Building Height Limit Raised In Oriental
Public hearing brings out strong feelings
June 4, 2004

Oriental’s Town Board voted 4-1 Tuesday night to raise the height limit in town from 43-1/2 to 48-1/2 feet above mean sea level. An amendment to the change dictates that all buildings taking advantage of the new height limit should have their first floor of living area be at least 10-1/2 feet above mean sea level.

The public hearing over whether to raise the height limit drew a larger than usual crowd to the Town Board meeting. More than 40 people attended. Also on the agenda was an item that was to some degree related – a petition signed by almost 200 residents and property owners asking that the town take greater steps to guide future growth.


A crowded Town Hall

The public hearing over the height limit went on for about an hour and pointed up differing views of how Oriental should grow.

Those arguing for raising the limit said it was needed because the town this winter raised the eave height (bottom of the roof) from 28 to 32 feet. Another argument was that the county was about to require the first floors of new homes be at least 10-1/2 feet above mean sea level. That’s two feet higher than now required. Rhetorically, proponents of raising the limit tried to paint a picture of people hard pressed by the current 43-1/2 foot restriction.

Those opposed to raising the limit challenged those assertions repeatedly. They also questioned whether the volunteer fire department serving Oriental would have a harder time fighting fires in 48-1/2 foot tall buildings. Suggestions that the town raise the height limit only in the outlying parts of Oriental – and preserve the older character of the village -- were ignored.

Hurricane Cited As Reason to Go Higher
Commissioner Ken Midyette said he supported raising the height limit because the floods of Hurricane Isabel last fall, “created major problems for many residents.” Midyette claimed that when those residents tried to raise their houses so that they were above the 10-1/2 foot level now suggested, their homes were in excess of the 43-1/2 foot height limit.

Several members of the public asked Midyette to be specific. What house in town, they asked, had been unable to be elevated because of the existing height limit?

Midyette could not provide an example.

“I don’t have any facts,” Midyette responded.

Those in the public opposed to raising the height limit tried to make the case to other members of the board that no existing homes in town were adversely affected by the 43-1/2 foot height limit. This effort to increase the height limit they said, was instead being driven by new development.


The mayor and the town commissioners

However, proponents of raising the height limit, including the mayor, returned to the argument that people in town needed relief from the height limit because of Hurricane Isabel’s flood.

Missy Baskervill owns commercial property at the corner of South Water and Hodges. She said she wanted the higher roof limits because her single-story Coldwell Banker real estate office was totaled by Isabel’s floods. Many of her files were ruined, she said, representing years of work.

In their comments encouraging the board to raise the height limit, Missy Baskervill and her husband, Bob presented a sketch of the two-story building they planned to build on the site of their one-story building on Hodges Street. The structure would have two floors of living area and a 7 foot tall attic where files could be stored. They said the existing height limit would not let them put the 7/12 pitch on the roof that they wanted. The drawing shows a building 44 feet above sea level, with the first floor starting at about 15 feet above sea level.

Making the Pitch For Pitch
Mayor Styron stated that because the maximum eave height in town went from 28 to 32 feet this winter, the roof height should go up too. In the mayor’s view 32 foot eave height and a 43-1/2 foot roof height did not allow enough pitch to the roof. The mayor said he thought no roof should have a pitch of less than 4/12 or four feet up for every twelve feet across.

It was noted that the town ordinance allows, but does not mandate that new buildings have an eave height of 32 feet. It is a builder’s choice.

One Town Commissioner Says It Can Be Done Under Existing Limit

Town Board member Dick Moat again shared some calculations that he’d revealed at last month’s board meeting. Moat has lived at the Oriental West condos on Midyette Street for more than a decade and said that if that structure were built in compliance with the new county rules about the first floor being 10-1/2 feet above sea level, the two stories of living area would still come in several feet below the existing town limits.

Moat dismissed arguments that the extra five feet were needed because of flood issues.

“This is being driven,” Moat said, “by a desire to build big buildings” in Oriental.

What’s Behind The Drive To Go Taller?

Moat’s comment stood out because repeatedly throughout the night, several other town officials – including the mayor, the town manager and a member of the planning board – took pains to say that developers were not driving this issue.

