducker said that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling essentially said that towns must have a really good reason to extend a moratorium past one year.
"The idea is to give a unit of government an opportunity to take a drastic step," Ducker said, "to give it time to develop a long-term solution to an identified problem."
The problem Whispering Pines has cited as a reason for a moratorium is outdated ordinances.
In early February, the council hired a consulting firm to work on revising its ordinances and develop a land-use plan. The consulting firm, Benchmark Associates, helped update the development ordinances for the village of Pinehurst.
The council held a public hearing on Tuesday to discuss a possible moratorium. A number of home builders and developers spoke against the idea.
The council has yet to draft an ordinance dealing with the moratorium on commercial and multi-family home development.
Whispering Pines, unlike neighboring Southern Pines and Pinehurst, has room to grow. With extensive farmland in its extraterritorial zoning jurisdiction, the village has a great potential for owners of large tracts to sell their land to developers who could turn them into subdivisions.
In the last year, the village has approved several large subdivisions. By some estimates, those subdivisions have nearly 500 available lots for single-family homes.
In light of that, some council members are concerned that Whispering Pines could lose its identity to urban sprawl. Chief among them is newly-elected member Skip Gebhardt.
Citing drainage problems and a host of other issues that need to be addressed, Gebhardt said he and other council members pushed for a moratorium because "some of us believe the ordinances relating to subdivisions are woefully inadequate."
The council backed down from considering a ban on all development because that would expose the village to possible legal action. At a recent meeting, council members voted 4-1 to exclude single-family development from the moratorium discussions.
Gebhardt was the lone dissenter.
He said he has a different perspective from most. He is an attorney who specialized in real estate and land-use work in Collier County, Fla. His wife issued building permits there. Collier is a fast-growing county in western Florida that is facing the problems that come with such growth, Gebhardt said.
"We have experienced the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled growth," Gebhardt said.
He said he understands that municipal governments can't stop growing, but he said stricter ordinances would slow growth and promote "quality" development.
"We want ordinances that will have teeth in them," Gebhardt said.
After nearly two years of concern over Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning and the proposed Pine Needles Village, some are calling for Southern Pines to slow down and look at revising its land-use plan.
More than any other Moore County municipality, Southern Pines is near buildout, yet it's close to adopting a yearlong moratorium. A few large undeveloped tracts remain.
The Town Council will hold a public hearing March 11 and then could vote a moratorium up or down that night.
Bounded by Aberdeen to the south, Pinehurst to the west, Whispering Pines to the north and Fort Bragg to the east, the town has only three areas left that are suitable for large-scale development.
One tract is the 558 acres along U.S. 1 north of town where Pine Needles Village was planned. Another is north of town on N.C. 22. Probably the most important of the three is the area of the Henley Street extension off Morganton Road.
The Henley Street extension will eventually connect Morganton Road and U.S. 15-501, and there is enough land there for a large mixed-use development. Talk has been going on for some time about a Target store being built there.
Some Southern Pines leaders, including Mayor Mike Haney, think that the town is so close to buildout that it can ensure that decent developments go on those three parcels without updating its 1988 land-use plan. He says a moratorium is unnecessary.
Abigail Dowd, the newest member of the council, represents the other side of the coin. She thinks the council should enact a moratorium so that it can update its land-use plan and find a way to legally ensure those parcels are developed properly.
Others wonder how, if Southern Pines voted down such a high-quality development as Pine Needles, it expects to interest other developers to look at this area.
Moratorium proponents worry that the owners of the Pine Needles Village land, the Bell family, will build a less desirable project under the current zoning (which would allow many more than the 832 homes called for in the PUD plan) or a previously approved conditional-use permit for a commerce park. The family could also sell the land.
Southern Pines adopted a development moratorium in October 2004 on multi-family homes in order to change the definition of "multi-family" in its Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). The moratorium lasted less than five months.
Negative Economic Impact
Local developers and Realtors oppose moratoriums, saying they have wide-reaching negative effects on the economy.
Brandon Brown, a co-owner of Wolfram Development and Arrowstone Builders, said he thought the village of Whispering Pines' consideration of a moratorium is irrational.
"I think they have an irrational fear of how bad the (existing) ordinances are," he said.
Brown said the impact of a moratorium will negatively impact everyone -- builders, landscapers, painters, foundation workers and framers.
Brown said he thinks builders and developers are viewed negatively by some residents in the community. He said his intent is to bring value to the community.
"We're trying to build up the village, not (trying to) tear it down," Brown said.
Parker Dunahay, president of the Pinehurst-Southern Pines Area Association of Realtors, said there are hidden costs to a building moratorium.
"What they (municipalities) don't think about oftentimes is all the people who touch the process, and then what those people do with their money," Dunahay said. "They buy a new car or milk. It isn't just about the developers and the builders. It affects the entire economy."
Fred Hobbs, chairman of the board of Partners in Progress, agrees.
