Monday, April 15, 2024

NHC forgoes funding environmental studies on CF western banks, still unclear on density strategy

New Hanover County staff has decided to forgo environmental studies for the western banks of the Cape Fear River but is closer to make a decision about land use. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It’s been nearly six months since county commissioners requested additional studies on the western banks of the Cape Fear River, an area with an uncertain future and mixed opinions from the community on how it should be developed — or not.

The path forward now has taken a turn. County planning director Rebekah Roth told New Hanover County commissioners this week she does not recommend the county contract out environmental studies. She also preemptively mentioned the staff would likely recommend “intensity and scale be reduced” for the western banks, but a formal suggestion on density strategy won’t be revealed until summer.

READ MORE: What about the future of Cape Fear’s western banks? County staff favors 3 options, commissioners request studies

Roth spoke to the commissioners during Thursday’s agenda review and noted without a specific site proposal, environmental studies would not provide any more information than the county already has.

“Technical studies are geared to the impacts of a particular proposal and not the best for policy options,” she said.

Staff explored whether brownfields assessments and additional flood studies would be helpful but decided against it. The reasoning: Developers considering projects are already required to conduct environmental research — tied to a specific proposal — to meet state regulatory requirements. 

The county contacted environmental consulting firms to consider the costs, according to Roth. While an accurate estimate could not be compiled without a specific site plan associated, she said a phase one assessment would be between $3,000 and $6,000 and phase two — providing more detailed information on soil and groundwater — could reach tens of thousands of dollars.

Commissioners indicated in August they wanted more information about the environmental health, hydrology and flooding on the western banks. The studies would help guide what could be built — anything from pedestrian walkways for a nature park up to high-rise apartment complexes.

“Based on what we know at this point, we do not consider even a ‘low density’ district to be the most appropriate for this area due to the flooding concerns; this may not be an appropriate area for individual homeowners to invest in housing,” Roth wrote in an email to PCD. “We will be refining these recommendations over the next few months so they can be considered by both the board and reviewed by the public.”

Roth addressed with commissioners information obtained from the county’s past research. For instance, she said since 2010, tidal flooding has been increasing at a more accelerated rate than sea level rise. The potential of disastrous flooding has been a topic of concern for environmentalists opposing high-density development on the riverbanks.

Comprehensive monitoring studies and the rate change of flooding in the region is underway, Roth indicated, through a resiliency study the county is conducting. It will be broader than just the western banks and include multiple areas in town, including Sidbury and Carolina Beach roads, both experiencing an influx of growth.

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“That will help us gauge how conditions change over time and that may trigger future modification of policies if conditions warrant,” she wrote to PCD.

Roth said the resiliency studies should be complete “in a similar timeframe” to when staff presents its recommendations on the western banks zoning options.

“All stakeholders involved will have some form of baseline in terms of current conditions,” Roth told commissioners Thursday. “But we’ll have some possible policy options before having those conversations. Even if we have to flesh out what’s the right way to go next, we’ll have a common understanding … We want to do it better as opposed to doing it fast.”

She suggested the best option may be to create a new overlay district — a zoning designation that includes additional standards to what’s already required. For example, the county has a special highway overlay district that applies to certain roads and calls for additional landscaping or specific signage.

“These types of districts can address form, scale, and additional development standards beyond what is appropriate in a base zoning district that may apply to land in many areas of the county,” Roth explained to PCD.

Nothing in the county’s unified development ordinance addresses concerns and considerations for the unique topography of the western banks, much of it wetlands.

“We don’t currently have any zoning districts that necessarily have the mix of uses we’re looking for potentially in this area,” she told commissioners at the meeting. “We would probably have to write something — not completely from scratch; we have examples from our current riverfront mixed-use district.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, new plans for northern downtown led to an updated vision. The county and city collaborated to develop the riverfront mixed-use zoning district, “intended to mirror the development of downtown,” Roth said.