Developers themselves however suggested otherwise. One of them was Alan Probst, owner of Mariner Realty.

“We’re here tonight,” Probst said at the public hearing, “because I came before the planning board,” with a plan to develop 72 acres on the White Farm Road side of Whittaker Creek."

Probst said some of that land was now in the county and he wanted to bring it in to the town limits. In having the land annexed, Probst would avoid the expense of linking his county property with the county water lines a distance away on Straight Road.

Probst explained that the town’s height limit was a stumbling block to annexation. He said he wanted to build homes that had two stories on top of a garage area and that the garage area be 10-1/2 feet above sea level so that cars would be safe from flooding.

Oriental resident Wally Chapin suggested those residents could do as Oriental residents have done for decades and park their cars on high ground when a hurricane is approaching.

Probst however said he had to have the high garages under the homes because, “the market demands that after September 18th” when Hurricane Isabel floods came.

As a result of putting two floors of living area and a garage under one roof, Probst said he would reach the eave height limit at 32 feet. In his view, the existing roof line limit of 43-1/2 feet would not allow enough pitch. The roof would be flatter than he wanted.

After Probst openly stated that his project had spurred the town to take up the height issue, Mayor Sherrill Styron insisted otherwise.
“The meeting was not called because of Alan.”

Another developer, George Dobson, co-owner of the Oriental Harbor Marina spoke about his plans to build 27 town homes on the west side of the Oriental bridge. They will have three stories of living area (but no above flood level parking underneath).

In his comments, Dobson was candid that he needed to build three floors of living area in order to get a “return on investment.”

Dobson said that under the existing height limit building three floors of living area meant he had to design roofs that were “less than residential scale.” The Oriental Harbor town homes had already been approved under the existing 43 1/2 floor limit with three floors.

Dobson said he supported raising the limit, because without the taller pitches, the town could end up with flat roofs. That, Dobson said, would “take away from the charm of the village.”

48-1/2 Feet Doesn’t Necessarily Mean No Flat Roofs
As much as proponents made the case that the higher roof line would allow a more aesthetic pitch, flat roofs are not necessarily ruled out under the new height limit.

That was news to many in the room, including the town board.

Wally Chapin, a sail maker who lives on Hodges Street, raised the flat-roofs-may-actually-be-with-us issue.

Chapin said he was concerned that some builders could decide to build a building 48-1/2 feet tall and top it with a flat roof.

He asked the board if “there is any way to stipulate that a building roof have (at least) the 4/12 pitch” that the mayor and others cited as reason to raise the height limit.

He and some others said they worried that if the height limit is raised without that stipulation, a blocky structure -- such as a Sheraton hotel – could be plopped down in to the village with 48-1/2 foot high sides and a flat roof.

“I’ve seen it in other places,” Chapin said, of that loophole. “There are crooked people.”

Noting that proponents of raising the height limit had spoken at length about higher pitched roofs ‘looking nice’ Chapin suggested that the flat roof at 48-1/2 feet would not.

Several people tried to give assurances that an eave limit of 32 feet would prevent 48-1/2 foot flat roof buildings.

But then Town Manager Wyatt Cutler confirmed Chapin’s concerns. Cutler says that nothing can stop someone from going to the full 48-1/2 feet.

Ken Midyette tried to make an amendment to keep that from happening, but it died for lack of a second.

Conflict of Interest?

Jacksie Pitts questioned whether some town leaders taking a role in the height limit debate might something to gain personally. It’s a question of conflict of interest, Pitts said. “People are making decisions who also have property”.

Ken Midyette responded that he had no property other than his own house.

Pitts allowed that many people owned homes in town but “not everyone who owns property is on the Town Board,”.

Before the meeting Pitts had voiced a similar concern and indicated that she was concerned about those holding large tracts of land making policy.

Mayor Sherrill Styron owns Garland Fulcher Seafood, which encompasses several acres of increasingly valuable waterfront on the Oriental harbor. At the meeting, Styron did not respond to Pitts’ comment.

Third Floor?
Some who wanted the existing height limit to remain suggested that the increased height limit was merely a way for developers to squeeze a third floor in to a building.

