Moore County and its municipalities have faced significant demand for new and expanded services to keep up with growth over the last few years. And growth begets growth: more people, more homes, more parks, more cultural opportunities — and more planners to keep up with the workload.
From her office in Carthage, Moore County Planning Director Debra Ensminger is eyeing a 42 percent increase in demand for building permits compared to four years ago. She’s also hiring, but finding the help she needs to keep up is no simple task.
Earlier this year, she made a heartfelt appeal to the Board of County Commissioners to fund two new positions: a senior planner and a building inspector.
“Residential (development) has soared in Moore County,” she told county officials in February, noting her department has also lost staff in recent years to better paying, similar jobs in other areas. “We are inundated and we need some help.”
The newly approved jobs are currently listed on the county’s employment portal and, once filled, should provide her department with some breathing room.
However, Moore County isn’t alone in dealing with development pressures or trying to attract the kind of specialized talent required for planning and inspections work.
The village of Pinehurst is also hiring a mid-level planner, the town of Southern Pines is hiring an entry-level planner, and the town of Aberdeen is hiring a code enforcement officer.
“It is a hard thing. Being a planner is tough,” said Ensminger, who has served as Moore County’s chief planning officer for 10 years, “and a lot of people aren’t getting into the field. The same can be said for inspections.”
Part of the challenge, she readily admits, is the shifting political aspect that can impact this field of work.
“You want to do the right thing. You get into this business because you are interested in guiding growth, and you want it to be smart growth. And then you run into brick walls.”
Ensminger said when countywide zoning was first established in 1999, it carried a lot of strict development restrictions. A few years later, there was a loosening of regulations mostly related to calls for individual property rights.
“Now we are back to a point where the county is trying to guide growth to where it is efficient, where it needs to be. We are seeing more interest in putting development where there is existing infrastructure through infill, not just planting this here and planting that there,” Ensminger added. “You want residential where residential development should be, commercial where commercial should be, and you want to keep agriculture where agriculture should be.”
She recalled the housing boom across Moore County in the mid-2000s. At one point, there were so many major subdivisions proposals on the table for discussion the county commissioners approved a building moratorium. That decision was partly based on the need to update land use ordinances and partly because of concerns about water availability, particularly at proposed project sites west of Pinehurst.
Following the economic slump of the late 2000s, growth interests quickly returned but with a quite different face.
While young retirees continue to influence the local real estate market, Moore County’s new demographic has definitely skewed towards families, many with military ties. Instead of massive gated communities along N.C. 211 toward West End, development has increased exponentially in those areas of Aberdeen, Carthage, Southern Pines and Whispering Pines that are within easy commuting distance to Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall.
“The volume now is higher than the boom in 2005,” Ensminger said.
In June 2018, Moore County Planning issued 567 permits. That figure grew each successive year from 595 permits in June 2019, to 674 permits in June 2020, to 809 permits issued in June 2021. Similar increases can be tracked with environmental permits and individual skilled trade permits.
“You can see over time, these increases. And these increases mean more demand on staff,” Ensminger said.
During the last budget year, Ensminger’s team has been reinforced with the addition of a part-time planner provided through the Triangle J Council of Governments. He works two days a week assisting the county with bringing its ordinances in line with Chapter 160D, a major overhaul of the state’s planning-enabling legislation, and helping to process residential building permit applications.
Moore County Planning oversees inspections for projects on county zoned land and development projects for seven of the 11 municipalities. In addition, the county has a mutual aid agreement with Aberdeen, Pinehurst, and Southern Pines’ planning offices.
Moore County Planning has an internal deadline of 15 days from receipt of a building permit application to review the document and process it for payment.
“It’s been very difficult to stay on that deadline,” Ensminger acknowledged. “We are also required by General Statute when a building inspection is requested, that we have 48 hours to complete.”