Riverfront mixed-use districts apply to the property just south of the Isabel Holmes Bridge. Other portions of the land — between Isabel Holmes and the Cape Fear Memorial bridges — have historically been zoned for working waterfront, heavy industrial and commercial uses.

“If someone comes to you with a project industrial in nature, it has to be approved by right?” commissioner Leann Pierce asked.

“Yes,” Roth responded and added the developer would have to receive state and federal permit approvals as well. 

County manager Chris Coudriet said some proposals would still require a special-use permit, meaning an additional approval process from the county.

There are also areas zoned conservation along the river.

“[We] may have additional standards placed on the underlying zoning,” Roth added. “Private development owners may be able to choose a zoning district but have guidelines and safeguards in place for scale, intensity and information necessary to pursue a particular development proposal for us.”

Back in August, Roth recommended a combination of working waterfront and small-scale mixed-use districts, seemingly taking straight conservation as well as high-density off the table.

It came as two development proposals had been discussed since fall 2021 for large-scale mixed-use construction. Staff recommended last August denying Battleship Point’s rezoning request to build three 240-foot towers, with condos, apartments, hotel and commercial space on Point Peter, a peninsula at the confluence of the Northeast Cape Fear and Cape Fear rivers. County staff decided they needed more time to hash out the county’s vision for the western banks.

However, Kirk Pugh, one of Battleship Point’s developers, rescinded the project’s application in September before the county could formally deny it. In an email to Roth, Pugh wrote:

“In light of the County’s continued work toward a unified vision for the West Bank, KFJ would like to officially withdraw its text amendment and rezoning request pending completion of the County’s work. It is our continued hope that we will find common ground at some point in the near future that will allow both KFJ and the County to achieve a mutual goal.”

Had the county denied the application before it was voluntarily withdrawn, KJF would have to wait a year before resubmitting unless there were substantial changes. Recently, Pugh reached out to commissioner chair Bill Rivenbark to have lunch and discuss the development, according to internal emails. 

“Would love the opportunity to sit down and update you on happenings at Battleship Point,” Pugh wrote.

Port City Daily has contacted Pugh multiple times over the last few months for updates on the project but has not heard a response.

Another project, Wilmington Hotel and Spa, was going to be built on a small portion of Eagles Island on land owned by Diamondback Development in partnership with developer Bobby Ginn; it would not need zoning approval by the county since it’s a by-right development. It just requires state and federal permitting.

However, nonprofit conservation group Unique Places to Save attempted to acquire 83 acres of land, including parcels that would inhabit the hotel and spa, to preserve Eagles Island. UP2S could not raise $16 million in funds it needed by the end of 2022 to make the deal happen.

Diamondback Developer Jay Shott said Friday the company is still considering all its options before moving forward with a plan.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield inquired about liability for the county as it relates to future land-use decisions.

“What’s the liability if we rezone this for certain uses and 10 years down the road it’s all under water?” he asked.

Coudriet answered he didn’t know.

County attorney Wanda Copley chimed in: “As you all know, anybody can sue you at any time, so we would do what we thought was best and then move on. ‘I asked you to build and then you let me and now I’m going to sue you. Since you didn’t warn me or didn’t prepare it to such that it wouldn’t flood.’”

Coudriet said there is nothing keeping commissioners from rezoning any land in a way they think is the best use for the long-term, whether the property owner agrees or not.

Research on the western banks, coupled with the county’s resiliency study, will help refine amendments to the New Hanover’s comprehensive land use plan, which “has some age to it,” Roth said. Developed in 2016, it requires an update following impacts of Hurricane Florence, the Covid-19 pandemic, loss of North Carolina Department of Transportation revenue, delay of transportation projects and extending Cape Fear Public Utility Authority infrastructure in the county.

The new comprehensive land use plan will likely be presented in the fall, followed by the opportunity for public feedback and adoption in early 2024.

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