Friday, June 14, 2024

Explainer: A look at how traffic factors into future NHC development

New Hanover County commissioners and planning board held a joint work session Tuesday to discuss how NCDOT and WMPO shape data collection for development approvals.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A lot has changed when it comes to development and traffic in New Hanover County in the last decade. To account for that growth, local officials are preparing updates on how they approach new development and what policies guide their decisions.

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The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and planning board held a joint workshop Tuesday to discuss transportation planning and the collaborative influence from other organizations, including North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

A meeting was planned for March 2020 to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the process analyzing impacts on traffic from developments county-wide. It was canceled due to the pandemic, and commissioners have inquired at past agenda review meetings to learn more from WMPO and NCDOT’s data collection.

Commissioners and the planning board came together to discuss the process, without the urgency of a specific development lying in wait.

“I think something our board struggled with is Carolina Beach Road, mostly, is getting killed,” commissioner chair Bill Rivenbark said. “You do 300 apartments here and you do a traffic analysis and then you do 300 more apartments three blocks down the road, and you do a traffic analysis and then you do 300 more another half a mile. So when does it stop? It’s already a wreck.”

County planning staff told Port City Daily in May, there are nearly 30 rezoning and four subdivision applications being fielded currently along Carolina Beach Road. Another 12 are already in planning stages and could bring more than 1,600 units along a 10-mile stretch.

The county also recently noted there are 475 vacant parcels along Carolina Beach Road that could add another 4,000 daily trips along the corridor, if developed.

WMPO transportation planning engineer Scott James provided additional details on what goes into a traffic impact analysis (TIA), including recently approved developments and neighboring properties, to clear up misconceptions.

One main consensus among the group: Development has occurred rapidly and will likely continue to do so.

WMPO’s transportation planning engineer Scott James discusses how he compiles data and reviews it for a traffic impact analysis.

What’s considered in a TIA?

Planning board member Clark Hipp said about 80% of the concerns its members hear revolve around traffic.

Commissioners Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple noted traffic wasn’t bad in comparison to larger metropolitan areas, such as Raleigh, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

“Transportation is the least influential in my decision making,” Barfield said. “I recognize our town has grown, but the development process for me is about aiding in the deficit of housing.”

According to the county’s housing assessment data, there is a current gap of 12,147 rental units (more than 1,000 unit increase since 2020) and 16,875 for-sale homes (a nearly 4,000 unit increase since 2020) to fit the population growth. New Hanover’s population has grown just under 1% since 2020.

Commissioner vice chair LeAnn Pierce agreed with Hipp: “The number one concern I hear from citizens is traffic. We have to be cognizant of what they feel.”

County planning director Rebekah Roth said the data collected by WMPO and NCDOT to inform traffic congestion doesn’t always relate to the daily experience of travelers.

Residents have the opportunity to provide input on projects and proposals at multiple levels, including the planning board and commissioners’ public hearings. Commissioners agreed community feedback was essential to decision-making about what type of developments, if any, should be approved in various zoning districts in the county.

Still, the work of local and state planners can help alleviate the congestion around town with long-term strategies for road improvements, especially in light of new development.

Each application generating more than 100 peak trip hours requires data collection on potential increased traffic for each rezoning and special-use permit submitted to the county. Included in that information is the consideration of any developments that have already been approved but may not yet be built, James said.

The traffic impact analysis takes into account tourism, holidays, the academic school year and historic trends along a proposed corridor.

A final approved TIA comes after up to six months of negotiating with an applicant on what road improvements and conditions must be met in order to proceed.

“The amount of roadway used during peak times is the marker for whether action should be taken,” James said.

Planning board member Cameron Moore inquired about areas in the county that may be considered for future development and how that plays into the TIA’s outcome. A step further, James explained a growth percentage, 1.5% to 2%, is factored in to account for projects that are too small to require a TIA — the minimum is 100 peak trips — but still add traffic to the roadways.

He described a three-part model of the current congestion, the future without the planned development and the future with proposed construction is all taken into account.

The county’s comprehensive land use plan, last adopted in 2016, is the standard by which TIAs are approved, based on the “ultimate capacity allowed by commissioners,” James added.

Capacity refers to anything from infrastructure, energy, economic growth, and roadway.

The land use plan will be amended starting this fall. It will take roughly two years of research and input, with a goal of completion by fall 2025 to address growth.

While the county does not have a dedicated transportation planning department, staff sit on various committees, such as the technical review committee, to provide local input to regional projects.

County staff is also responsible for being the first review board for rezonings and special use permits, before heading to the planning board. While developers can apply for a rezoning or special use permit without an approved TIA, it’s at the planning board’s discretion whether to wait to hear the item. The proposal will not move to the commissioners for approval until an approved TIA is in place.

Commissioner Dane Scalise suggested as a policy not needing an approved TIA at the planning board level to expedite the process of voting on applications. 

When a development application comes through the county, staff prepares a full report, presented to the planning board for initial review. It includes existing conditions of each site and current traffic based on a baseline for the maximum number of dwellings allowed or an estimate of roughly 18% of a property that will be developed for non-residential applications.

It also includes all roads adjacent to the proposed build that will be impacted, including planning capacity, point-in-time traffic count, an average daily count and level of congestion, along with required improvements.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield disagreed with Scalise’s suggestion to accelerate the process, as did most of the planning board.

