Saturday, July 13, 2024

Battleship Point to be downsized amid zoning uncertainty of CF River west banks

KFJ Development is preparing to downsize plans for Battleship Point as the county considers the best use for the Cape Fear River west banks. (Port City Daily/file)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Nearly 24 months after a development group pitched the county to build three 240-foot-tall mixed-use towers on the west banks of the Cape Fear River, plans have now shifted on what could come to fruition.

READ MORE: Eagles Island developer seeks city annexation, NHC considers west bank regulations

Kirk Pugh, partner with KFJ Development Group, told Port City Daily Thursday he is “100%” still planning to build Battleship Point on Point Peter across from downtown Wilmington; however, how that design is finalized is yet to be determined as the county still has to choose a zoning recommendation for the area. It’s designated industrial currently.

What Pugh does know: Battleship Point will be scaled back. 

The team’s proposal was withdrawn last August when it was apparent commissioners were going to deny Battleship Point and its adjoining zoning request to allow staff more time to ascertain the best land use for the west banks.

Last year, staff hashed out five possible land-use options, ranging from full conservation to large urban mixed-use. Commissioners have been clear they don’t want to see industrial development, while staff has informally suggested a “middle ground” — a mix of limited use working waterfront and small-scale mixed-use development.

On Monday, commissioners agreed to give staff more time to flesh out research and plans on how to best proceed with zoning the area. The official staff recommendation will go to the planning board for discussion before holding a public hearing. Then commissioners have the final say, which coincides with a second public hearing. No timeline has been set on when this will crystallize.

The west banks — located between the Cape Fear Memorial and Isabel Holmes bridges — comprises nine parcels and different owners. It’s currently zoned commercial, industrial and mixed-use. KFJ is under contract to purchase 8.2 acres on Point Peter.

The group submitted plans in 2021 to build a high-intensity mixed-use development, prompting officials to raise questions on what is feasible to construct there, due to it being located on wetlands and in flood zones, and what the public wants to see. After large-scale proposals, including Wilmington Hotel and Spa on Eagles Island, came in, conservationists pushed back and some residents did not like the aesthetic of tall structures visible from across the river.

Roth told commissioners this week staff would use the current riverfront mixed-use zoning standards, vetted nearly 20 years ago to mirror downtown’s historic district, as a basis for building a new district with updated requirements. County staff initially envisioned higher density development across the river decades ago.

“Our position with the county has always been, the goal is to have a collaborative mentality toward development on the west banks,” Pugh said. “They cast a vision early on and our original design, it reflected that vision.”

Battleship Point was proposed last year to bring 550 condos, 300 apartment units, a hotel and commercial space.

Pugh said the team’s conceptual designs are smaller in scope now. While he would not reveal specifics, he said mixed-use was still the plan, and mentioned retail, restaurants and lifestyle services as possibilities.  

“We’re open to suggestions and modifications to the original plan,” he said. “We’re just waiting on direction.”

The county held two work sessions in the last year regarding the future land use for property across the river from historic downtown Wilmington. Creating a new riverfront-specific zoning could put parameters on site design, architectural standards and limit uses by-right. The goal would be to implement rules that allow property owners to develop their land but ensure it’s done in a responsible way.

Commissioner Rob Zapple said Monday he was hesitant for staff to use the RFMU zoning as a “baseline” for a new district.

“This leaves the door open in discussion for conditional rezoning requests for structures up to 170 feet tall,” Zapple said. “I am uncomfortable leaving the door open at this early stage.”

He clarified his concerns were about more than just height, but also density and the types of businesses that would be allowed.

“We came very close during the General Assembly for the budget of allowing gambling and casinos in New Hanover County,” he said. “I cannot imagine, nor would I like to, a Las Vegas on the Cape Fear River.”

Based on the price of the land purchase and value it can provide, Pugh said he doesn’t see it being viable for anything other than medium- to high-density development. 

“The property does not suit itself to workforce housing because it is in a flood plain,” he added. “Workforce housing is discouraged in flood zones by almost everyone with an opinion.”

Based on visits to Eagles Island, as well as historic weather data, Roth said there has been more frequent flooding there. Much of it is also located in a FEMA AE flood zone, meaning there’s a 1% chance or greater of flooding annually.

During its research over the last year, staff also weighed the risks of flooding to determine the tolerance for future development. The recommendation was to avoid negative impacts to vulnerable populations, such as those living in workforce housing, as they have fewer resources and taxpayer money would likely be required.

Roth suggests commissioners allow individuals with private investments to carry the burden of possible future negative outcomes. This could mean making all expenses of running infrastructure and updating road access the responsibility of the developers, instead of on the county’s dime.

