[Update: New Hanover County Board Commissioners voted Sept. 5 to approve the rezoning 3-2, with vice chair LeAnn Pierce and commissioner Rob Zapple dissenting.]
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — An upcoming rezoning request has neighbors living in the vicinity on edge for what’s to come. Some are considering legal recourse.
More than 500 property owners in and around the Seabreeze community — located about 2 miles north of Snow’s Cut Bridge off Carolina Beach Road — have signed a petition opposing a proposed request to rezone 7.37 acres from R-15 residential to R-5, which would allow for a higher density.
The site has been zoned R-15 since the 1970s with a desire to keep density low in the area, due to private wells and septic systems as the only options for infrastructure. Since then, private water and sewer utility services are available to the area by Aqua, and both county staff and planning board noted times have changed over the last 50 years since it was zoned.
Applicant Wes Reynolds is planning 14 structures, to contain 46 total townhomes — duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes — built on four privately maintained access roads off Carolina Beach Road.
Reynolds reduced the number from 56 townhomes following a May community meeting, and further decreased the maximum to 46, following the July 6 planning board meeting based on board feedback.
While the New Hanover County planning board approved the rezoning in a 5-2 vote Aug. 3 — after the item was continued from July to address concerns — residents are gearing up to make their opposition heard again at the Sept. 5 commissioners meeting.
The planning board recommended approval of the rezoning with conditions attached:
- The units must attach to private wastewater and water connections
- Developer must retain certain large specimen trees on the property
- The construction must not impact the ability of lot owners of three adjacent properties to use the access easement on the site and not create a financial burden
- Northern terminus of access easement designated for public use to allow potential future connection to and through adjacent parcels to Seabreeze Road
- All stormwater management areas shown on plan shall be required
Members Clark Hipp and Kevin Hines opposed the rezoning due to the density and closeness to existing homes, as well as the nominal increase in traffic. An additional 18 morning and 24 evening peak hour trips are estimated to be generated from the development. Currently, about 400 vehicles drive along Seabreeze Road and roughly 32,500 travel on Carolina Beach Road, according to NCDOT.
Still, neighbors living in the Seabreeze community expressed concerns over the narrow Service Road that connects to Seabreeze Road and ultimately to the major corridor of Carolina Beach Road.
“I continue to have difficulty with increasing traffic,” Hipp said at the August meeting.
He pointed to some other allowable uses by-right in the zoning, such as a library, park, school and EMS fire station.
“I would recommend an increase in traffic for those public uses,” Hipp said, indicating he would not for residential.
The density would also jump from the allowable 2.5 units per acre up to 6.7.
Seabreeze resident Audra Moore reached out to Port City Daily, sharing an email she, along with others, has sent to commissioners outlining their reasons to deny the project.
“We as a community are looking to you and the Board of Commissioners to stand by your constituents and support the wishes of a community, we look to you for protection and to be heard,” Moore wrote.
The Seabreeze community is also steeped in history dating back to the 1930s. The area served as a beach resort community for African Americans until the 1950s, another reason Moore notes, it should be protected.
A state highway historical marker will be installed just over Snow’s Cut Bridge, north of Carolina Beach Road, on May 31, 2024, dedicated to the community. The date coincides with what would have been Robert Bruce Freeman’s 194th birthday. Freeman acquired the land that is now Seabreeze in 1876 and was one of the founding members of the community.
Moore, along with a handful of other neighbors in the existing single-family community that would abut the future development, spoke at both planning board meetings in opposition.
Top concerns included increased flooding due to wetlands that exist on the property and a disruption of the “quaint, serene” neighborhood that would lose a majority of its tree canopy.
“My neighbors and I will continue to come out and oppose development that will change the character of our community,” resident Kathy Tylee said in August.
A prior rezoning request in the Seabreeze area for higher density residential development was reviewed by the planning board in fall 2022. The feedback from the public at that time indicated they preferred to keep the density as is and retain the community as single-family homes only.
The plan to rezone 7 acres of land on Seabreeze Road to business and R-7 residential was then a recommended denial, voted 5-1 by the planning board. Moore and others who spoke against this current rezoning voiced their concerns last year as well.
Though this go-around multiple planning board members noted the area will likely be developed at some point, considering the limited vacant land in the county.
In a summary of the 46-unit townhome project, county staff found the proposal aligned with its land-use plan, due to the increased density and diversity of housing types.
“The goal is to provide desirable improvement to a diversity of housing in the southern end of the county,” said attorney Sam Franck, representing the applicant in August. He pointed to “the missing middle.”