As those concerns were raised, Commissioner Ken Midyette asked, “What difference would it make, if it’s three stories or one story?”

Oriental resident Kirk Nelson, called out a quick response, “It’s the difference,” he said, “between Hatteras and Oriental” referring to the ever taller buildings going up in the Outer Banks.

To that, Midyette, who was born in Oriental and returned in his later years, started to respond, “If you were born and raised in Oriental…” As it seemed a “Born Here/Came Here” refrain was about to start, it caused some rumbling in the back of the room and Nelson who had served on local government boards in New England before moving to Oriental, shot back at Midyette, “Put that away!”

A few moments later, Mayor Sherrill Styron commented, “I liked it 20 years ago when you could do what you wanted with your property.”

Those comments reflected a growing debate in town. Namely, what should Oriental do to guide the growth that everyone agrees is coming. That was at the heart of a petition drive that was also brought up at Tuesday’s meeting, (A report on which is coming in a separate article. )

Why Not Allow Taller Buildings Outside of the Old Village?
Town Board member Dick Moat said he was not opposed to raising the height limit in “appropriate locations.”

In its months of discussions about the height limit, the Oriental Planning Board had considered allowing the height limit to go up in the outer reaches of town – for instance, where Alan Probst wants to build -- but not in the older part of the village where the human scale was more important.

One woman at the public hearing asked if the town might apply different height limits in different parts of town. A reporter for TownDock.net asked twice if the Town Board would entertain that idea. The board did not, stating that was not the proposal sent to them.

The Fire Fighting Angle
What effect would the higher roof lines have on firefighting? It depends on who you ask to speak.

Oriental resident Roy Pittman was the first speaker at the public hearing. He identified himself as bringing “a firefighting point of view” to the debate. He said he had “been asked to provide the town board with information pertinent” to the height issue. In his prepared remarks, Pittman said that he was a “retired level II fireman and a current state Fire instructor.”

Quoting from his prepared statement, Pittman said that increasing the “overall height in a proportional amount should not create a safety hazard for the fireman.”

Mayor Sherrill Styron, who wanted the height limit to go up, thanked Pittman for his comments and a moment later jovially chided Pittman for forgetting to include one other argument the two had spoken about earlier in favor of raising the height limit.

It was only later, when asked for some clarification about his remarks, that Pittman stated “I am not speaking for the fire department.”

In an interview with TownDock.net, Southeastern Pamlico Fire Chief Barry Beauchamp had raised questions about the ability of the volunteer fire department to reach the 32-foot eave height with the 35 foot ladder the department now has.

Beauchamp was not at the meeting.

The absence of the fire chief to present his views prompted Oriental resident Barbara Venturi to speak. Venturi identified herself as a member of the fire department’s board of directors. Her comments stood in contrast to Pittman’s in suggesting that the additional height could be a challenge.


Venturi noted that the fire department had just ordered a 40-foot ladder which – under the most perfect of conditions – might reach the new allowed eave height (where the roof ends ) of 32 feet.

There is talk, Venturi said, of getting a hook and ladder truck whose 70 foot ladder could put the firefighters up much higher. But that truck would require five of Southeastern Pamlico’s volunteer firefighters to be fully trained in its use.

Such a truck could cost the county $250,000. Beyond the cost Venturi said there were questions on whether the large sized truck could maneuver in some of the limited parking areas near Oriental’s downtown buildings.

When Venturi paused, Ken Midyette, who supported raising the height limit asked, “Have we ever had a fire department that could guarantee safety?”

Venturi said the town hadn’t. But noting that the fire department in Pamlico County is made up of volunteers (who are on average older than the norm) Venturi suggested adding another five feet to the climb would not make their jobs easier.

“We are asking our friends and neighbors to risk their lives to climb ever higher to protect our lives and our stuff.”

Venturi had attended the meeting as a citizen and said later she had not planned to speak in her capacity as a member of the fire department board of directors.

