In the nonpartisan race for Wilmington’s City Council, there are nine people competing for three open seats that carry four-year terms. Two incumbents are hoping for reelection; they are with us today. And one seat is wide open since Earl Sheridan decided not to run again.
Despite the fact that presidential election years turn out the highest numbers of voters, municipal elections have the most direct impact on quality of life. This fact is pretty widely accepted. But even the most educated and engaged among us don’t necessarily know the people who are running for Wilmington’s City Council. A political scientist at a well-respected local university admitted that even he couldn’t describe the candidates’, their positions, and city issues. It takes work.
Here’s how good we are at doing that work:
In the 2015 municipal election, North Carolina voters turned out to the tune of thirteen and a half percent. Brunswick County voters were far more engaged that year: 23% voted. Pender County also saw about 22% of registered voters come to the polls. In New Hanover County, the turnout rate was a dismal ten-and-a-half percent. In 2013, New Hanover County also fell to the bottom of the pack in voter turnout locally.
Segment 1: Clifford Barnett
Clifford Barnett is pastor of the Warner Temple AME Zion Church in Wilmington. He serves as Chairman of the Southeastern Dropout Prevention Coalition at UNC-Wilmington, he is a member of the Cape Fear Coalition for a Drug Free - Tomorrow Committee, and he was selected as a member of the D. C. Virgo Prep Academy Board of Advisors, where he mentors to five boys on a weekly basis. He is Vice President of the New Hanover County Smart Start Board, he spear-headed the Annual First 2000 Days Summit, and he is the founder of Bridges to Success, a program designed to offer assistance to students and their families who have been suspended from a middle or high school in New Hanover County.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Clifford Barnett, welcome to CoastLine.
Clifford Barnett: Thank you. Glad to be here.
RLH: You grew up in Maryland. What are some of the major differences you see in the community there versus the community that people in Wilmington face? Is it tougher here for a kid who's not born into privilege?
CB: No, I don't think it's tougher. I think it's basically about the same. And I think that any child is not born in privilege still needs an adequate education. He still needs opportunities to be employed. He still needs the opportunities to go to college.
RLH: Your bio shows -- as I just read -- that you serve the community in many specific, very hands-on, direct ways. Why a run at city council?
CB: Well, the run at city council is because -- as I mentioned -- I do serve the city by some hands-on stuff, but also I'm a leader, and I also want to be in a position where I could give more influence to the needs and the services that the folks here in Wilmington need and desire.
RLH: You said that you mentor some students on a weekly basis. And how would you have more of an impact as a city council member than, say, direct experience with those 5 boys?
CB: Well, work with the kids at D.C. Virgo only impacts five kids, a member of city council impacts families, it impacts future generations. And one of the things that I think about as we serve on city council, we are a team of seven. And as a team we impact not only what happens to those five kids now, but what will happen to them and their grandchildren and their great grandchildren.
RLH: So what does that mean in practical terms? How do you want to impact current and future generations as a member of city council? What will you do?
CB: In practical terms, some of the things that I'm very interested in; I'm interested in job training resources for local workers. I'm interested in getting employers to love our city, visit our city, come and say we want to employ some of the folks here in our city. I'm interested in more green spaces, recreational spaces throughout the city. I'm interested in making sure that Wilmington serves everybody equally, that all citizens have an opportunity to be a part of the success of Wilmington, North Carolina.
RLH: So that last one is a lovely idea. How do you tackle that in a concrete sense? Where are the areas of inequality?
CB: I think some of the areas of inequality are affordable, safe workforce housing where we can get housing throughout the city where people who are teachers and police officers can afford homes. I think another place that we could do that would be in the transportation and working with the infrastructure that we have here. How are we adequately preparing for all of the new buildings and all the things that we're doing here in a city that makes our city a great place to live.
RLH: We have a question from David; he's asking about the fact that Wilmington is the largest city in North Carolina without districts for city council. In other words, all of these seats on city council are at-large seats and we know there has been a preponderance of folks from the downtown area. What do you think about that?
CB: Well I think first of all, luckily here in Wilmington we have elected people of diversity, which is a great thing. And I think that the problem is that we've got to make sure that we're not large enough to have more than seven to nine council members and providing for most districts would be a difficult task. One, I thank God that is not broken. Thank God that right now it's working for us.
RLH: You think people are well-represented all over the city?
