Communities struggle to fill volunteer boards, commissions

Published 12:07 am Thursday, September 1, 2022

By Elisabeth Strillacci and Madeline Wagoner

SALISBURY — Nearly every town in Rowan County has struggled in recent years to get residents to serve on volunteer boards, and the challenge is growing.

Cleveland had to cancel its zoning and planning board meeting Monday night due to a seat being unfilled. According to town clerk Kelly Rodgers, Cleveland has had a turnover of many board members within the last couple of months, leaving empty seats needing to be filled. The planned meeting was for a zoning map amendment.

Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander said the city struggles as well to fill seats on committees, and noted that at nearly every single city council meeting, they remind residents about openings on committees and how to apply for them.

“We also remind people that they need to try to have some flexibility in the boards on which they’d like to serve,” she said. “For example, when they send in an application, many times they will list their top choice, but then include second and third options that they would consider, and that has helped.”

She added that these days, families are often two-income families, with either both parents working or, even harder, single parents working two jobs, and people are trying to juggle time for work and time for family, and there is often no time left for much else.

But like every town in North Carolina, Salisbury, Cleveland, Spencer and every other community struggles at times to fill representative seats from the community’s ETJ or Extraterritorial Jurisdiction. The ETJ gives a city the authority to adopt zoning ordinances in a 1- to 3-mile area surrounding the city limits. State statutes regarding residents of the ETJ were amended in 1996 to require proportional representation of extraterritorial residents on city planning boards and boards of adjustment. But Blount said the benefits of serving on volunteer boards is not limited to outlying residents.

“Yes, the one place we have trouble getting people to participate is in our ETJ,” said Steve Blount, city planner for Spencer.  “Those areas are more sparsely populated and those residents do not always identify as residents of Spencer. They often see themselves as living in the county.”

Serving on particular committees such as planning or adjustment boards or historic district regulations committees is an essential way to have a direct impact on the way a community grows in the future.

“For anybody, not just for those residents, these committees shape the rules and regulations that in turn shape the growth of the town,” Blount said. “If you want to have a say in development and growth, these committees are the place to do it.”

But those who live outside the city limits have a specific vested interest in serving on planning boards and boards of adjustment in particular, Blount said.

“People who live in the ETJ often have a very rural lifestyle,” he said. “But in the ETJ is where a large portion of our growth is happening, which means that rural lifestyle can change, and quickly. Serving on a board gives those residents an active role in deciding what that change looks like.”

And there are numerous boards and committees in every city and town that need volunteers. In Salisbury, the city has a committee that most towns do not. Called the “Alternate Method of Design,” the committee can either address pre-planning issues, or, if a developer or builder is having trouble meeting requirements from the planning department, due to unforeseen circumstances, that board can help make adjustments. However, because of the specific nature of issues they deal with, board members are required to have a background — in development, real estate, planning, etc. — that means they understand the issues already. And that can also be a challenge to finding board members.

In East Spencer, the Community Appearance Committee has not met because there are no members.

“We are continuously soliciting participation, we advertise in the town newsletter and on the website, we ask current residents for recommendations, we ask new residents if they would like to participate,” said Town Manager Michael Douglas. “We need people on the Board of Adjustments, the Community Appearance Committee and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.”

The advisory board has members, but Douglas said it is one of the most active committees because the town has so many community events, so more members are not just welcomed, but needed.

“We don’t want to plan in a vacuum,” Douglas said. “We want community input. I think people are very busy these days, trying to balance work, home and family, but their participation is essential.”

Residents can apply to serve on committees through the town’s website, but Douglas said strangely, he has had at least three applications from people who live in other states.

“I’m not sure why, because our meetings are not virtual, they are all in person, here in East Spencer, so I’m not sure how they could help, but I had one from as far away as Chicago.”

Granite Quarry continues to have vacancies on boards. According to town clerk Aubrey Smith, the Board of Adjustments has been cut down in the past only to still have the need persist. Five out of seven seats have so far been filled.

“I’m not sure why there has been a lack of voluntarism,” said Smith. “But it has lowered in the last five years.”

Kannapolis has had relatively good luck in keeping board and committee memberships going, according to spokesperson Annette Privette Keller. There are occasionally times when vacations or illness affect a quorum but she said overall they have been fortunate.

“Public service provides you with the opportunity to contribute to your community. It is a way for all of us to make a difference in the important matters of development, parks and recreation, community relations and much more. It may not be exciting and often the results may not be immediately evident but your service is critical to ensuring we have vibrant and prosperous communities,” said Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant.

“I think MLK said it well — you don’t have to be educated or wealthy, if you want to serve, you can find a place to serve mankind,” said Alexander. “I think there is an intrinsic value in service to one’s community. The self worth that comes from being able to serve your community no matter what your background is truly priceless.”

To apply, nearly every community has online applications, or residents can contact town managers or simply stop by the town hall.