In this time of Thanksgiving, Wilmingtonians should count Shawn Tatum Ralston as one of their most important blessings. Her flawless doggedness in defining the bones of the special use permit at last month’s commissioner’s meeting has been remarkable. During an effective Power Point demonstration, Ralston quietly stunned the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and a courtroom chock full of concerned citizens about the need to strictly regulate the pollutants of heavy industry in the Wilmington area.
A graduate of UNCW’s class of ‘98, Ralston interned her senior year at the Department of Environmental Protection in Charlotte. Her boss, Rusty Rozzelle, mentor and model of working with local governing bodies, recognized Ralston’s talent and immediately offered her a job. Before she accepted, she took a gift from her maternal grandmother, Miriam Meyers, and spent a month with Outward Bound on the Pacific Coast.
“I was the youngest person of 15 in the group,” Ralston says. “We had to pack all our food in a very tight compartment in a kayak, and we slept under the stars every night. The most amazing thing I did was spend 36 hours alone without books, a phone or electronic device . . . . I wrote in my journal, collected seashells as souvenirs for my family, and spent several hours figuring out how to pitch my tent. When the 15 of us came back together, you could tell we’d all had this incredible internal experience.”
Ralston returned to Charlotte to work under Rozzelle and was impressed by his ability to acquire funding for various projects. After a few years, she found a joint program, which offered a masters degree in marine affairs and coastal policy from the University of Rhode Island. She also got her law degree from Roger Williams University.
The summer before her third year of law school, Ralston started the first Environmental Law Society at Roger Williams University. “We didn’t have one,” she says. “I thought we needed one. So I started it.” Three students from the Environmental Law Society, who had honed their skills in the Socratic method of public speaking, were sent to the National Environmental Law Moot Court competition at Pace University in New York. Seven years later, the society is still viable and continues to finish in the semi-finals at the annual competitions.
However, Rhode Island’s winters and Ralston’s husband, Cary, persuaded her to return to Wilmington. She accepted a position as environmental planner for New Hanover County Planning and Inspection Department. She will celebrate her sixth year of employment at the end of this month.
One of her first big projects was developing a low-impact manual with boss Chris O’Keefe. They worked with realtors, home builders, engineers, Cape Fear River Watch and the NC Coastal Federation. Again, Ralston’s mastery of debate paid off in helping her negotiate varying points of view. Many perspectives were considered before final agreements were made.
A couple of years ago, she helped create the Exceptional Design Zoning District or EDZD. “That was a really big deal,” she says. “The intent of the EDZD is to provide the opportunity for mixed-use or high density residential projects within the unincorporated areas of the county, where appropriate urban features are in place to support such projects without the negative impact of urban sprawl.”
Essentially, there are six core requirements developers have to meet to promote a greener environment. For example, a new building must be 100 feet away from wetlands. Low-impact storm-water techniques must be in place. No building can harm the habitat of an endangered species. “The whole premise,” Ralston said, “is based on the LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System.” In part, this system “integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into the first national system for neighborhood design.”
Last January the Wilmington area was cited by the Environmental Protection Agency as the one area in the entire state that was not in compliance with sulfur dioxide emissions. New Hanover County Commissioner Rick Catlin, an environmental engineer, initiated his concerns to the entire board.
“It took months and months and months of talking back and forth among many diverse factions—environmental groups, industry, our planning board and the commissioners—before we came to an agreement on how to present the requirements for the special use permit,” Ralston says. “We’ve experienced only positive feedback because we really did involve the existing community throughout the process.”
Now New Hanover County wants to develop a comprehensive plan to work with the city toward becoming a more sustainable community. There’s also a regional plan in the works for Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties. “It’s really about taking a long-range look into our future,” Ralston says.