CB: I think so. And the other thing I think is that we must consider if we do the district as a portion we must also remember that I would encourage that we would vote for the mayor at large.
RLH: Darcelle asks, “How do you plan to effect change with an all-white board? How can you represent our minority population?”
CB: OK. Well, first of all, I'm not going to just represent the minority population. I'm a minority. I was born that way and raised that way. But I will represent all of the citizens here at Wilmington. The other thing is one of the things that I'm really good at is collaborating. I'm good at listening. I'm good at waiting. I think the way I can best serve is I use the acronym WAIT, which stands for Why Am I Talking. There's a lot I need to learn, and what I really want to do is just learn and listen and collaborate.
RLH: When we were talking just before we went on the air, you're a pastor of the church in Wilmington, and you talked about how your congregants come to you and say, “We’re more divided than we've ever been,” and we've seen social scientists point that out. This country has become so polarized and sorted, self-sorted in some areas. Some would argue that Wilmington is racially segregated in a way that we've never been able to completely heal. What do you say to the people who come to you in despair about how divided we are?
CB: I say look at the positive. I'd say that even though we are divided there are some things we have more in common than we have different. And so what I say to people is go back and look at yourself. Love your neighbor. Be positive and work for the betterment of our environment.
RLH: Are you talking about the neighbor that thinks like me and looks like me? Are you talking about the neighbor whose politics I completely disagree with?
CB: Both, both. I think the one that looks like you as well as the one that you totally disagree with because I think we have some great things in common. I think everybody wants to see our city grow. I think everybody wants to see our children be successful.
RLH: Public transportation in Wilmington and New Hanover County has faced a tough road in terms of keeping funding, expanding its base of people who ride by choice. Some local policymakers have said that WAVE transit should just be funded at a minimal level. Since most people in the area drive their own cars they have their own means for getting around. Others say the population is growing and the number of riders by choice needs to expand. Where do you stand on that and what do you think about funding for WAVE transit?
CB: I think that we need more funding for WAVE transit. I think that if we can get more people on the bus that will help us with the traffic and the infrastructure especially if we're building all of these new buildings that house a lot of folks. I think that we need more funding for WAVE transit.
RLH: And how do we get more people on the bus?
CB: I think you get more people on the bus, for one, I had the privilege of riding with the director of WAVE transit and he showed us some things that they're trying to do. I think we get more people on the bus by providing more buses, more regular routes, you know, and also providing buses that will really service people who are going to work early, coming back home.
RLH: There are many issues that don't come before members of Wilmington City Council that concern things like your position on incentives for film or offshore exploration for oil and gas. What role do you see if you were to win a seat on Wilmington City Council? What's your role in those issues that you wouldn't directly be involved in making policy on? How do you influence those issues?
CB: I think that, one, being a member of city council people listen to you. Then I would hope that I would be able to take those issues that our citizens are concerned about and share them with the powers that be, share with members of the Board of Commissioners or state legislators. And that would be my position.
RLH: We've heard that some of the functions in county and city government mean that there are redundancies and in local government. Is there anything that you would do to eliminate some of those redundancies or bring these two bodies together? Do we need both?
CB: I think we do need both because it is a big city. I think we do need both, but I also believe that one of the things that I would be able to help bring is a spirit of collaboration and to sit down and talk. You know I love being able to sit and talk and let's reason. I think that we could help with services like for example, schools. Schools are the responsibility of the county yet they are in the city. And how can we partner to make sure that we're doing the best we can for all citizens?
RLH: Navid asks, “What's your opinion on the food deserts around downtown Wilmington and how as a city council member could you influence that?”
CB: I'm very concerned about food deserts because one of the issues that affects children in poverty is that they don't get the opportunity to eat nutritious food. So I'd like to study more and be able to determine how we could help building places where kids can get some fresh food.
RLH: Robert Parr says, “Sea level rise is accelerating high tide flooding in Wilmington. A proposed development on the Cape Fear River across from Wilmington may be sited on Battleship Road. That's the only road into that development and Battleship Road floods regularly every year. It's going to flood more in the future. Battleship Road and Water Street were originally designed for a different sea level which no longer exists.” What are your thoughts about that?
CB: Well, I agree that's part of the problem with the infrastructure that we built two years ago and now we're having some issues, because like you said the sea level is up higher. They would use this to further study and provide what we need to do to make sure that those folks on that area are not flooded out.