Curious about the town board making a decision on roof height without hearing from the fire chief, TownDock.net later asked Town Manager Wyatt Cutler if the town board had asked the fire chief, Barry Beauchamp to speak or sought his comments. Cutler said he had spoken to Beauchamp “a couple of times.” And when the town boards considered raising the eave height months ago, Cutler said, the fire chief at the time, Charlie Garrett said he had “’no problem’” with it.

The Vote
Town Commissioner Joe Harris made the motion that the Town of Oriental increase its height limit five feet from 43-1/2 feet to 48-1/2 feet.

Commissioner Lori Wagoner seconded it.

Dick Moat had earlier moved that the issue be sent back to the Planning Board which he said could take in to consideration some of the repercussions of raising the height limit. Namely, increasing the setbacks of these taller buildings from neighboring property. His motion died for lack of a second.

Moat had also earlier indicated that he could support a height increase if it were only in some parts of town.

But at the end of the meeting when it appeared likely that the height increase had the support of a majority on the board, Moat offered an amendment. The amendment stated that any building exceeding the existing limit of 43-1/2 feet ‘shall have a finished first floor at least 10-1/2 feet above sea level’.

That brought some quizzical looks at first.

The 10-1/2 foot figure is what the county is expected to require of all new construction – in order to avoid flooding –in the wake of Hurricane Isabel. That 2-foot increase in the minimum elevation was one of the rationales that proponents of the 5-foot height extension had mentioned through the hearing.

From the audience, Bob Baskervill objected to Moat’s amendment.

Town Manager Wyatt Cutler said that he didn’t think the town “wanted to get more restrictive” before the county did.

To those criticisms, Moat quietly said the amendment was needed “to keep it (the new height limit) from being misused.” The 10-1/2 foot requirement, Moat noted, was what a number of people had offered as a rationale for raising the limit. His amendment would force them to, in Moat’s words, “put their money where their mouth is.”

At least one developer backed up Moat. George Dobson, who on the one hand welcomes the higher roof limits, said that the town of Oriental “ought to be setting an example. There’s nothing wrong with having more restrictive codes than the county.”

The motion --- to increase the height limit to 48-1/2 feet with the amendment requiring any homes over 43-1/2 feet to have their first floors at at least 10-1/2 feet above sea level, -- passed 4-1. Voting in favor were Joe Harris, Lori Wagoner, Dick Moat and Ken Midyette.

Commissioner Candy Bohmert voted against it.

The new height limit went in to effect immediately.

Post Script
Town Manager Wyatt Cutler says that under the new ordinance nothing prevents someone from building a 48-1/2 foot building with a flat roof. On Thursday, Cutler said that this was something the Planning Board needs to address. As for why the Town Board didn’t address it Tuesday night as per Ken Midyette’s motion, Cutler said he thought the board “didn’t think there was much risk for a month” that someone would take advantage of the loophole.

Candy Bohmert said the board should consider bigger setbacks for the taller buildings. She suggests an extra one or two feet of setback be required for every foot the building exceeds the old 43-1/2 foot limit.

Asked after the meeting about other town officials’ claims that developers were not the driving force behind the change in the height limit, Bohmert declined to comment.

But she laughed very hard.

At Tuesday’s meeting (and the Town Board meeting a month ago) Mayor Styron mentioned that a new height limit would help Chris Fulcher in his efforts to re-roof his Point Pride Seafood building at the edge of Oriental’s Harbor.

(In fall of 2002, Fulcher removed the roof structure after years of dispute with the town. The roof had been 7.8 feet above the 43-1/2 height limit. In exchange for him taking down the roof, the town forgave thousands of dollars in fines against Fulcher.)

There is, however, a question as to whether the new ordinance helps Fulcher very much. The amendment to the ordinance requires buildings over 43-1/2 feet to have their ground floor at 10-1/2 feet above sea level. Wyatt Cutler told TownDock.net that he recalled the Point Pride building to be about 6-1/2 feet above sea level.

George Dobson says he will change the plans for his town homes and have his roof lines take advantage of the new ordinance.

Background math:

Increase in Eave Height(from 28 to 32 feet) – 4 feet

Expected increase in minimum elevation as mandated by the county(from 8-1/2 feet to 10-1/2 feet) - 2 feet

Increase granted in Roof Height - 5 feet

 
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