“We’ve suggested this infill to respond to that exact need,” he said.
Moore’s email to commissioners states the design goes against the county’s comprehensive land use plan, despite staff recommendation that it’s consistent.
“I’ve read the NHC Comprehensive Plan and based on everything I’ve read, this rezoning request from R-15 to R-5 absolutely goes against everything this plan stands for and it’s [sic] Theme Committees: The Livable Environment, Harmony With Nature, Interwoven Equity, Resilient Economy, Healthy Community, and Responsible Regionalism,” Moore wrote.
The townhomes will be roughly 3,000 square feet in size and average a $400,000 to $500,000 price point, which current neighbors said is not affordable. According to the county’s housing assessment, the current median price for homes was $390,000 in 2022. Only 12% of homes in 2022 were available for under $300,000 with nearly 50% of all homeowners cost burdened, or paying more than 30% of their income toward mortgage.
The proposed development would act as a transition area between the highway with commercial activity and existing single-family homes, according to staff. While the county’s future land use map indicates the Seabreeze community could be suitable for mixed-use development.
“It is a plan,” Seabreeze resident Harold Van Essandelft said at the August meeting in reference to the county’s comprehensive land use plan. “Never did I find the word ‘mandate.’”
He also said it’s difficult “if not impossible” to put a value on the green space the residents currently enjoy.
The neighbors also indicate construction will come within 20 feet of some of their property lines, decreasing the value of their houses.
“The Plan further states it will discourage development in wetlands, floodplains, and other flood prone areas,” Moore wrote to commissioners. “Building townhomes over wetlands in an area that was just, until recently, re-classified considered to be in the AE flood zone, does not meet the standards of The Plan.”
Four areas classified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are wetlands, though not federally regulated waters. The parcels planned for development, 7641, 7645 and 7647 Carolina Beach Road, are currently wooded tracts of land that border nearly 1 acre of pocosin wetlands.
“Many of us had to build toward the back of our lots to avoid wetlands, yet this developer is able to build right on top of them,” Moore stated in her email.
The residents were told the wetlands had to be taken into consideration when designing their homes to not displace water irresponsibly.
During the July planning board meeting, Moore also pointed to the significant flooding that occurred during Hurricane Isias, which “wasn’t even a bad storm,” yet standing water remained for weeks.
At the August meeting, she showed additional photos indicating standing water that does not drain following rainfall.
Attorney Clint Cogburn, presenting the applicant at the July meeting, told the planning board the developer is allowed to build on the wetlands, since they are not federally regulated.
He also noted the site plan must be fully engineered to retain and provide stormwater mitigation as part of county and state requirements.
“We cannot generate additional runoff onto adjacent sites that isn’t already occurring,” Cogburn said. “It’s not something we can run from.”
He believes the stormwater plan will improve flooding concerns to surrounding properties.
Franck stepped in to represent the applicant at the August meeting and told the board the developer had revised the stormwater management plan to add eight additional basins to collect water.
The revision also relocated units away from an AE flood zone and now includes 12 water basins. Jimmy Fentress with Stroud Engineering said a portion will be wet ponds to collect water and direct it to infiltration ponds to recharge the groundwater. The basins will also be built around specimen trees .
A larger buffer has been proposed around the property to mitigate any sight impacts to adjoining properties.
Another member of the opposition, Laird Flournoy, noted this rezoning could be considered “spot rezoning,” changes that are limited to small areas.
While a blog post from May 2023 published by UNC School of Government professor David Owens noted there is no minimum or maximum size to be declared spot zoning, North Carolina courts have considered the action. In Blades v. City of Raleigh, Owens notes the courts emphasized the need for a reasonable basis to justify spot rezoning, largely in terms of how it affects neighboring properties.
Owens further states spot zoning is when a relatively small tract, owned by a single person, is different from a much larger uniformly zoned area and results in more or fewer restrictions than the surrounding parcels.
Properties surrounding the proposed development are all zoned R-15.
“I commend the revisions and the considerable concessions made to those areas,” board member Colin Tarrant said in August. “I did not have an issue with density and I still don’t. The use of townhomes transitioning to existing single-family homes is exactly what we’re looking for as we move to development.”
Moore and a dozen other neighbors plan to attend Tuesday’s board of commissioners meeting to voice concerns. The meeting will be held at the New Hanover County Historic Courthouse at 4 p.m.
“It’s not a justified rezoning per the comprehensive plan and we as a neighborhood have discussed legal recourse if it is approved,” Moore told PCD, referring to spot zoning.
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