RLH: And we've had a lot of questions about Project Grace. This is the plan to redo the main library on that whole block between Grace and Chestnut downtown. Some local stakeholders are concerned that County commissioners appear to be leaning toward a scenario that would lead to the loss of the library in its current form. It would move the Cape Fear museum downtown. There would be a lot of condos built in. Gareth Evans points out that this is a block from River Place, which is the new development and it will cause all manner of traffic issues. Now, of course this is a county issue. But as a city council member, what's your take on that?
CB: Well, I agree it's a county issue. I think that they're still doing some studies to really determine what procedure, what way they're going to handle that.
RLH: And briefly – short-term rentals -- what should the policy on those be?
CB: OK. Short-term rentals: I think the policy should be, first of all, we want people to want to preserve historic downtown. We think with short-term rentals there ought to be a combination of the homeowner being present and also perhaps even having a limited number of rentals in a certain area. I think we would need to monitor.
RLH: And that's our time. Thank you so much for joining us.
CB: I appreciate the opportunity.
Segment 2: Kevin O'Grady
Kevin O'Grady is completing his second four year term on the Wilmington City Council. He serves on the boards of WAVE Transit and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and he chaired the city attorney search committee this year.
He has participated in the Historic Wilmington Foundation and Residents of Old Wilmington – or ROW – and he established and volunteered as the Coordinator of the AARP Tax-Aide Program at the New Hanover County Library, assisting thousands of area residents.
He spent his pre-retirement career as a commercial litigator for 21 years. Before that, he worked as a consultant, a government auditor, a soldier and a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia.
RLH: Kevin O'Grady, welcome to CoastLine.
Kevin O'Grady: I'm happy to be back. Good to see you again.
RLH: Good to see you, too. When you think back to your days in the Peace Corps -- I imagine that was very early on.
KO: I was very, I was very young. I was 20 when I went.
RLH: 20 years old. So what stays with you about that time?
KO: Interesting, I'm still in contact with some of those people. It's the personal relationships I made -- the Internet is a wonderful thing. I actually can be in daily contact with my counterparts. The fellow I worked with who ran the cooperatives, and I was his assistant, basically, to help him with the, I would say the economic end of that agriculture. I didn't do the planting stuff. He was the agriculture graduate. I was a business major, economics major in college, and I went there and helped him set up accounting and marketing programs and credit programs.
RLH: So when you think about that idealistic 20-year-old, that young man that you were, if you met him now and he was sitting across from you, and looking at you, what would he think of you? What would you what would he say about how he turned out?
KO: I think he'd be pretty proud of me because you know I married my wife who had three children, and they became mine. We've been together 38 years. I had a wonderful career, made our, made the money we needed so that I could retire early, she could retire early. And I think he'd be very proud that I'm back in public service, that I'm doing it again, this time here and doing it as an elected official.
RLH: And, we're going to get to a question from Jez in just a moment. But I want to point out when you last ran for Wilmington City Council, that was 2013. You were the biggest vote-getter. You got five thousand two hundred and ten votes, and you are also the biggest and most visible lightning rod on the city council. Most of the questions that have come in for the Coastline Candidate Interviews are directed towards you, whether they're Kevin O'Grady specific or not, or whether they could be addressed to any of the other candidates. Why is that?
KO: Well, I speak my mind and it doesn't change depending on who I go to. I recently ran into somebody who recalled that when I went and talked to the Americans for Prosperity four years ago and he said, boy they were gunning for you that night. And I said yeah, but I told them exactly the same thing. I told the people the night before and he said, yeah I really admired that in you. I mean, I have my opinions. I am pretty clear about them, I think. And that's me. You know what you're going to get if you vote for me. And I think people appreciate that, and I think that's part of the reason that because I know there are people who come up and say, I disagree with you on this, but I'm going to vote for you anyway. You know they're not one-issue voters; one-issue voters are very difficult to deal with because they've got one issue.
RLH: Speaking of one issue, Jez writes, "Moved to Wilmington as part of the supporting cast for the film industry… when it left I began renting a VRBO I purchased as an investment house.” Jez asks, “You have been working to try to shut down VRBOs.”
Now, first of all, you have done work with residents of Old Wilmington. That's a neighborhood association that has taken a position that has evolved. It’s, I think, now a little bit more nuanced, but we've had other people asking about your position on short-term rentals. And Laura asked: “since you have been part of the residents of Old Wilmington, and you've talked about representing the interests of ROW on city council, doesn't that mean you should recuse yourself from this issue? Does that not give you an inordinate amount of power on the issue?”
