Modifications to the Harris Teeter project that was approved by Carolina Beach officials last summer brought a crowd to the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Thursday night.
Concerns over concrete medians the North Carolina Department of Transportation is requiring for the project led to the commission’s decision to deny the developer’s modifications to their conditional use permit. Both the commission and the Carolina Beach Town Council approved the original conditional use permit last summer, but the state DOT had traffic concerns that prompted a change.
That original proposal called for a 53,288 sq. ft. store (with room for a 5,480 sq. ft. expansion), a separate on-site gas station and 266 parking spaces to be built on the 7.1-acre vacant lot that sits at 1000 and 1010 N. Lake Park Boulevard. It also called for the stoplight located in front of the Ace Hardware on Lake Park, across the street from the ABC Store, to be relocated about a block down to just south of the Wings store.
Once the town approved Harris Teeter’s plan to build, the DOT got involved to make sure entrances and exits to the development from Lake Park Boulevard, which is a segment of the state-run Highway 421, met their standards. That involvement threw a wrench into the developer’s plans.
After reviewing the site plans, the DOT suggested the stoplight be moved even further south to align with Bennet Lane, which leads to a neighborhood. According to Michael Lee, who represents the developer, BBM Associates of Raleigh, putting a stoplight there would mean undesirable changes to the project, including the removal of parking spaces (which would bring the project below the minimum number required by the town) and connectivity to any future development at the adjacent land that used to house the Federal Point Shopping Center. It would also eliminate the possibility of future expansion.
Because of this, both the developers and staff from the Carolina Beach planning department pushed back. The DOT compromised, but required that if the stoplight were to remain just south of Wings, two 400-foot concrete medians would have to be installed on either side of the stoplight, which would have a separate left turn lane into the project from the southbound side. The medians vary in width from three feet to 12 feet, and would break at Bennet Lane so northbound cars could make restricted left turns onto the street. Drivers on Bennet Lane would then be unable to make left turns onto Lake Park Boulevard, meaning they would have to go south and find somewhere to U-turn to go back north.
“Medians are the way of the future,” said Jeremy Hardison, the town’s senior planner. “That’s the way the DOT is moving to.”
According to Ben Hughes, the DOT’s local representative, the department found that medians caused a 30 to 40 percent decrease in traffic accidents.
Commissioner Tammy Hanson disagreed, saying the medians could make traffic problems in the heart of the tourist season on the main road through town worse and more dangerous.
“My concern is just because it’s the way of the future in some places, is it going to work for Lake Park Boulevard in the middle of July?” Hanson said. “It already scares the heck out of me having to get through all the traffic, turn around and come back.”
Richard Davis, president of the homeowners’ association of Island Forest, the neighborhood located off Bennet Lane, said he was concerned about the safety of his daughters, who will all be driving soon and attending Ashley High School, a few miles north on Highway 421.
“They’re going to want to make that left turn [from Bennet onto Lake Park],” Davis said. “I can’t prioritize Harris Teeter’s pharmacy or future expansion over my daughters’ safety.”
Resident Jasmine Mckee agreed, saying two school buses stop at Bennet Lane and drop off dozens of children, including hers, daily. Mckee also took issue with the safety record of medians.
“A lot has been said about how medians improve safety, but I feel like that’s been proven wrong in Carolina Beach because we’re a special place,” Mckee said, noting that she’s seen several accidents near the Food Lion complex just south of Snow’s Cut Bridge, where there are currently medians.
Questions were also raised about whether medians would be required if the developers stuck to the DOT’s recommendation of placing the stoplight to align with Bennet Lane. Hughes said yes, saying they would improve efficiency at whatever intersection was chosen.
“It’s important to protect those functional areas with medians,” Hughes said.
There were also concerns voiced by several people about the ability for delivery and commercial trucks to deliver products to businesses, particularly on the west side of the street. By Hardison’s count, about 44 businesses in the area would be affected by the change in plans.
“You can’t have a business if you don’t have product,” Hanson said, before delivering one of the most passionate remarks of the night. “I don’t see how DOT can sleep at night knowing they put people out of business because they insisted on medians.”
Lee, who himself serves the community as one of the local representatives in the North Carolina Senate, said he understood the concerns of the residents and commissioners.
“It seems the community really supports Harris Teeter; they just don’t support the medians,” Lee said. “We’re happy to move forward with the original plan. We just won’t be able to get the permits we need [from the state].”
Indeed, no one who spoke Thursday night was against the development itself. The project has broad support from both town officials and island residents who want better, closer fresh food options. Currently, the only big box grocery store on Pleasure Island is the Food Lion near the bridge. The nearest Harris Teeter is more than six miles up Highway 421 in Monkey Junction.
“Everyone here is for Harris Teeter,” said Commission Chair Greg Reynolds, who is also executive director of the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce. “We just want to make the impact to other businesses as little as possible.”
After nearly three hours of discussion on the permit, which requires a project to meet certain criteria (including four general conditions), the commission finally made motions. The first, a motion made by Hanson to deny the request because she believed it did not meet condition No. 3 (“the use will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property”) and No. 4 (“the location and character of the use … will be in harmony with the area”), failed.
A second motion was put forth by Commissioner Keith Bloemendaal, who moved to deny the request because he believed he did not meet condition No. 1 (“the use will not materially endanger the public health or safety”) and because he believed that putting the stoplight at Bennet Lane like the DOT recommended was not fully explored. Reynolds made a friendly amendment that a business analysis impact be conducted as part of the motion, to which Bloemendaal agreed. The motion passed 6 to 1, with Commissioner Johnie Davis dissenting.
The modified conditional use permit application will now go before town council. A public hearing, which was set before the planning and zoning commission’s decision to deny the request, is scheduled for March 8 during the council’s regularly scheduled meeting.