Currituck discusses options to remove public comment time from evidentiary hearings

Published 12:16 pm Wednesday, October 11, 2023

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At the October 2 meeting, Currituck commissioners engaged in a lengthy discussion about a request to amend the UDO to exclude public comments from evidentiary hearings, but ultimately voted to reject the amendment to allow a place for the public to give input.

When the board holds an evidentiary or quasi-judicial hearing, by law they are only allowed to consider expert testimony. While community members have been allowed to share comments, it has brought about frustration from all involved because the board is not allowed to make decisions based on community input.

“This amendment helps clarify that the purpose of evidentiary hearings is to gather facts and not to solicit public opinion and comment,” the amendment description said.

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“Our intent is not to first and foremost disallow public opinion; it just doesn’t have a place in a quasi-judicial proceeding,” said Chairman Bob White, who has explained that just as an audience member of a court case cannot stand up and speak his opinion, in the same way the public cannot share opinions during a quasi-judicial hearing.

The board still wants the public to have an opportunity, however, to share their thoughts on these hearings. They discussed possible changes to the proposed amendment, such as incorporating public comments related to evidentiary hearings during the regular public comment time at the beginning of meetings.

Commissioner Kitty Etheridge lamented the current system: “We tell everybody, ‘You need to get an attorney. You need to have expert witnesses.’ I’ve been through it. I know what it costs to get expert witnesses. I know what it costs to get an attorney. You’re talking about $40,000 my family spent to keep a junkyard from coming to my neighborhood … We took a second mortgage on our home to fight the county and I have a problem when you don’t allow people the right to speak … I know it’s the way [the law is] written but there ought to be some [other] way … it just bothers me.”

Commissioner Paul Beaumont replied that while he agreed with Etheridge, “the county learned if we don’t have somebody that’s quote unquote an expert to testify against an applicant it immediately gets overturned when it goes to the Appellate Court.”

Residents can share testimony if it is evidence such a relevant pictures or documents, they just cannot share opinions or grievances.

Commissioners agreed that the current language in the amendment is vague, and opted to reject it so staff could reword it and give a place for community input.

Commissioners stressed that the best time to get involved in an issue is during community meetings. Comments from the public are recorded and entered in the public record for the application.

“The community meeting is the first stop,” said commissioner Paul Beaumont. “That’s where the community needs to roll out and learn about the project; and if they don’t like it for whatever reason that is the best time to start the ball rolling to stop it.”

Once an applicant files a request with the county, commissioners by law can no longer engage with anyone in the community about the issue, said commissioner Owen Etheridge.

Also at the meeting, commissioners were criticized by resident John Snowden III.

During public comment, Snowden criticized the board for allowing what he described as “unmanaged growth” to continue in the county, resulting in a county-wide tax increase that has drawn surprise from some residents.

“The bigger picture, though, is not the budget … It was the fact that you let growth go on so much that there was nothing you could do. You did nothing to control growth,” Snowden said.

He expressed concern that large developers are “taking the money and running” and not providing for infrastructure like schools or land for schools.

During commissioner reports, Chairman Bob White responded to Snowden’s comments: “We cannot require builders to build a school, to donate land, or to do anything. The school board had actually been talking to [a large developer] about donating land to be used for a school and that smells to high heaven of pay to play – if we get them to give up land so they can get their neighborhood passed.

“So we opted – the Board of Commissioners – not to engage in that. We thought it was better to keep it neat and clean and we would buy the land from someone and develop a school. Yes, it cost us money but at the end of the day we kept our noses clean and there were no improprieties that were suggested or could have been misconstrued,” White concluded.

Moving on, Ike McRee said in his county attorney’s report that the county clerks have relocated to the Old Bank building on the west side of Hwy 168 and will be accepting water bill payments. Customers can also use the drive-through or the night drop box.

McRee also reported that the efforts of the county to hire law firm Warden Smith to represent the county in the General Assembly were successful.

In prior years, Currituck County has not asked for or received anything from the state in the way of appropriations. This year, several trips to Raleigh by commissioners and the work of the lobbyists helped to secure $4 million for airport capital projects and a total of $16 million for water and/or sewer projects.