Pine Forest Hearing Ends, Vote Set for May
The Pine Forest rezoning hearing came to an end Tuesday night, but it will be May before the Moore County Board of Commissioners announces its decision.
In the meantime the commissioners and the county planning staff will study their findings during a series of hearings lasting more than 13 hours and spanning three meetings and numerous continuations.
“It’s crucial that we get this right,” said board chairman Nick Picerno as the commissioners discussed the decision-making process.
“I agree with the chairman. We need to take as much time as we need,” said Commissioner Tim Lea.
“My concern is that we get it done right,” added Commissioner Jimmy Melton.
Commissioner Craig Kennedy agreed, and the board voted unanimously to continue the matter until the first meeting in May.
The decision is in the hands of four commissioners. The fifth, Larry Caddell, has been recused because of a possible conflict of interest. He was mayor of Carthage at a time when the town was building a water treatment facility. The town draws water from Nicks Creek, which has headwaters in the tract now known as Pine Forest.
Pine Forest contains almost 1,800 acres fronting on N.C. 211 southeast of West End, where MHK Ventures Inc., a Florida-based company, wants to develop a major golf course-based resort. The rezoning request covers the majority of the acreage which the developer wants to change to Planned United Development in the hamlet category.
MHK’s plan, designed by the Hobbs Upchurch & Associates engineering firm of Southern Pines, calls for two separate communities, one a gated community, the other a resort with a hotel and related amenities. In addition to hundreds of residential units, the plan includes two 18-hole golf courses, a nine-hole course and a small commercial development on the highway.
The Pine Forest tract abuts Dormie Club, a golf course development fronting on N.C. 73 and also developed and owned by MHK.
The rezoning request has drawn vigorous opposition from environmentalists as well as local residents concerned about water availability and traffic congestion.
Proponents of the measure argue that the development is designed to retain as much of the area’s natural heritage as possible. The developers say that Pine Forest would be no drain on Nicks Creek or other local water sources because they have offered the county $3 million to build a water line extension from Montgomery County to the site. They further plan to build an on-site sewage treatment plant to accommodate both Pine Forest and Dormie Club with the effluent used to irrigate the golf courses.
Thirty-four people signed up to speak during the public hearing, held during a special meeting called because of the protracted nature of the subject. Not everyone spoke, however, for several individuals had left the room by the time their names were called. About 20 of those signed up to speak oppose the development, another 12 were listed as proponents and included members of the engineering staff. Two people signed up as neutral.
The hearing was quasi-judicial, which means that witnesses are sworn to tell the truth and present evidence, not opinion. It is patterned in a style similar to a courtroom trial.
It ended in courtroom style with attorneys making closing statements before the commissioners, who are acting as judge and jury with legal advice from County Attorney Misty Leland.
Early in the Tuesday meeting a scary question arose when Melton asked if he should be recused for a potential conflict of interest. He is the owner of land near the water line proposed by the developer. Leland ruled that this could not be construed as a conflict, because the issue currently before the board is rezoning, not the water line construction contract. The contract will be handled as a separate matter, provided the rezoning request is granted.
If the recusal had been allowed, it would have reduced the hearing panel to three commissioners and raised questions about the legitimacy of the previous hearing sessions in which Melton had taken part.
After the hearing was closed, county planning director Joey Raczkowski said it would take his staff some time to sort out the “findings of fact” from the long hearing and prepare recommendations to the board.
Picerno said that the board would ask the clerk, Laura Williams, to collect the hearing material into book form to be distributed to the four commissioners for study before making a decision. This will take more time, and the May meeting date was determined to be a reasonable goal.
MHK first announced its Pine Forest plans in 2009 when two community meetings were held in the West End area. The public was invited to participate in both of these informal sessions in which the proposal was laid out in general terms.
The rezoning request was later brought before the planning board, which voted to recommend approval. When it reached the commissioners early in 2010, the board deferred action because of unresolved questions about a water source for the huge development.
The matter did not return to the board’s attention until January of this year, when the proposed Montgomery County water plan was unveiled. The first hearing lasted about three hours and was continued to give the planning staff time to research some of the information presented that night.
The next hearing, held in February, lasted four hours and was continued because of the late hour and the fact that the commissioners still had a lengthy agenda to address. It was continued at the next two meetings because two commissioners were ailing and unable to attend, reducing the board to non-quorum size. At the last meeting the board decided to call a special meeting to be devoted entirely to the Pine Forest issue.
Nevertheless, two items were added to the agenda prior to the meeting. On one matter the board agreed to ask state Rep. Jamie Boles to introduce a bill amending the local law establishing the room occupancy tax. The amendment will allow the county to divert a portion of the tax for use at the county-owned airport, which is a tourism tool. The other item was a call for a public hearing to be held April 5 to consider revisions to the water shortage response ordinance.
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