Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Royal Farms location slowed down by $110K in tree removal fines

The proposed site for a Royal Farms at the intersection of Marjoram Way and New Center Drive, near Kerr Avenue, in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — A gas station with multiple locations planned in New Hanover County has reached a roadblock because of the property owner’s failure to obtain a tree removal permit.

READ MORE: More gas stations fly South as city considers change in design standards

Internal emails obtained by Port City Daily show the Maryland-based convenience store brand Royal Farms is eyeing 710 N. Kerr Avenue for one of four stores planned in the county. 

The emails reveal the objective was to have the rezoning application for the property — 2.1 acres at the corner of N. Kerr Avenue and New Centre Drive — in front of city council by February. However, the plans have stalled due to a tree removal citation issued on Oct. 27, 2022.

City spokesperson Lauren Edwards confirmed to PCD 38 trees were illegally removed from the property. The city issued a citation for the removal on Jan. 27. Mitigation of the trees is 498 caliper inches of tree, which can be replanted with any tree of 2 inches diameter or more. 

An email from city zoning administrator Kathryn Thurston shows the fine for uprooting 38 trees, three of which are considered significant trees, is $23,450. 

“This is the base amount and not the more punitive metric used when we know the owner/developer to have been aware that a permit is required,” Thurston wrote in the Feb. 22 email to the developer’s representative, Ward & Smith attorney Clint Cogburn.

Any tree that is not mitigated would be fined at a rate of $175 per caliper inch. Thurston clarified this equals $87,150 for the 38 trees. Adding in the fine, the total citation would be $110,600. 

As of March 26, neither the citation nor the mitigation has been paid or otherwise satisfied and the parties remain in active discussions on a settlement, per Edwards. 

Port City Daily could not reach Cogburn by press.  

Cogburn has been working to reach a solution with City of Wilmington staff over tree mitigation since at least last fall. 

A Sept. 6 email to senior planner Patrick O’Mahoney reveals Cogburn’s team had previously submitted an application for the development of Royal Farms without a traffic impact analysis, though one was completed. Cogburn also said a neighborhood meeting already had occurred in the spring and the only change made to the property since was the addition of a strip of land fronting N. Kerr Avenue.

Cogburn also indicated he was working with an arborist to develop a tree survey. 

Around this time, Cogburn revealed more details on the Royal Farms site plan, namely that the gas station will have access points from all three roads surrounding it — N. Kerr Avenue, New Centre Drive and Marjoram Way. Across from it is Smith Creek Village home development.

Cogburn said he understood some who have reviewed the plans — O’Mahoney attributed these to the WMPO — were concerned the Marjoram entrance would be used as a cut-through to N. Kerr Avenue. Marjoram Way runs behind the rear of the development to Cornerstone Condominiums and is wooded. The attorney said his clients could mitigate that shortcut by installing signage and traffic calming measures. 

“Each of these accesses is critical to the function and layout/operation of the site,” Cogburn wrote. 

Cogburn was also concerned with the trees fronting New Centre Drive, stating their presence inhibits site visibility. However, O’Mahoney replied that the trees in this area would most likely lie in a streetscape and, thus, are not permitted for removal.

The emails show a pre-TRC meeting occurred mid-September, but the project cannot move forward without a resolution on tree mitigation.

However, Cogburn argued the project should progress to the point where the developers know what trees would need to be removed for the gas station installation.

“Given that we are looking to develop the site and address mitigation/landscape as part of that process, it would seem counterintuitive to issue/require mitigation of trees that would subsequently be removed,” Cogburn wrote in a Sept. 20 email.

Cogburn sent several emails to the city, mainly questioning the cost of the mitigation. On Oct. 5, Thurston told the attorney it was not custom for the city to provide a mitigation cost estimate while the applicant was still working to bring the site into compliance — or replanting trees. 

She also told Cogburn he and his client could propose a settlement agreement at any time, which would go to the city attorney and manager for approval. 

“My thought is that they would want more clarification as to what you are able to plant on site prior to the authorization of any penalty modification, though,” Thurston said. 

The city received Cogburn’s proposed settlement in February. 

In Thurston’s reply, which included the $110,600 calculation from the city, she  referenced what appears to be Cogburn’s proposal of paying $6,000. Thurston noted this would only equate to 5% of the total citation.

“In the interest of equity to others in the development community who go through the proper procedures when pursuing development approvals, staff would be willing to present a recommendation of $25,200 to the city manager with a favorable recommendation,” Thurston wrote in the same email to Cogburn.

Cogburn replied same-day confirming receipt. 

If the project moves forward, the Royal Farms location will join the others planned across the county, including one behind the Azalea Inn and Suites on Market Street and another at the juncture of Highway 132 and Highway 17 in Castle Hayne. 

The brand tapped the old Hops Supply Co. land on Oleander Drive as another location, though the deal fell through and another fan-favorite gas station, Wawa, is looking to sub-in.

The influx of gas stations to the area have been an object of controversy for locals opposed to the traffic, 24/7 noise and light operation, and environmental effects of the incoming C-stores on surrounding residential areas. The N. Kerr Avenue project’s land is zoned residential — a single-family home sits on the property — and sits across from townhome-style and single-family residences.

Once the Royal Farms application reaches staff, it will go through the technical review committee, then the planning board, before reaching city council, which makes the final decision to rezone.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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