KDH tries new approach to event homes

By on January 23, 2020

Mayor Ben Sproul warned that some forms of regulation could bring litigation.

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.


  • MSgt-OBX

    I think that this issue is way too late for discussion. There aren’t many places that haven’t been built out with “event” homes.

    Thursday, Jan 23 @ 5:18 pm
  • surf123

    I did not have any hopes for the town addressing the issue. Everyone knows they are interested in the tax revenue and not safety. The simple solution is to make the setbacks proportional to the square footage. The bigger the house the bigger the setbacks. It will take a good fire that wipes out adjoining houses to get action taken or a big enough storm to pummel then into the sea.

    There is not any measure that would classify a 28-bedroom house and a single-family resident. I know a few Mormon families with 9 kids and (1) with 10 kids. So maybe you could get to 12 rooms. Through in the both sets of grandparents and you get to 14.

    Thursday, Jan 23 @ 10:06 pm

    Yep, that’s right MSgt, the horse has left the barn, years ago. As to fighting a fire, good luck there. In season equipment would have a tough time getting to the “house” (without a CAT D-8). Much less between them. Maybe the Commissioners should look into requiring fire retardant treated materials for construction. That might give the D-8 time to clear the driveway.

    Friday, Jan 24 @ 8:00 am
  • RAJ

    Re: MSgt-OBX, actually there are hundreds of available properties to be built out. Most have older homes or motels built on them. KDH officials just need to find a way to make these under-performing properties (i.e. tax generating) available for redevelopment.

    Friday, Jan 24 @ 8:18 am
  • Travis

    Disappointing. Every survey of the Town’s residents have demonstrated an overwhelming desire to limit the overdevelopment of the oceanfront, in particular the megahomes. And yet the board continues to conveniently ignore the people’s will on this issue. The next election can’t come soon enough.

    Friday, Jan 24 @ 9:29 am
  • RicknKDH

    I find it incredible that Commissioner BJ McAvoy would argue over this because “the proposed law was unenforceable.” Hey B.J. you were ELECTED to get this done. Enforcement is the police’s job, not yours. And if our police can’t or won’t, fire the police chief and get one that will enforce the law.

    Strike one B.J. Remember Bev?

    Friday, Jan 24 @ 12:20 pm
  • Steve Werkheiser

    If a party house has higher occupancy than allowed per the rental contract, doesn’t the PM company evict the tenants with the help of the PD? Also, isn’t there an occupancy restriction per the septic system design? How can there be enough room for the house, parking and septic tank at these places? Wish they would allow us part-timers to vote, too!

    Saturday, Jan 25 @ 6:51 pm
  • dan

    These houses are not residential. They are commercial hotels. Make them meet commercial building and fire codes. They should have sprinklers, larger exits, exit signs, panic bars on the doors and so on.

    Sunday, Jan 26 @ 2:38 pm
  • Steve

    The destruction continues..

    Monday, Jan 27 @ 6:21 am
  • George Kissell

    The biggest issue being ignored is the increased flooding on Beach Road from these mega homes. It’s not global warming folks. It’s the large parking areas and reduction of ground space reducing absorption. In 20 years we are now seeing areas of Beach Road that rarely flooded now experiencing heavy flooding.

    Monday, Jan 27 @ 6:39 am