Thursday, April 18, 2024

NHC considers mandating EV-ready parking spaces to the dismay of some developers

The New Hanover County Planning Board approved an ordinance amendment that would require 20% EV-ready parking spaces in lots greater than 25 spots. The commissioners will have the final vote in December. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As the number of electric vehicles in New Hanover County continues to rise, with an estimated 230% increase in the next three years, preparations are being made for more publicly available charging stations.

READ MORE: New Hanover lags behind on electric cars, infrastructure as popularity surges in NC

The county planning board approved recommending an ordinance requiring parking lots to have 20% of spaces dedicated to electric vehicle use, but not without some pushback from board members and the development community.

“The potential upside to the proposal is the creation of clear standards for EV parking spaces and consideration of future modification of existing facilities,” said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of advocacy group North Carolina Business Alliance for a Sound Economy. “However, the fundamental question is whether local governments should require private investment to bear the cost of installation of EV facilities and provide electricity for charging of vehicles?”

County staff spent more than a year researching the best way to incorporate an EV-ready parking space requirement into its land use ordinances. With feedback from developers and after making some initial amendments per planning board input, staff is proposing all parking lots have 20% of spaces installed with conduits, ready to convert to charging stations. 

This would apply to all uses, ranging from commercial to industrial and business projects with more than 25 spaces, but it would not apply to single-family residential. The requirement would rise to 30% for multi-family complexes and apartments, hotels and parking decks.

The county’s EV-ready ordinance would have a 15-space cap for all lots, as recommended by some planning board members. The EV-ready spaces are also inclusive of a development’s overall requirement for number of parking spaces per project.

“It’s an easy, cost-effective way to build infrastructure early for more options in the future,” county development review supervisor Robert Farrell explained to the planning board Nov. 2.

He said by running the necessary underground conduits required for electricity while building lots, it will be easier and less expensive to install more charging stations, which the county anticipates will be needed within the next five years.

There are currently 55 EV charging stations spread across New Hanover County, with 11 located within Mayfaire shopping center and 12 downtown, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s alternative fuels data center. 

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that the Wilmington area have 28 Level 2 workplace charging plugs, 38 Level 2 public charging plugs, and 5 public DC Fast Charging plugs by 2024. New Hanover County needs seven more Level 2 plugs and two more public fast-charging stations to reach the goal. However, by 2026, the US Department of Energy anticipates those numbers to more than double.

The county staff led the initiative to add the ordinance, as prompted by recent federal and state energy goals. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in 2021 for 50% of new vehicles in the U.S. to be zero-emission by 2030. 

In 2022, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order establishing a state goal of at least 1.25-million registered zero-emission vehicles in North Carolina by 2030.

“Knowing the impact these orders will have on the market, the intent of this amendment is to make it as easy and cost effective for property owners to install EV charging stations in the future when it becomes feasible and/or necessary,” county senior development review planner Zachary Dickerson told Port City Daily. “One of the goals of this amendment was to get ordinance requirements on the book, and if we need to adjust those down the line, we can certainly do that.”

Planning board members had mixed feedback.

“I, for one, am happy to see staff and the county trying to get ahead of the problem when all we do is react to problems,” said planning board member Clark Hipp, owner of Hipp Architecture, at a November meeting.

He compared it to ADA-accessible spaces, which were not regulated until the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design released guiding minimum requirements for constructing accessible parking spots.

Planning board vice chair Colin Tarrant was the first to bring up at the Oct. 5 meeting that a large project could result in excessive EV stations, if a cap were not instituted.

For example, a 600-space project without a cap would result in 120 EV-ready spaces — more than the county needs and an added expense to developers.

Chair Jeff Petroff agreed.

“A discussion on the percentage and the cap is warranted,” he said in October. “This could absolutely change in a couple years and this document will have to change, but hopefully the market responds and this [ordinance] can go away.”

In other words, Petroff alluded that EV cars will become the norm and the planning board won’t have to require it.

Dickerson told the board in October no other municipality he researched had a maximum requirement, so there wasn’t a guideline for staff to follow. 

“And we didn’t receive feedback on what to cap it at,” he explained.

By November that changed. The staff looked into the City of Apex and found it initially had a 10-space cap on its EV charging station requirement but removed it a few years after adoption. Thus, county staff proposed the 15-space cap.

“It’s a jumping-off point, not a firm number, and it can be changed — raised or lowered,” Farrell told the board.

Some of the development community, though consulted by the county, wasn’t thrilled with the idea or added cost.

East West Partners partner McKay Siegel called the requirement “absurd,” using the example of a 75-space lot costing a developer up to $80,000. He noted the recurring operating expenses after charging stations are installed, as well.