KO: No, it really doesn't. I'm one vote, and our recusal rules are very clear. You have to have a financial interest. There is no financial interest here that would be like saying you know I used to be on the board of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, while if a preservation issue comes up, you can't vote on that. Of course not. We sit in a legislative position on the council; we decide policy. We get to take in all of our experience in that. And, yes, I was a board member. I was the president of ROW, and I'm still a member, although I don't go to the meetings anymore because I tend to be, as you say, the lightning rod if I go there. But that's just one point of view.
RLH: So then unpack for us your views on short-term rentals in Wilmington.
KO: Well, first of all, people think I'm against them and that is not the case from the beginning. I have said they are appropriate for the commercial areas of town and there's plenty of opportunity there.
RLH: Do you think they should not exist in the residential?
KO: No, I think that's a position people try to impose on me because it's a great straw man to knock down. The fact is I have looked at how can we deal with this phenomenon. This national industry –remember-- is a billion dollar industry in a city that has residential neighborhoods, and a lot of cities are struggling with this. And the essence of a residential neighborhood is you have to have residents. Interestingly, this city dealt with that problem in the 90s when bed and breakfasts began to spread in the city, and the city's answer was we are going to add a section to our home occupation ordinance. And what it allowed was for people to run bed and breakfasts, but there were conditions. One was the rental had to be, and, I quote, I brought it so I could read it correctly, “Shall be clearly incidental and subordinate to its use as a principal residence.” In other words, you had to have a resident who lived there and that's my feeling.
If you're in a residential neighborhood, all the people around you invested --probably the biggest investment of their life to live in a residential area. And now you're saying I want to turn the one next to you into a hotel. That's a problem for me. So I have evolved a little bit, and I think some of the other members have evolved -- essentially to mimic or to replicate what we did with bed and breakfasts, which is also very similar to what they did in Nashville and it has worked successfully there. It has residential requirements; they are very pleased with it. We've had actual staff down here, and they're happy with the way it's working, and they also say that it's had a very positive effect on the affordable housing issue because the investors who come in will buy the affordable houses first. And so, we've had the, I mean what we did with bed and breakfasts, which I think will replicate well is residential requirements’ spatial separation, which we did at bed and breakfasts. Limiting the number of rooms, the amount of traffic that can be there, how many staff, and then strictly following it. It's worked at the B and B's, and the B and B owners are neighbors. I live across the street from the biggest one in the city. He's a neighbor.
RLH: And we've certainly heard that's one approach that we know is in the works. The city council has not yet voted on policy. That's ahead. We've also heard that regulation in Asheville is really tough because you can still hop on VRBO or Airbnb and find short-term rentals without any of those controls -- that have not been caught yet. And so how would you regulate something like that?
KO: The Internet has allowed this phenomenon to occur, and I think the Internet is going to tame it. We've had some vendors come to us with computer programs that electronically search all the online reservation services, and they can report to you who's advertising, and where they're advertising -- including their addresses. And we've -- in our discussions -- have come up with something which turned out to be very helpful. We had indicated that every licensee would have a license number and would be required to have that in every advertisement. And the people who run the software say, oh then you're going to be able to catch everybody because they're going to have a license number, if they're legal. And if they're not, they're not going to have a license number or they're going to have a fake one, and they seem confident that that will help us with enforcement.
Now we're talking mostly, now these are not the VRBOs, the Airbnb-type. Now, the VRBO is a different issue because now you don't have a resident, by definition, when it's rented. The resident is not there. That opens you to investors who don't live here. So my feeling is -- and I heard the mayor a couple of days ago on this show and was surprised that he was very close to the position that I have been arguing for -- and my feeling is, the solution, as we evolve, as we get back to it, would be to pass it for the Airbnb-type rental where a resident is present and still hold off on the VRBO.
RLH: Hold off? What do you mean hold off?
KO: I mean, it won't be part of the home occupation regulations yet, then get that software going, let our staff get used to it. Let them learn how they can use it, how they can use it to enforce properly. And then come back and say, OK what are the terms -- if any -- we would allow somebody to basically rent their house and not be there?
