The concerned homeowners who were in the audience jumped to their feet, cheering and clapping as they realized the vote they had been waiting for all night had gone their way.
“You won,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said as the crowd erupted.
Residents of neighborhoods along Wrightsville Avenue near Rogersville Avenue attended the meeting to protest the possible changes to a vacant 1.8-acre plot located at 6149 Wrightsville Avenue. The lot is a rare undeveloped parcel, tucked into neighborhoods near the bend in the road between the bridge over the marsh and intersection with Military Cutoff Road/Oleander Drive.
The landowners had petitioned for a conditional rezoning change from an R-15 Residential District to an Office and Institutional 1 Conditional District in order to build a 3,000-square-foot building that would house medical and professional offices, artist space and a silk-screening commercial business, among others. Their proposal also showed a 22-space parking lot.
The business would have been in an area completely surrounded by residential zones. Though the issue did not have a public hearing, two residents spoke out during the meeting’s public comment period.
“We’re concerned about the first injection of commercial use in what is entirely a residential neighborhood,” said Gary Edwards, the president of the Parsley Woods homeowners association, whose neighborhood is across Wrightsville Avenue from the proposed commercial building “The real proper way to look at this is to ask yourself … why should we do this? Is there a reason?
“In order to do rezoning, there should be an overriding public interest,” Edwards added, noting there were no other commercial buildings within a half-mile of the property. “The only benefit I can think of is tax revenues, obviously.”
Trey Wallace, whose 99-year-old grandfather owns an adjacent property that he wants to pass on to his children and grandchildren, said the project would affect his family’s property.
“Now, instead of sharing a property line with neighbors, we will be sharing it with a parking lot,” said Wallace, who was speaking on his grandfather’s behalf. “The rezoning would greatly devalue our property.”
But Wallace, who works in real estate, said his concerns weren’t just about his family land.
“I do not believe the proposed plan is a good one, nor do I believe all the options have been explored,” he said. “It … is absolutely not a service to this neighborhood. I am absolutely against this proposal, and as you see, I do not stand alone.”
During council discussion later in the meeting, Councilman Kevin O’Grady said he spent the last two weeks since the ordinance was first discussed by council (it passed on first reading at the March 15 meeting, but the motion to waive the second reading failed) trying to figure out why public reaction against the project was so strong.
“In looking at it, I saw the plan changed,” O’Grady said, referring to a switch from original plans first introduced in 2009, which showed only residential uses for the lot, to alterations made by city staff later on after the public was consulted.
“The addition of commercial [use] was added during staff workshop. Public comment was taken before that,” O’Grady said. “This gave me concern … At the time it came up [before a previous council], the entire plan was presented, and the opening statement for that was this was staff’s best attempt to capture public preference.”
O’Grady, who noted that the planning commission in early 2010 recommended against adding the commercial use in contrast to staff suggestions, then spoke directly to the audience.
“At this point I have to apologize to you all, because I accepted that [statement that it captured public preference] at face value, and I shouldn’t have,” O’Grady said to applause. “It’s clear to me today that this plan didn’t support community interest … so that right there, I think it should be denied on just that.”
O’Grady listed out other reasons he was against the project, including its contradiction to goals set out in the Wrightsville Avenue Plan and the Wilmington Comprehensive Plan.
“Our comprehensive plan does call for the protection of residential areas from commercial areas,” O’Grady said. “To the contrary, this puts commercial areas in areas zoned residential.”
Councilman Paul Lawler agreed.
“This is a question about how we preserve our neighborhoods for our neighbors,” Lawler said. “The planning commission voted this down to preserve our neighborhoods. I think we should vote this down as well.”
A motion made by Saffo to approve the ordinance, which was seconded by Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes, failed by a 3 – 4 vote. O’Grady and Lawler were joined in their dissent by Councilmen Neil Anderson and Earl Sheridan.