“Without all the information, you don’t have the full picture of what’s going on,” Barfield said.

Planning board chair Jeff Petroff — who considers the board the “second line of defense” — said typically the board prefers an approved TIA so the WMPO can offer feedback. If the applicant only provides a TIA from a traffic consultant, WMPO is hesitant to comment on it without having undergone a full review and analysis.

Hipp also added the planning board needs the most information to make the best decisions.

“It helps the public understand the day-to-day impact a development could have,” he said. “It’s extremely important.”

Planning board member Hansen Matthews agreed, noting the data should speak to any opposition.

“I want the metrics to deflect any concerns and false claims,” he said.

Planning member Kevin Hine said with the county being mostly infill development, due to its limited undevelopable land, many parcels are not easily accessible. Knowing the possible road improvements needed is necessary.

Zapple asked county staff to include even more information than is already given on road improvements planned in surrounding areas to a proposal. This could include state-planned projects, such as those included in NCDOT’s 10-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

“What’s happening in the next year or so that could impact this development?” he asked.

The information provided to the planning board, and ultimately the commissioners, has changed since 2013.

The staff summary provided in 2013 was limited to how the site would be accessed, the average daily travel on adjacent roadways and level of service associated with those roads. Other information was provided on an as-needed basis.

By 2017, TIAs were included as well as information regarding bicycle and pedestrian access. Two years later, a map of nearby projects was added along with approved NCDOT improvements in the vicinity. It also offered current traffic for the zoning designation and how that might change per a rezoning.

The data offered now has remained mostly unchanged, with information condensed in a map instead of lengthy narrative. It also includes more discussion on planning capacity level of service.

Staff must recommend approval of a development as judged by consistency with the county’s policies. The board of commissioners can also take into account community interest and impact before giving a final stamp of approval.

Scalise noted it would be helpful for commissioners to receive a summary of public comments, as well as a summary of the planning board’s concerns and comments. While both boards agreed it’s beneficial to have differing views and in turn, ask unique questions, they also felt it important to have more open communication.

Any changes to made to staff summaries provided to the planning board and commissioners based on feedback will be provided at a later time.

NCDOT representatives Adrienne Cox and Michelle Howe dig into the details behind the 10-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

State-level input

While local impact and input is essential to development growth, state-approved and state-funded transportation projects also are a factor.

The NCDOT must approve “driveway access permits” when commercial areas are connecting to the state highway system.

“Moderate to larger developments can have significant impact to public infrastructure,” NCDOT division engineer Benjamin Hughes said.

NCDOT — overseeing 5,671 road miles in division 3, which cover New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, Onslow, Duplin and Sampson counties — decides where exactly a development will access public roadways. A TIA is used to determine the best way to accommodate connections safely and efficiently, Hughes added.

Annually for New Hanover County, NCDOT reviews roughly 100 driveway permits, which based on forecast traffic, could require a TIA.

For NCDOT, TIA is required when a development will generate more than 3,000 trips per day, which is typically 300 peak hour trips. Projects to likely trigger the need for a TIA would be:

  • 55,000 square feet of retail
  • 300 single-family homes
  • 250,000 square feet of office
  • 400,000 square feet of industrial
  • 350-room hotel

This is about 33% greater than the county’s 100 peak hour trip requirement for TIAs, which would be triggered by:

  • 20,000 square feet of retail
  • 100 single-family homes
  • 85,000 square feet of office
  • 335,000 square feet of industrial
  • 115-room hotel

A development may be required to make road improvements based on certain criteria, including if the average delay at an intersection increases by at least 25%, when the level of service degrades or when vehicle queues in turning lanes exceed available storage.

Typical suggested improvements include constructing turn lanes or roundabouts, installing new traffic signals, adding lanes, adjusting signal timing and creating superstreets, such as on U.S. 17 in Scott’s Hill.

“TIAs are very conservative and analyze the worst time of the day,” Hughes said.

Roth clarified they essentially make sure the worst-case scenario is mitigated.

However, TIAs only analyze congestion and delay impacts, not road capacity.

Road capacity comes into play for NCDOT-funded improvements in the STIP, where trends are observed on a regional level.

“[Those are done] in much broader conditions than these spot intersections for a traffic study,” James explained.

Though NCDOT engineer Michelle Howe noted the STIP is a reactionary process.

“The scoring is based on current problems,” she said. “The money usually runs out before we get to projects for being proactive.”

There are currently 100 projects in the most recently approved 2024-2033 STIP for New Hanover County, or projects that impact it, as well as Pender and Brunswick counties. Seven are currently not funded, including four Wilmington International Airport improvements, updates to College Road from Shipyard Boulevard to Carolina Beach Road, widening Castle Hayne Road and the Greenville Loop Road and Greenville Avenue intersection upgrade.

While the STIP plans for 10 years of projects in terms of funding and scheduling, it’s reevaluated every two years based on local needs.

Projects considered for future rounds of funding are submitted by the WMPO, using its long-range metropolitan transportation plan. An improvement for any of the six modes of transportation — aviation, ferry, roadway, public transit, rail, and bike and pedestrian — must be in the WMPO’s long-range plan, with a funding estimate, to be considered.

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