RLH: And I want to acknowledge there are a lot of people with questions about this, and we could easily spend this entire interview on short-term rentals. We could spend the whole hour on short-term rentals and not get to Charlie Rivenbark. So Bee writes, “Do you think Wilmington is large enough for the amount of development happening and being planned around here? Why are factors like traffic and road work not a priority, and development is a priority? Can Wilmington hold such a population without traffic issues in the future?”
KO: OK, first of all there's two questions there. Can we build the roads we need? And the answer is we're trying to. There's now a couple of projects up on Military Cutoff. I, just this past week, sat with our transportation people. I said I want to see the numbers on what's been proposed and whether that really improves the situation. And in that, we uncovered that some of those numbers needed to be reworked, and the plans need to be looked at again. So we do, in fact, try to deal with keeping the infrastructure up with what's coming. Now the other part of the question was, why are people interested in coming here? The fact is we've made a great city to live in. You know my theme this year is, you know, keep Wilmington the place we love to live. We love it. And people who come and visit here love it. They want to live here. We are a victim of our success. That's why these businesses are coming. That's why businesses are coming, that's why shopping centers are coming, and that's why people want to move here.
RLH: So then how do you balance that?
KO: Well, that's what my campaign theme is about, how do we keep the things we love but still accommodate these people? The comprehensive plan is a good step that way. But we on the council, the staff, and the building community still do not really understand how to use it. We're struggling with that right now. We're going to have to learn how to use that better so that we can get better mixed-use, hopefully, somewhat self-contained developments that will not overtax our roadways.
RLH: And speaking of mixed-use, the River Place project, this is the mixed-use project that's taking the place of the Water Street parking deck that recently went up in price significantly. And city council voted to accept that and build it into the budget. How do we know that this price isn't going to keep ballooning every couple of quarters?
KO: Well, first of all, the increase that came in was still within budget. We had budgeted much more money for it. The contract involved there is a fixed price contract. The builder has got to build it for that price. What happens is they got to the end after some delays and with the pressure on builders around the country, the estimates went up. We always anticipated there would be some increase. Our total budget was less than the original contract. Even with the increase that we put in there, we're still within the original budget for the project. So we didn't need to ask any additional money from the taxpayer. We didn't need it. We were within budget.
RLH: Why so many delays?
KO: It's a project so complicated, and it's hard to get them all the pieces. You're not just talking about well let's go down there and build. You're talking about the city has to arrange their financing; it depends on the builder’s financing. And then you've got a contractor out there you've got to get in, he's got to get subs. It takes a lot of pieces to come together.
RLH: We really could spend the rest of the hour. Kevin O'Grady thanks so much for being with us.
KO: Been a pleasure. Always.
Segment 3: Charlie Rivenbark
Charlie Rivenbark worked for the U.S. Post Office until he was drafted and went to Viet Nam in 1969. He served a tour of duty with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and rose to the rank of Sergeant. When he returned, he opened several businesses – including a restaurant on College Road that he later sold. He went into commercial real estate – which he is still involved in today.
He served two earlier terms on City Council from 1993 to 2001. He was elected again in 2009 and is now completing his fourth term. He has served on the North Carolina Azalea Festival Board – including as President in 2007. He also serves on the CFPUA Board, the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority, the Cape Fear Council of Governments, and the Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization.
RLH: Charlie Rivenbark, welcome to CoastLine.
Charlie Rivenbark: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here, Rachel.
RLH: Charlie Rivenbark, as someone who is an integral part of the governing body of CFPUA and the lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority, what are you saying to constituents about how the local drinking water supply got tainted with these unregulated compounds that are probably pretty detrimental to human health?
CR: We are in the process of determining that now with the help of our regulatory agencies, the Department of Environmental Quality, The Department of Health and Human Services, and our Federal Environmental Protection Agency. To answer your question, what am I saying to people? I've been drinking that water all my life. My family has; I have grandchildren that do. It concerns me greatly, but I can assure you that the CFPUA is doing everything that we can to ensure that the water supply is safe and potable. We are we are doing an experiment with carbon filters. The General Assembly awarded the CFPUA and the UNCW folks a grant, and we're upping our water sampling and the level that was given to us of 140 parts per billion. We are well below that and continue to stay below that in our finished water from the Sweeny plant. So my answer to that is, I tell people that until we know something different I feel that the water is probably safe to drink. There's not been any spike in certain types of diseases, or what have you, that we can attach to it. But my hope is, and what we're striving for is, for DuPont Chemours people just to completely cease and desist putting anything in the water that may be a carcinogen or anything of that of that same ilk.