"Partners in Progress is concerned about the term 'moratorium' and the practical application of it," Hobbs said.
He said the term has negative connotations to many people, and that it has had a negative impact on prospective businesses coming to Moore County.
Hobbs has helped organize a symposium to discuss smart growth in Moore County. The event, "Future of the Sandhills? How Do Quality of Life and Growth Co-exist," will be held Monday from 4 to 6 p.m. at Sandhills Community College.
Hobbs called the meeting a "community outreach" in which residents can gather information and ask questions of a panel of experts.
"It's a subject that is on everybody's minds," Hobbs said. "The more people who can and will participate the better."
The panelists for the event are Ellis Hankins, executive director of North Carolina League of Municipalities; Janice Burke, former secretary of the Local Government Commission and former deputy director of the N.C. Department of Treasury; and David Owens, a faculty member with the University of North Carolina Institute of Government.
Taking Legal Steps
Moratoriums have been such a hot topic of late that the Moore County Homebuilders Association has decided it needs to make its voice a little louder. Densel Williams, chairman of the Homebuilders' Legislative Affairs Committee, says the association opposes it, since that directly affects the livelihood of its members.
"It's another step toward the infringement on property rights," Williams said, "and our right to make a living."
The organization thinks that the vote by the Southern Pines Town Council to kill the Pine Needles Village was a "tragedy," Williams said. The town adopting a moratorium on top of that would be piling on, he added.
"With the message they're sending," he said, "there won't be good developers coming here. We'll be left with also-rans."
With both Whispering Pines and Southern Pines looking closely at moratorium, Williams said the home builders intend to have legal representation at both meetings.
"The first step is to ensure they follow state law," Williams said.
He said home builders aren't just looking out for their own interests. Moratoriums aren't good for Moore County, he said.
"We're trying to get people to understand that home building is vital to the economy of the United States," he said. "California recently had a shortfall of $400 million due to a decrease in home building."
Home building in Moore County is already down 25 percent, he said. If towns try to shut down growth, something else is going to have to pay the bills, he said.
The fact that some residents are worried about growth is not a justifiable reason to enact a moratorium, Williams said, especially since the numbers don't show that growth is a problem in Moore County.
"To have a minority of citizens stop our industry based on opinion rather than fact is not acceptable," he said. "There is a certain segment -- I'd call it a minority -- their attitude is 'We're here, shut the door.'"
They are inadvertently supporting an increase in their taxes, Williams said.
The home builders have essentially had enough. They plan using every recourse available to them to stop more development moratoriums, Williams said.
"We're going to use every remedy in our arsenal," he said, "including legal."
'Not an End'
More than a decade ago, Pinehurst faced some of the same issues before councils in Southern Pines and Whispering Pines.
Pinehurst recently lifted a two-year moratorium on an 19-acre area of the village known as NewCore. The village also imposed an 18-month moratorium on all development except single-family housing beginning in 1994.
Village Manager Andy Wilkison, who has worked for the village for 20 years, said the moratorium in 1994 was "somewhat controversial."
"It was the right thing to do at the time," Wilkison said.
Growth in Pinehurst has slowed significantly in recent years. With 12,000 residents, Wilkison said the village is slowly approaching its projected build-out population of 17,000.
"In 2007, there were 140 new homes built in the village," Wilkison said, "or about half what it is in a normal year."
Wilkison said some residents doubted the motives of the council when it imposed the first moratorium because they feared it would expand the moratorium to include single-family homes. It never did.
In fact, by ordinance, that council could and did allow larger development if there was a compelling reason. During that time, The FirstHealth Center for Health & Fitness was built. It opened in April 1995.
Wilkison said one thing that has stuck with him about the moratorium of 1994 was a comment made by former Mayor Charlie Mangers.
"He said, 'When you need to change a tire on your car, you stop the car first,'" Wilkison said.
Wilkison said there are benefits to a moratorium, but it is an action that is not to be taken lightly.
"A moratorium is a legitimate land-use tool, but it is not an end in and of itself," Wilkison said. "The moratorium is not a solution to a problem, only a method to provide the municipality an environment where no harm is done."
Small Area Plan
The most recent example of a moratorium is Area A in western Moore County.
The county imposed a six-month moratorium on subdivision and large developments this summer while consultants reworked zoning ordinances.
Area A encompasses Eagle Springs, Jackson Springs, Seven Lakes, West End, Lake Diamond and rural environs. It is an area targeted for thousands of new homes that would dramatically increase the population if and when all the planned subdivisions are completed.
A special committee worked on a land-use plan that would apply specifically to Area A.
The committee, the Planning Board and the county planning staff requested the moratorium because of the rash of development plans in that area. They wanted to delay issuing new permits for six months to give the committee time to complete its work and to give the planners time to complete work on text revisions to the zoning ordinance.
Work was completed in November, and the commissioners lifted the moratorium.
Contact Matt Moriarty at 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Tom Embrey at 693-2473 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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