Friday, April 12, 2024

Brunswick County developers face stricter traffic impact requirements at resident behest

The Brunswick planning board recommended approval of the Ashton Farms development proposal without a traffic impact analysis. (Courtesy Brunswick County planning)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After a month of deliberations, Brunswick leaders agreed to enforce a new rule for traffic-generating developments in the county. 

READ MORE: ‘Go ahead and rubber stamp that’: 281 homes on 140 acres move forward in Brunswick

ALSO: ‘Slow down new development coming in’: Residents push back on Brunswick rezoning requests

Traffic impact analyses —  studies to determine necessary roadway improvements and to get an understanding of congestion in an area — are required of developers if their project will generate more than 100-peak-hour trips. But Brunswick County’s unified development ordinance — which staff is in the process of updating — does not require projects include TIAs before planning board consideration.

At the April 1 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a new requirement for developers to complete a traffic impact analysis earlier. The rule will mandate projects anticipated to generate more than 200 peak hour trips be approved by the North Carolina Department of Transportation prior to planning board approval. 

County residents called for the change after the planning board approved numerous projects without completed TIAs, such as the 2,950-unit mixed-use Ash Farm development greenlit in March.

At the Monday meeting, St. James resident Marjorie Burnside raised the importance of planning the county’s long-term roadway infrastructure. She called for greater consideration of residential developments’ congestion impact on safe evacuation routes in the event of an accident at the Duke nuclear plant, highlighting the 7,200 unit Williamson Tract and 3,616 Midway Tract proposals as examples.

“Based on these facts have you truly had the best interests of your constituents when making these decisions?” she said. “It certainly appears priorities lie elsewhere.”

The new requirement would likely slow the county’s pace of development.

According to minutes from the February commissioner and March planning board meetings, residents repeatedly cited traffic as a foremost concern among broader issues caused by insufficient infrastructure and fast-paced development.

St. James Mayor Jean Toney called to put TIAs at the beginning of the development process at both meetings. At the March planning board meeting, she cited the 3,616 unit Midway Tract development — scheduled for hearing in February before being pulled after resident pushback — as a “prime example” of a project in which issues could be discovered after planning board approval.  

Feb. 18, commissioners spoke with staff about refining the TIA timeline. County manager Steve Stone brought up the fact that the current UDO didn’t specify when an analysis needed to be turned in, saying the UDO was “silent to the timing” of it. 

A month later, Wilmington transportation planning engineer Scott James and NCDOT engineer Ben Hughes gave a presentation to commissioners on the TIA process for new developments. They were invited to give the board options on how to amend its TIA policy. 

Commissioner Pat Sykes put forth a motion to change the TIA process to require projects go before the planning board at 100 peak trips. The motion failed 3-2, with Forte, Frank Williams, and Marty Cooke dissenting. 

“Their presentation — which I’ve studied pretty hard over the last two weeks,” Mike Forte said at Monday’s meeting, “it’s kind of all over the place.” 

Williams called to revisit the topic on April 1 after the board had time to review the presentation and supporting documents. 

At the April meeting, Shallotte Point resident Holly Long said she and other citizens had called for the TIA change at several earlier commissioner meetings and criticized commissioners for requesting more time to study the issue.

“It does not seem that hard to understand that analyzing traffic impacts at the frontend of the planning is common sense,” she said. “ I worry that you are looking at the best interests of the developers and not the citizens of Brunswick County.”

Monday, Forte mistook NCDOT’s requirement for TIAs to be the total number of homes in a proposal rather than its peak trips. He thought NCDOT required TIAs for developments with over 300 homes and believed 100 homes was too small to warrant the change.

“100 homes is really only a 40-acre farm,” he argued, noting he would support a motion for projects with over 200 homes. 

A staff member corrected him and noted NCDOT requires TIAs for proposals with over 300 peak hour trips, whereas Brunswick’s UDO requires them for projects over 100 trips.

Cooke stated he had consulted with other coastal counties to get feedback on different TIA requirements; he found most counties do not mandate the study before planning board consideration. Williams said he also reached out to different counties and found some did not mandate TIAs unless required by NCDOT, while others required the studies at the beginning of their planning process.

Williams said a representative from NCDOT detailed the department finds earlier TIAs helpful, and often finds ones conducted by third party contractors inadequate. NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland did not confirm whether this was the view of the department. 

New Hanover County spokesperson Alex Riley said the county requires TIAs over 100 peak hours to be complete before planning board review, but does not require NCDOT approval until it goes before the county commissioners, giving developers more time to comply. 

Pender County spokesperson Brandi Cobb told PCD the county requires only TIAs be submitted prior to the planning board for master plans in some zoning districts — planned development, residential mixed, and manufactured housing community. She added most rezoning cases only require a conceptual plan, in which completed TIAs are not required before public hearings with commissioners or the planning board.

Brunswick County proposals meeting the 100-peak-trip threshold will continue to need a TIA, but will not be necessary before planning board review. Developments with 200 peak trips will need TIAs to present to the planning board and TIAs can only be completed during months when school is in session. The change in the UDO is in effect now and at a later date staff will present a text amendment to commissioners.

[Ed. Note: This article has been updated to clarify commissioner Frank Williams found some counties do not require TIAs at the beginning of their planning process while others do.]


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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