“As long as it’s privately owned, we have to allow for the potential of some development,” Roth indicated. She told PCD September 2022 local government does not have the legal authority to regulate land use based merely on future forecasts, such as potential flooding.

The northern parcels of the west banks, near Point Peter, are less subject to flooding hazards, Roth said, mainly based on the topography of the area.

A longtime Wilmington resident, Pugh is willing to incur that risk to create a “lasting legacy” for the city and county to enjoy. He also noted sea level rise estimates are just that — estimates, “educated guesses.”

“They should not be used to determine approval or not of development projects,” he said.

Pugh’s vision would be to create a community where people “live, play and work” from, without having to leave the property if they didn’t want to. A water taxi to shuttle residents across the river to historic downtown Wilmington is also a consideration.

Some of what Pugh and his team are planning might still need a conditional zoning request from the county, based on suggested changes to the county’s unified development ordinance. The property is currently zoned to allow for manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution companies and would need to be rezoned to make way for other uses.

At Monday’s meeting, Zapple was hoping to receive additional information, such as from tide monitoring studies Roth referenced, before making a decision. However, Roth pointed out collection of that kind of data would take time.

“We don’t have a lot of the information you’d like to have,” Roth told commissioners. “This is intended for us to make sure we don’t continue to have urban mixed-use on our comprehensive plan if that’s not what you want to see. That’s what we have today and it allows for higher intensity commercial and industrial use.”

Vice chair LeAnn Pierce said she was not a fan of seeing industrial sites across the river and Zapple has mentioned in previous work sessions the need to “clean up” the property. The property has been used for manufacturing businesses and marine salvage, with equipment, tires and trash on site.

Pugh’s team has cleaned up 400 tons of trash from the industrial site under contract. There is still environmental litter, such as timber and brush, that needs to be dealt with. He also noted a small piece of the property has some environmental contamination that will need remediation via a brownfields agreement.

Roth shared recommendations to commissioners Monday noting much of the future conditions of the west banks is “unknown.” An exact site plan would be needed to perform hydrology and geotechnical studies.

Roth pointed out any development on the west banks would still be subject to state Coastal Area Management Act regulations and policies of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission.

“The exact impact on CAMA regulations is uncertain and it wouldn’t be determined by the Division of Coastal Management until they have a site plan for review,” Roth told commissioners.

Pugh said that kind of thinking is putting the cart before the horse.

“It’s a little bit of a reach to envision potential roadblocks we might face before they even tell us what we can attempt,” he said. 

He also pointed out the county’s own study — shared with commissioners Monday after they asked for more information about the west banks — concluded anything could be built anywhere with the right engineering. It’s a statement he said he received from professionals regarding Battleship Point’s plans.

Commissioners Pierce and Dane Scalise both touted property rights as a strong consideration for future land use decisions.

“Private property owners have a right to do what they want to do but don’t know what they can do, and that’s a concern for me,” Pierce said at the meeting. 

Pugh echoed similar concerns to PCD on the timeline for devising the best use for the land. This month officially hit the two-year mark since Battleship Point plans were first proposed.

“I understand the process the county has to go through, but in my opinion, and I am not an experienced developer by any stretch, but the process has gotten drawn out, to no fault of anyone,” he said.

The waiting game has also been a significant expense to KFJ — in the “mid-to-high six figures,” Pugh said. 

“We don’t seem to be a whole lot closer to getting an answer than we were two years ago,” Pugh added. “We’re hopeful and we’re appreciative there’s more of a dialogue today than two years ago, but hopefully the process will now move along quicker than it has.”

While staff decided to prioritize amendments on the west banks, while beginning a full comprehensive plan update, commissioner Jonathan Barfield clarified the whole process was initially “developer-driven,” with individuals trying to force the county’s hand and “bully the process.”

He was referring to KFJ Development trying to annex land into Leland in spring 2022, since the county had not yet decided how to proceed.

Now Bobby Ginn’s corporation expressed interest in annexing land on Eagles Island into city limits, to move forward its Wilmington Hotel and Spa proposal, which is allowed by-right within the county’s current zoning. 

“It bothers me when you have developers pushing the envelope and bully us into making a decision, to usurp our authority to allow a project to proceed,” Barfield said. “Slow your roll, step back, take a beat and let the process unfold, as opposed to wasting resources on what might not happen.”

Zapple proposed another work session to catch up commissioners Scalise and Pierce, who were not on the board during last year’s information meetings.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to allow staff to flesh out its plans for updating the comprehensive land use plan that would impact future use on the west banks.

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