Echo Farms residents say ‘reckless building’ is a problem for everyone in New Hanover County

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A Save Echo Farms sign sits in front of one of the golf course's fairways that could be developed into more housing. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
A Save Echo Farms sign sits in front of one of the golf course’s fairways that could be developed into more housing. (Photo by Hannah Leyva.)

WILMINGTON — If developers planned to build condominiums and apartments on the golf course that meanders through your neighborhood, what would you do?

For residents of Echo Farms, which is made up of several distinct areas, the answer is this: Organize and start a movement.

Wearing orange shirts, members of the group “Save Echo Farms” have filled Wilmington City Council Chambers during the last two council meetings to show solidarity while some of the more vocal of the group’s leaders expressed their concerns to city officials.

John Hirchak is one of those leaders. A resident of Echo Farms for 13 years, Hirchak started a website and a GoFundMe page for the group, which has raised over $10,000 in just a few weeks. That money will be used in the fight to stop Matrix Corporation, which owns the land Echo Farms Golf Course is built on, from building 675 housing units on what is currently greenways or wetlands that lie between existing streets.

“Inserting a community within the confines of our community — that’s a huge issue,” Hirchak said. “How do you fight a multi-million dollar corporation?”

The problem, Hirchak said, is the way the land is currently zoned. The existing Echo Farms neighborhoods are zoned R-15, which is residential with a minimum of 15,000 square-foot lots meant for single-family homes. The golf course that runs through and around the existing home is zoned multi-family homes and medium density.

Hirchak said the current zoning designation was made by New Hanover County decades ago, before the land was annexed by the city.

“No other golf course is zoned that way,” he said. “Realistically, if the developers wanted to, they could but more than a thousand units on that land based on the way it’s zoned.”

Hirchak cited several reasons why the Echo Farms residents are against the potential development. They include: Loss of nature habitats, increased traffic, loss of privacy, increased strain on the area’s stormwater drainage system, not enough schools and, particularly for those who paid a premium to live on the golf course, loss of property values.

But those concerns, he said, are not just problems for residents of Echo Farms, but for all of New Hanover County.

    “We’re not anti-private property, we’re not anti-development — we’re anti-stupid development.” – John Hirchak

According to Metro Forecasting Models, a company that projects population growth in different areas, the population of New Hanover County is expected to grow by about 100,000 residents over the next 30 years. In preparation for the growth, both city and county officials have approved numerous new housing developments as well as grocery stores and mixed use spaces. However, many residents, like Hirchak, believe there are still not enough schools in the areas where growth is happening and that issues with roads and traffic have not been adequately addressed.

Some supporters of Save Echo Farms at the Sept. 6, 2016 Wilmington City Council meeting.
Some supporters of Save Echo Farms at the Sept. 6, 2016 Wilmington City Council meeting.

“This movement is beyond just Echo Farms. Our area’s just being inundated with new projects, and we don’t have the infrastructure in place yet to deal with it,” Hirchak said. “We’re fighting uncontrollable growth. They keep building, and we’re always playing catch up.

“We’re not anti-private property, we’re not anti-development — we’re anti-stupid development,” Hirchak continued, adding he would welcome the grocery store and retail complex that is planned for the intersection of Independence Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road, right next to parts of Echo Farms. “We want the city to protect residents from reckless building and delay it until infrastructure is up to grade.”

Hirchak cited a recent project approved by the Wilmington City Council for more apartments in Amberleigh Shores, located on North Market Street, near Marsh Oaks.  Concerns about additional traffic on the already-busy highway were brought to the City Council. Despite the fact that road improvements are not planned for that road by the North Carolina Department of Transportation until 2020, two years after the development is expected to be completed, it was approved by the council, Hirchak noted.

“They’re not thinking of the big picture. They haven’t zoomed out to see the impact of all this building,” said Hirchak. “We’re fed up. We’ve had enough. We need smart, controlled growth.”

A timeline has not been set for the potential Echo Farms project; according to city staff, no formal documents have been submitted by the developer. Still, Hirchak said he and his neighbors are in the process of organizing and digging in for the long haul. Legal counsel has been hired, and a 12-member voting board with representatives from all the Echo Farms neighborhoods has been formed.

A community meeting is planned for this Saturday, Sept. 25, at 2 p.m. at the Moose Lodge on Carolina Beach Road to determine the group’s next steps.

“We’re not going to sit here and cry about it,” Hirchak said. “We’re looking for solutions.”

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