“We as a country already made a lot of very well-documented mistakes in arbitrary parking mandates,” Siegel said. “This would be a mistake.”

The added investment will make it more difficult to pay for development, in turn leading to increased rent in some cases or the inability to finish projects, he added.

Dickerson explained to PCD the cost to developers will vary based on the layout of the parking lot and length of the conduit needed. The planning board’s amendment only addresses the infrastructure for stations be put in place at this time.

“From most of the conversations we had with the development community, it did not sound like the conduit was going to be the bulk of the cost in these cases,” he added.

Siegel said his company is currently installing EV chargers on its own at The Range on Oleander Drive, a mixed-use apartment complex with one-, two- and three-bedroom units and amenities. With 624 parking spaces and guidance from its management partner Greystar, East West decided to include eight EV chargers.

Four two-sided chargers (equaling eight total) cost the company $40,000 plus annual operating fees of $2,500 per year.

Newman said developers face enough challenges in designing a site plan as it is, with having to accommodate for landscaping, open space, utilities, building height, trees, stormwater, sidewalks, zoning and more.

“All of those add up,” he said. “Setting definitions and specifications for those that want to install infrastructure and chargers is one thing. The concerns with this proposal are making it mandatory and the arbitrary nature of the rules (20%, 30%, etc).”

Some planning board members agreed the numbers seemed random and subjective.

“I can’t wrap my head around the metric,” Pete Avery said at the Oct. 5 meeting. “I don’t understand how we would put ratios of need for EV stations based on electric vehicles that might be in this country in 20 years.”

He was referring to the county’s estimation on the rise of electric cars locally. In 2020, there were 339 registered EVs; 2021 saw a 70% spike to 574. There are 1,120 registered in 2023 and county staff estimates a more than 230% increase by 2026, totaling 3,700 electric vehicles registered in New Hanover County.

While planning board member Cameron Moore said the 15-space cap helps, he still wasn’t a fan of the 20% requirement.

“I would love to see that more like 5% or 10%,” he said in November. “The numbers are arbitrary because we don’t have enough data.”

By comparison, the City of Wilmington has a requirement for 4% of parking spaces to be electric-vehicle ready. This includes 2% with EV charging stations and 2% EV-ready.

Multiple county planning board members said the market should drive the change in adding EV stations. 

“The challenge I have is the market is already doing their part,” Moore said in October. “I would rather do less than go more and have to take away [spaces].”

Tarrant implored his fellow members to think about baby steps and not go too far too quickly.

“I understand trying to get ahead,” he said. “I do struggle with the fact that we are attempting to implement this as a requirement instead of letting the market react, and to me, there’s a balance there.”

Brad Schuler with Paramounte Engineering submitted comments to county staff indicating the company is starting to receive requests from clients to include EV charging stations within new projects. He also noted it shouldn’t necessarily be a private developer’s job to provide charging opportunities.

“Why do EV owners need the ability to charge at every business/parking lot?” he wrote to staff, pointing out the county does not have any charging stations at the new government center or county-owned parks.

Hansen Matthews said at the October meeting most people with electric vehicles charge them at home. He even called out the new Toyota EV battery that will hold a charge for more than 500 miles, leading to less of a need for public stations. Most batteries now are designed to last 150 to 300 miles, according to the county’s research, which also noted 30% of charging takes place in public areas.

Newman suggested a middle ground: For the county to create guidelines within its ordinance for businesses interested in voluntarily installing stations for conformity. He also said the county could allow use of setbacks and buffers to accommodate the EV requirements, if approved.

“Developers will build what our users need, anything more than that is a subsidy,” Seigel said. “If our customers are unhappy or demand more, we’ll install more. Let the energy sector subsidize electric vehicles; we have enough to worry about in housing.”

He added developers have control over energy efficiency with buildings, not necessarily vehicles.

“Our industry doesn’t have anything to do with what car people choose to drive,” Seigel said.

Newman and Seigel agreed investment could be better spent on affordable housing over EV charging stations.

“I don’t know not one person struggling to make ends meet driving an electric vehicle,” Siegel said. “I do know some folks could use more affordable housing though.”

Newman echoed this: “Adding mandatory EV spaces and EV infrastructure will have costs. For as much as the community talks about housing affordability, the commissioners will have to decide if this tradeoff is worth it.”

The planning board ultimately voted 5-1, with Avery dissenting.

The county board of commissioners will have the final say on adopting the new regulations at a January meeting.

To view the proposed text amendment for EV-ready spaces in full and compare the October version to November’s, go here. The public can also submit comments on the updated ordinance prior to it being heard by the board of commissioners.

[Ed. note: At the planning board meeting, members said it would go to the county in December; the county changed it to January due to a packed schedule. The article has been updated to reflect as much.]

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