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Wrightsville Beach seeks legislation to increase signatures required for ballot initiatives

Wrightsville Beach, NC.
Benjamin Schachtman
Wrightsville Beach, NC.

Wrightsville Beach is requesting a change in state law that would increase the number of signatures needed for residents to put an initiative on the local ballot. A town leader said the current requirement is unreasonably low and poses the need for costly special elections.

As part of state law, the town’s current charter allows residents to use a petition to put forward an ordinance — basically, a change to the town’s rules and regulations.

North Carolina doesn’t allow statewide voter initiatives — like the kind found in California — but progressives were historically able to get the process added to municipal charters in a few places around the state, including Wrightsville Beach and the City of Wilmington.

To put an ordinance forward in Wrightsville Beach, a resident needs a certain number of signatures for a petition. Under the town’s current charter that number is equal to 35% of the people who voted in the most recent election. Right right now, that’s 187.

So, with just shy of 190 signatures, a resident can put forward their ordinance. In most cases, the town must either then pass the ordinance as is — or put it to a vote by special election if a general election isn’t within six months.

Wrightsville Beach has only received one such petition in the last four years, according to the town. In September of last year, a resident submitted a petition to amend the town’s code of ordinance, adding, “Elevators and lifts are allowed in the setbacks and may encroach 4 feet into the side-yard or rear-yard setback area.” 

In this case, town attorney Brian Edes determined that the law actually allowed Wrightsville Beach to send the request to the town’s planning board, a decision the UNC School of Government agreed with, according to documents provided by the town.

Still, the Mayor Pro-Tem Hank Miller said the petition reminded town aldermen that they had long discussed requesting the General Assembly to change Wrightsville Beach’s charter to make it more difficult to file a petition.

Miller noted that voter turnout for municipal elections can be quite low, especially with uncontested races, meaning the signature requirements have been as low as 160 in some years. He said that’s “not very many people” to circumvent the power of elected officials — and noted that, in the case of special elections, costs could be considerable.

So, he and Mayor Darryl Mills asked Representative Ted Davis to file a bill raising that threshold by basing the number of required petition signatures on registered voters, not just those who had voted in recent town elections. That would change the threshold from as low as 160 in some past elections to closer to 870.

“So you know, it's not an impossible threshold. It's just a reasonable threshold. And obviously, other municipalities have done the same thing. And we were just doing what we should have done 10 years ago,” Miller said.

Miller noted that Wilmington, in particular, had made a similar change about seven years ago. As with Wrightsville Beach's current request, Wilmington requested its ballot initiative language be changed to base the signature requirement on registered voters — not the most recent voter turnout. The legislation to do so was sponsored by both local Democrats and Republicans and passed quickly in the summer of 2016.

The ballot initiative process was used twice — both times by developer Gene Merritt — in the 1980s and 1990s to block coal-dumping on Wilmington’s north riverfront, a land use that was antithetical to Merritt’s goal of revitalizing the city’s downtown as the head of the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE), the forerunning to the current Wilmington Downtown, Inc. Merritt disapproved of the change to the city's charter, which meant the threshold for a Wilmington petition was an order of magnitude higher, going from around 2,600 to over 21,000.

The bill to change Wrightsville’s charter — HB242 — is currently being considered in the State Senate.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.