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Citizen Input Pointing The Way For County’s Future Growth

Most of us have heard variations on the business catchphrase, “Failing to plan means planning to fail.” To ensure that New Hanover County has a successful future, the county government has undertaken a multiyear process to create the first comprehensive plan for New Hanover County.

As you likely know, comprehensive planning is the process that determines community goals and aspirations in terms of community development. The outcome of the process, the Comprehensive Plan, will dictate public policy in terms of transportation, utilities, land use, recreation and housing. In New Hanover County, by enlisting county residents and interest groups to share their opinions and ideas, we are creating a road map that will guide our community’s growth for at least the next 25 years.

This plan is vitally important because of how rapidly our community is expected to grow. Population projections tell us that within the next 25 years, we anticipate growing by nearly 123,000 citizens, reaching nearly 337,000 people. This growth is similar to adding another citythe current size of Wilmington to New Hanover County. Accommodating this level of growth in an especially sensitive coastal environment presents us with significant challenges.

Starting early in 2016, our planning staff will begin to implement the comprehensive plan. This work will be guided by a list of 21 consensus goals set over the past two years through a citizen participation process. The county’s residents and stakeholders have expressed their opinions about how we will grow and how development patterns are shaped. Among the key themes that emerged were that people are tired of traffic congestion and they are tired of suburban sprawl.

With those goals to guide us, and with continuing public feedback, our staff began working on a detailed and specific land use plan. This land use plan will be used as a guide to help make development decisions and ultimately help New Hanover County update zoning regulations.

Developing the zoning ordinance will be a two- or three-year process. With help from planning experts, we will be looking for ways to make the county’s land-use regulations work more effectively to accomplish today’s growth priorities. The comprehensive plan’s goals have a few overarching themes. Mixed uses, so people can live closer to the places where they work, shop, dine and play, is one. Sustainability is another. That means ensuring that growth doesn’t outstrip the community’s ability to provide needed services and infrastructure. Sustainability also includes stewardship of our environment, open spaces, recreational opportunities, and clean air and water.

Two other ideas are part of these goals: a complete community and a place for everyone, meaning a place to live, a place to work, and a place to get a good education.

Enlisting the public was the key component in creating this shared development vision for the county’s future. It began by inviting citizens to join six themed committees, which explored topics including the livable built environment; harmony with nature; a resilient economy; healthy community; and responsible regionalism. The sixth topic was what we call “interwoven equity,” which is about how to ensure that all population groups can shape and share in the community’s prosperity. A total of 161 volunteers from every corner of the county participated in these committees.

They passed their recommendations to a smaller citizen advisory committee, appointed by the county commissioners, which worked with our county planning staff and with planning consultants.

It was important to involve as wide a cross section of citizens as possible to help ensure that this common vision for our future will be widely accepted, and the resulting policies will be effective. For those of us tasked with how to use public funds and set public priorities, especially the elected board of county commissioners, that citizen input is invaluable in helping make the most responsible decisions. An inclusive, transparent process like this should improve the public’s trust in how our community is governed. Public feedback will continue to be important as we move into rewriting the zoning ordinance.

Why is this process necessary? Whether it’s carefully planned or not, this region is growing and will continue to grow. In fact, the three-county Lower Cape Fear region has been one of the nation’s fastest growing areas for several decades now.

Available land for future growth is becoming scarce. Open space and natural areas are increasingly precious. Farms and forests are being squeezed. Public feedback tells us that preserving these amenities is a high priority for much of our population. Yet at the same time, we have an urgent need for not just more housing, but housing that’s affordable for working people; for improved transportation to keep the economy working efficiently; and for economic development that will provide good jobs for that growing population.

We are working to ensure that our growth policies help us achieve those objectives.

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