By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on January 23, 2020
With new leadership at its helm, the Kill Devil Hills Board of Commissioners is taking a look at addressing some longstanding concerns about the proliferation of large event homes along the town’s oceanfront – choosing to focus on possible incentives to offer developers in exchange for incorporating safety features into new structures.
After a two-hour joint work session with the Kill Devil Hills Planning Board on Jan. 22, the commissioners directed town staff to pursue zoning amendments that would encourage, but not require, items such as fire suppression systems and designated emergency drive isles.
They also resurrected an amendment that had been voted down in October by the previous board that would require increased vegetative buffering between homes with a 6,000-square-foot lot coverage or greater.
“I think we’re now in a moment where there’s a bunch of people up here ready to take some action,” asserted newly elected Mayor Ben Sproul at the meeting. “Because we can’t prohibit certain things that we don’t want, we’re looking at ways to incentivize property owners to build [large event homes] in ways that that we will find more compatible.”
Sproul and Mayor Pro Tem Ivy Ingram, who was also newly elected in November, threw their support behind another previously rejected amendment that would require additional parking lot setbacks, an emergency access lane for homes with 11 bedrooms or more and limited stacked parking. But the three other members of the board didn’t support the changes.
The town’s planning staff promoted the idea of limited stacking to six cars and enhanced access. Describing the current situation at some event homes as a “wall of cars,” Planning Director Meredith Guns asserted that it is not uncommon, under the current requirements, for 12 or so vehicles to stack up all the way to N.C. 12.
For his part, Assistant Planning Director Cameron Ray added, “When you’re talking 24 or 20 vehicles, you’re looking at a NASCAR pile-up in an accident, so it is actually providing circulation where people can get in and out of the property safely, not just fire apparatus.”
With some pushback from newly elected Commissioner BJ McAvoy, who argued the proposed law was unenforceable, the board opted to have staff explore other alternatives to address parking issues and look at the possibility of incentivizing some of those features. Last October, Commissioners Terry Gray and John Windley, the two holdovers from the previous board, voted against the measure that would have required additional parking lot setbacks, an emergency access lane and limits on stacked parking.
Some commissioners asked that illuminated exit signs and additional egress such as deck-to-deck stairways also be considered in an incentive system.
Guns told the commissioners that her staff and town attorney, Casey Varnell, have already been exploring a potential zoning measure that would require greater setbacks for homes of a certain size due to its additional fire hazard and proximity to other homes. As an incentive, if developers installed fire suppression systems, then setback requirements would revert back to what they were for homes of lesser size.
The debate over how to regulate these large event homes has been ongoing in local municipalities since the N.C. General Assembly stripped municipalities’ right to regulate size of homes by the number of bedrooms. In Kill Devil Hills, that debate heated up last summer when SAGA moved forward with plans to build two 24-bedroom homes and one 28-bedroom home on the oceanfront.
SAGA’s plans prompted the creation of a group called KDH Against Mini-Hotels, which has advocated for changes in the zoning ordinance. One of its members, Beth O’Leary, urged commissioners at the work session to take action.
Noting that the homes are classified under state law as single-family homes, O’Leary said, “We have to recognize that they are single-family homes, but for God’s sakes, they don’t act like them, they don’t look like them and they don’t treat their neighbors like them. So, we have to be able to find a way…to make sure they’re safe.”
Unlike other towns in Dare County, Kill Devil Hills has stopped short of placing square footage limits on the size of homes — a policy that several municipalities such as Duck, Southern Shores and Nags Head implemented after the N.C. General Assembly’s ruling in 2015.
Sproul said such limits on the size of homes in Kill Devil Hills was not an option due to the deep lots along the oceanfront.
“The problem with putting a cap on at this point is that, if you curtail what the property owner can do with their lot to a point where it really starts taking a lot of value away, those things put the town in a legal position we don’t like to be in — i.e., they would sue and they would win.”
The mayor also noted that the possibility of creating a third designation for large event homes, alongside single-family and commercial designations, doesn’t appear to have support at the state level.
Sproul also floated the idea of amending the zoning ordinance to allow cottage courts to be developed on 75-foot-wide oceanfront lot opposed to the current requirement of 100 feet.
Several years ago, town commissioners amended the zoning ordinance to again allow for cottage courts as a way to encourage development other than large event homes. No developers, however, have taken advantage of the new allowance.
That change to the cottage court amendment, along with the amendment that will require increased vegetative buffering, will go to the planning board for consideration next month.
Town staff is expected to come back to commissioners this spring with a draft amendment on the incentivization of fire suppression systems and later, alternatives to the parking amendments.