Thursday, April 18, 2024

Eagles Island developer explores city annexation, NHC considers west bank regulations

Eagles Island, south of the Battleship, can still be developed by-right, yet Bobby Ginn is inquiring to annex property into city limits for his Wilmington Hotel and Spa. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — A developer with a contentious proposal for building on the west banks of the Cape Fear River is trying to revive his plans and has inquired about the potential to annex into the city. Simultaneously, the county is considering updates to its land use regulations that could impact the future of the same property. 

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

The Ginn Corp., owned by developer Bobby Ginn, recently expressed interest in annexing land on Eagles Island into Wilmington city limits. Ginn released a proposal in November 2021 to construct The Wilmington Hotel and Spa with 290 bedrooms on 14 acres between the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and U.S.S. North Carolina.

The property is currently owned by Diamondback Development — which purchased land in 2015 following a foreclosure — and zoned to make way for building by-right. After nonprofit Unique Places to Save’s failed attempt to purchase the land from Diamondback for $16 million last year and place it in a conservation easement, the acreage is back on the table for Ginn’s project.

Based on internal emails obtained by Port City Daily, the city received interest from Ginn about annexing the property into city limits to build an even larger development than originally proposed. A draft analysis of the annexation inquiry indicates Ginn Corp. is proposing a mixed-use site with two residential towers totaling 912 condos, and a 410-room hotel, along with 127,000 square feet of convention space, high-end retail, dry-stack boat storage and self storage.

While the proposal would be allowed by-right in the county, the city has to agree to annexation and approve rezoning. The draft request states the property, currently located in both unincorporated New Hanover County and Brunswick County, would need to be zoned for the city’s central business district. The CBD currently encompasses Nun Street north to the Isabel Holmes Bridge and the Cape Fear River east to roughly Fifth Avenue. The CBD is intended to create a high-density commercial, office, and residential area contributing to the economic base of the city.

However, it’s unlikely Ginn’s plan would gain traction, per the Oct. 10 draft analysis found in emails from city manager Tony Caudle. The memo outlined annexation and development of the river’s west banks under a CBD zoning is not supported by a number of the city’s adopted plans and ordinances. The new build would also compete with the downtown historic district, outfitted with its own convention center, retail shops and condos.

“CBD is a defined space and is inappropriate to apply on the west bank,” the analysis states. “Proposed development appears to violate multiple facets of intent of the CBD and is inconsistent with the maximum height limits.”

The southern portion of the CBD, across from Eagles Island where Ginn’s proposal would go, has a 60-foot-tall limit; Ginn’s proposal includes 100-foot buildings. 

The Create Wilmington Comprehensive Plan disallows environmentally unsustainable development and there is a significant flooding risk with building on the property. In 2020, Eagles Island experienced 174 flood events, according to past PCD reporting.

The vast majority of the site is protected wetlands and provides wildlife habitat and floodwater retention. Yet, Ginn planned to build on the uplands closest to the river’s edge.

Seventy acres of the west banks comprise a special flood hazard area, which means water accumulation would increase with the addition of impervious surface.

The city’s comprehensive plan doesn’t directly address property on the site since Eagles Island is not located within the city’s zoning jurisdictions, but the Wilmington Downtown Vision 2020 specifically recommends preservation of the Cape Fear River’s western banks.

“[Large development] would run against what the city has heard from the public to protect the historic charm and character, enhance the gateway and reduce flooding,” the analysis states.

It also notes public support for continued preservation is even stronger than when the 2020 plan was created.

The city pointed to infrastructure, traffic and emergency services as major concerns for construction on Eagles Island. The developer would need to work with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to extend water and sewer to the site in a way that does not negatively impact capacity to current homes and businesses.

According to the city, the only way to provide adequate fire and emergency services would be to build a fire station across the river, an added cost to taxpayers.

NHC vision for west bank

Costly utilities and emergency services are factors already considered by the New Hanover County commissioners and staff, who have been reviewing the future use of the west banks — located partially in county limits — for nearly two years.

In late 2021, two proposals came forth for extensive mixed-use developments on the west banks: Ginn’s original hotel and spa on Eagles Island and KFJ Development’s Battleship Point, farther north on Point Peter.

While discussion and controversy swirled for about a year around the potential developments — and what is or is not feasible for that land — all has been silent for most of the year.

