Amid fears of big zoning changes, planning board idea rejected
After listening to impassioned pleas from some residents urging that the town’s zoning ordinances be left alone, the Manteo Board of Commissioners on Dec. 5 unanimously rejected a planning board recommendation that called for a legal review of the Town Code to bring it in line with state zoning laws.
The debate over whether to move forward with that review is perhaps the latest sign that the quiet town of Manteo may again be at a crossroads when it comes to its vision for the future.
Town officials and residents have fought over the years to maintain Manteo’s unique character, including a successful campaign in the early 2000s to keep a Food Lion out. Among other zoning requirements, a 20,000-square-foot limit on buildings now exists to avoid big box stores and other large development — and drive-thrus are not permitted in town.
There are a number of reasons why concerns over development in Manteo may be bubbling to the surface now. Mayor Bobby Owens, about a year into his term, makes no secret of his view that some growth is needed in Manteo. The town is in the process of replacing its longtime manager, Kermit Skinner. And a new Concerned Citizens group — formed this summer around the issue of televising commissioners’ meetings — has become a vocal player in town politics.
In addition, renewed talk around town of a potential hotel, as well as the uncertain fate of several other larger parcels in town, have added a sense of urgency for some about what direction the town plans to take.
In that context, the planning board recommendation that was voted down by the commissioners on Dec. 5 aroused some suspicion that it might foreshadow an effort to pave the way for major zoning changes.
“We have zoning laws that we have worked on for many, many years,” said Bebe Woody, owner of the White Doe Inn in Manteo and one of the founders of the new citizens' group, when speaking during the Dec. 5 meeting. “We have a great foundation.”
Woody later told the Sentinel of an underlying frustration that some residents feel when it comes to town issues. “The trust level with the citizens is probably damaged,” she noted. “We don’t quite trust what is going on.”
Recent rumblings of zoning changes to allow more growth had some residents, like Tim Teeple, concerned about the motives of the review. “We are getting two different vibes,” said Teeple. “We hear one thing from the planning board and at past meetings of drive-thrus and hotels, and then wording is slid around. That’s why we are trying to figure out what is going on.”
Manteo Planning Board Director Hal Goodman told the Sentinel that his board’s recommendation for a legal review was “totally misconstrued” by some residents and commissioners as an effort to undermine the municipal code and make major changes.
Rather, he said, “The intent was for the ordinances to be compliant with current legislation,” as well as be enforceable.
Owens echoed those sentiments in an interview, characterizing opposition to the review of the Town Code as a “contrived movement, a movement to keep everything like it was…There was no intention of changing the ordinance.”
Goodman noted that the recommendation for the review came from a suggestion made by David Owens of the UNC School of Government that municipalities review their zoning ordinances in light of changes the N.C. General Assembly has made to state law over the last 10 years.
And Manteo Planning Director Melissa Dickerson acknowledged that the town has at least a few ordinances on the books that are not compliant with state law.
“Where I know there are issues that exist, and it’s not compliant, I just don’t enforce it,” she said in a Sentinel interview, pointing to the town’s definition of accessory dwellings and the owner occupancy requirement as examples.
Residents at the Dec. 5 meeting, however, urged the commissioners to reject the planning board recommendation. Woody said there was citizen support behind updating the Land Use Plan and the town’s 20-year plan before considering a legal review.
“We are a destination now,” she added. “Want it or not, you are because everyone loves Manteo. If we don’t think about the future and infrastructure it will take to meet these needs, you are going to be lost.”
Marshes Light resident John Adams told the commissioners that, “It seems to be the natural process would be to engage stakeholders…and have revised zoning ordinances grow organically from a revised plan and then perhaps conduct a legal review.”
One subject that comes up in any future discussion of development in Manteo is construction of a new hotel. Owens said he has supported the efforts of Elizabethan Inn owner Rajan Patel to demolish one of the inn’s back buildings and replace it with a small Marriott hotel.
“I don’t know if it is possible, but we can’t keep everything the same,” Owens said. “It can’t stay the same. If it does, it dies.”
He said that a hotel, among the handful of bed & breakfasts, would give visitors another option as far as accommodations. Currently, there are a few bed & breakfast inns, such as the White Doe Inn, Roanoke Island Inn and the Cameron House Inn. Tranquil House Inn on the Manteo Waterfront also offers accommodations.
Patel said he’s been frustrated by the obstacles he’s faced when discussing the possibility of putting a hotel on the Elizabethan Inn site with town officials. “I’ve had the financing ready,” he said. “The money was not the issue. The issue was the town.”
“This town is falling apart…nothing is open after eight p.m., the whole town shuts down,” Patel continued. He added, “I’d love to build a hotel in Manteo. It would bring in jobs and tax dollars. A new hotel would fill up and bring money back to the town.”
He said his plans would include razing the back building with 36 rooms and replacing it with a small-size Marriott of about 70 units. He would keep the main building fronting U.S. 64.
There are several other large parcels that could potentially be sites for significant development in Manteo, including the Duke of Dare parcel, which has been vacant since the early 2000s, as well as the site of the former Weeping Radish and the SAGA-owned parcel in Marshes Light. The SAGA site is slated for a 60-room hotel site as part of the Planned Unit Development, but the company has not submitted any plans to the town regarding the site.