RLH: Jaz writes, “Should the elected members of the CFPUA Board have been more proactive in getting information to the public?”
CR: Well, that's a good question. On June the 7th I was sent an e-mail from our director stating that the next day that the Star News was going to be running a story about our water. And it was, it was my first blush at it. It was it. And we immediately went into high gear and started doing everything that we could to find out what was going on. And I know that Dr. Knappe had come to see CFPUA and was engaging them in doing water sampling. But it was, Rachel, it was a non-regulated contaminant, you know, it was in the water, and once we did find out, you know, we've reacted in concert with the regulatory agencies that we looked to.
RLH: That's the gap in timing now that I think sometimes members of the public have a hard time understanding that you're saying; that the first thing you knew about Gen-X being in the local water supply was the day before the Star News broke the story.
CR: I didn't even know what the story was going to be. It was just said that a story was coming out about the water. And, you know, I don't think that our people, you know, at the CFPUA, our staff, our engineering folks I don't think they realized at that time and in fact, I'm positive that it was not something of this level. And because I mean there's a whole menu of things in water, and our Sweeney water plant is state of the art, and it takes everything down well below what the EPA tells us the levels are. And we're striving for somebody to give us a level that's based on science and not just some, well let's go to 140 parts per billion.
RLH: Do you think this points out any weaknesses in what the regulations actually are? Can we rely on EPA -- can we rely on North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality, or does CFPUA need to establish its own standards for drinking water?
CR: That's a very good question. We're not a regulatory agency. We provide, we buy, we take water in, we treat it, and we sell it. I think we're getting ready to find out in the near future the answer to that question. Can we? And, to date I don't have as much confidence in them as I thought I did.
RLH: What would it take for CFPUA to say we are establishing our own standards?
CR: I don't think the general statute that we operate under, I don't think we can, you know, that here again that's a good question – one I've not had asked. I don't know that we can, that we can establish things sometimes in the city, the state will have a standard and we can go better. I don't know how that would apply to our water system, Rachel, but that's a good question. Here again, that would be something that would smack of being a regulatory agency, and we're not.
RLH: Do you see redundancies? You've been in city government for quite a long time now. Do you see redundancies with city and county government? And if so, what do you do about those redundancies? Gareth Evans is asking, “Why do we have city and county governments next to each other doing remarkably similar things?”
CR: Well, the North Carolina constitution mandates that there will be counties in North Carolina; there are a hundred. They mandate that there is going to be one sheriff in that county, and the county commissioners because the counties are an extension of state government. They run the courts. They provide health education and welfare. They run the health department, the school system, and the courts. And when areas like Wilmington started to grow, and people were concentrating in the city, there needed to be another level of government to handle the municipal services, and that's what cities do. We were doing water sewer, police, fire, planning, zoning and then, until a few years ago, the city was able to annex by law when areas became urbanized much like they are just north of the city of Wilmington, and like they are south of the city of Wilmington.
But the General Assembly, in their wisdom, took that away from the cities, and now we can only volunteer. We can only take volunteer annexations. So the county folks have created two cities, and we really don't have that much redundancy. We don't, they don't do water and sewer anymore. That was the beauty in creating the CFPUA; it is to provide water, sewer and the city does the trash and the storm water. So there really isn't a lot of redundancy in the two. It looks like it but there isn't. The sheriff still patrols; they have, they do their own trash pick-up. But, I wish we could take in those areas that have become urbanized and so badly need to be a part of the city.
RLH: One of the concerns that we have heard from our listeners over and over again in a number of different forms is the representation of developers and real estate people on the city and county government planning commissions. As a person who's been involved in commercial real estate for most of your professional career, can you think of a time that you said, no we need to put the brakes on that for now, or this isn't really true to the spirit of Wilmington?
CR: We have a very, our zoning ordinance is probably one of the strictest and tightly written anywhere in North Carolina. And we're told that from time to time about developers that come here from other places. There have been. Let me get back to what I do. I'm not a developer. I lease retail space to Ma and Pa that want to open up a restaurant; once in a blue moon I'll sell a tract – land -- but that's it. I mean, it's just like people in the residential real estate, they sell houses. You know, I'd do leasing and rentals and stuff like that. We have a lot of, 70 percent of what we do is based on land use issues. So yeah, we are thrown right into the mix. And I have seen projects come down there that just didn't fit our mold. And we have either sent them back or denied them. But during the recession that we just came out of a few years back, everything stopped the music, hammers stop banging, and a lot of projects got put on hold or done away with altogether, and then when the economy turned around, all those projects plus the new ones came along. So it looks like a lot more going on. But it's people catching up. But we have a very good comprehensive plan. That's just been drafted, and we, I mean we, apply every plan that comes to us. Our staff does, the planning commission does, and we end up doing it, the council to gauge that against our comprehensive plan.