Following UP2S’ attempt to conserve Eagles Island, which was halted last December, New Hanover County commissioners tabled any development proposals to evaluate its options and determine the best path for future land use there. Work sessions, stakeholder input and research conducted to answer: What, if anything, should be done with the property across the river from historic downtown Wilmington?

Laden with commercial history, the west banks have been immersed in various industries in the past, from shipbuilding and maritime to manufacturing. To develop the area again would not be new; however, concerns have been raised by many environmentalists, who say development may not be viable, and from the public, who currently enjoy the scenic view from downtown.

The county’s current vision for the west banks was developed more than 20 years ago when industrial properties were reimagined to make way for commercial services, residential units, office space and public amenities. Its 2016 comprehensive plan outlined more intensive development mirroring downtown Wilmington. Though opinions have shifted citing concerns from community members and environmentalists.

Most recently, the county explored five different levels of development ideas for the area — no-use conservation, the strictest, up to large-scale mixed use. 

Based on the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan, its 2022 Economic Mobility Report and the current zoning of the land, there is a desire for it to be used by the public in some way. The county estimated 70 acres of property, owned by at least seven different entities, have a $16-million tax value if fully developed.

County planning director Rebekah Roth noted single-family residences were off the table due to the vulnerability of flooding, but full conservation is unreasonable as well. The latter could prove an impediment to future transportation projects, such as rail realignment and replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.

Originally, county staff planned to perform additional geotechnical and environmental studies to gather more information and aid in recommending a preferred path. They decided to forgo that route in August 2022.

Roth told commissioners in March that without a specific site plan, environmental review would serve no added purpose. Instead she opted for consideration of an overlay zoning district and additional research to refine a recommendation for how to tackle the property in the unincorporated New Hanover County bounds.

Since the spring, county staff have conducted three analyses they plan to present to commissioners next week with proposed updates to land-use regulations.

The first is a high-level feasibility study about what’s currently possible on the west banks. Using this information, staff then performed an “uncertainty” analysis to identify what impacts may arise given the unknown future use of the land and changing environmental conditions. By 2070, officials predict sea-level rise in New Hanover County to increase by 5 feet.

Staff then outlined the risk tolerance of developing the property to identify regulations, programs and investments that could assist with mitigating concerns.

At next week’s meeting, county staff will present its approach for updating the comprehensive plan and unified development ordinance as it pertains to the west banks. They aim to strike a balance of land use that provides community value while minimizing risks.

This includes ensuring the community is aware of future hazards and also updating ordinances related to design and architecture to mitigate impacts on the character of downtown Wilmington.

Amendments include tweaking the urban mixed-use policies specific to riverfront areas, such as guidelines for use, intensity, landscaping, public amenities, open space and regulatory review.

As long as land on the western banks — zoned business, industrial and riverfront mixed-use — remains private property, the county must allow for a reasonable use that provides value to landowners. There are about seven to 10 property owners identified for owning parcel on the west banks, who have been a part of county conversations. 

As a result, staff suggests incorporating a new riverfront-specific zoning district to allow for limited uses by-right, such as Ginn’s plan, and more intensive cases by request as conditional rezonings.

Per staff’s findings, development on the west bank is feasible from an engineering perspective, including mitigation of flooding and extended utilities, but the cost would be extensive. The county also wants to ensure private developers endure the expense, not the taxpayers.

Research showed some areas are more appropriate for development than others based on topography and location to conservation resources.

Also, brownfield mitigation is likely for any parcels that would be developed, per the property’s long history of industrial use. Per the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, a brownfield agreement limits future land use to residential housing or commercial uses such as office, retail, hotels and restaurants.

Amending the county’s comprehensive plan, specifically as it relates to the west banks, was identified as a top priority this winter. A full comprehensive plan redux will take roughly two years of research and input before being finalized.

If commissioners give the greenlight, it starts a process in terms of direction, assistant county manager Jessica Loeper said during Friday’s Eagles Island Task Force meeting.

“Commissioners will provide guidance, ‘yes, we agree,’ or ‘no we want you to go back and look at these things,’” Loeper explained. “From there, staff will have a clear direction.”

Staff will then refine its concepts with a two-pronged approach. First, recommendations will be brought to the planning board for discussion before holding a public hearing. Then commissioners will hold a second public hearing before giving the final sign off on updating land use guidelines. 

The full report of the county’s findings will be published following Monday’s meeting.

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