RLH: But there's still a learning curve, isn't there, in terms of how you're interpreting that comprehensive map?
CR: And we, you know, we're laypeople. I'm not an engineer; I'm not a lawyer. We have those people on our staffs, and our staff is second to nobody. And we have a very good planning commission that vets all of that before it gets to us, and they do it. I call it the heavy lifting, and they were ultimately the ones that make that decision. And a lot of those projects that you see that come to council, they've already, some of them got disapproved at the planning commission level and went away. And so we never even get to see them.
RLH: I have to ask about short-term rentals. This is the issue this year, it seems, for people. If you could single-handedly shape policy, and say, this is the way it's going to be, what would that policy look like?
CR: You know, a wise man once told me every good deal if it's not a good -- every good deal has a little bit of heartburn on both sides of the transaction, and I don't think this is going to be a bit different. Our staff has done -- in my opinion --yeoman's job in going out into the neighborhood having neighborhood meetings. And this is not something we're doing knee jerk. It's going to be well-thought-out, and I don't know exactly how it's going to shape up. We're having a forum tonight over at the Hannah Block building with the ROW people. And I know that's going to be, you know, heavy on their mind. But you have property rights, and you have people that moved into a residential neighborhood, and they want to stay completely single-family nature. So there is going to be probably some compromise on both sides.
RLH: What would heartburn mean for you?
CR: Well, heartburn for me means we need to do something. I've always been told if you've got a problem you need to take care of it, and address it because there's another one right behind it. And if you don't take care of them as they come, they start backing up on you. We need to move forward with this whole house rentals as a short-term rentals, and come up with a plan and put it out there for the folks, and if it's not right, if it needs to be tweaked, we can do that, and we will do that.
RLH: How do you walk that line between listening to your constituents, and then shaping and executing policy that Charlie Rivenbark thinks is the right thing to do?
CR: Well, fortunately the city doesn't have to live with everything that Charlie Rivenbark thinks is the right thing to do. There are seven of us down there, and we have a terrific staff and a planning commission. And we do get a great deal of input, particularly on an issue like this, where there's so much passion about it. And when we get down to the final draft, I've got to feel good about it. I don't vote to go along with everybody. I vote what I think is the right thing to do. But I will also listen to my other peers on council, and we'll come up with, and I think, we'll come up with a decision and put it out there. And as I stated before, if we see that there's some unintended consequences that happen with our result, we'll tweak it.
RLH: Victoria writes, "Are you concerned about how fast development is happening in town without fixing some of the more serious underlying issues racial divide, opioid issues to name just a few?"
CR: Well, the opioid issue is, that's something that's not just here, that's everywhere, and we get, you know, we get tagged with the opioid capital, and I don't know if that's, I guess it's true, but even if you only have one or two people affected, it's too many. So we've developed our Blue Ribbon Commission on youth violence and crime, and a lot of that's tied to drug use. But we're moving forward. We're spending money. We got federal help, local/regional help with the opioid. And we've got to educate people, and get hold of people before they get involved with that.
On the racial divide, that's something that, you know, I was just talking to Reverend Barnett. I do hope that that we will continue to have some African-American representation on our council. I think it's important, Dr. Sheridan, who I sit next to, on the council has been a valuable asset. We've always had black representation on our council, and I have many friends in the black community. I consider them close friends. I don't feel it as much as probably some people do because -- you know -- I speak my mind. They appreciate that. And when people come before council, and this is what I'm speaking about, strictly on council, when people come down there I don't look at them as black, white, Republican, Democrat. They come down there with a problem or an issue, and we handle it. I would love to see race relations be better.
I have an 11-year-old grandson. He doesn't see color. And I think it's a generational thing that's coming in.
RLH: And that's all the time we have. That's this edition of Coastline, Charlie Rivenbark. Thank you so much for being with us today.
CR: It's been a pleasure.