Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Autumn Hall residents push back on proposed amendment at community meeting with staff and developer

A proposed land use amendment continued to stir controversy at a community meeting last week as Autumn Hall residents raised questions about its long-term ramifications to the project’s manager and city staff. (Courtesy Port City Daily)

WILMINGTON — A proposed land use amendment continued to stir controversy at a community meeting last week as Autumn Hall residents raised questions about its long-term ramifications to the project’s manager and city staff.

READ MORE: ‘Check this epistle out:’ Councilman Rivenbark forwarded residents’ development concerns to business partner

ALSO: Wilmington council to reconsider density allowances for legacy districts amid resistance

Wilmington City Council voted to delay an amendment to the city’s land code ordinance in May after more than 50 residents voiced concerns it would encourage overdevelopment and flooding in the Autumn Hall area — particularly a 236-acre mixed-use development on Eastwood Road, anticipated to expand commercial and residential units.

The amendment would allow higher density development for legacy districts — land zonings no longer used by the city — and their use of density bonuses. The bonus areas are involved in a points-based systems to increase density in exchange for environmentally efficient designs in watershed resource protection or conservation areas. Projects in all other districts already are allowed to use them. 

Autumn Hall is located in a legacy district, meaning it would only be able to increase its project density if the amendment passes.

Council unanimously agreed to gather more information about the amendment’s impact and agreed to hold a community meeting at the New Hanover County Government Center last Thursday to clarify confusion.

“The city council didn’t seem to understand or have any knowledge of what was actually in that amendment and how it would impact all of us here,” a resident told councilmember David Joyner, who answered questions at the meeting. “And I don’t understand how you could vote on something if you don’t know how it would impact everybody.”

Joyner responded a significant amount of council decision-making depends on staff’s technical expertise and recommendations. Staff maintains the amendment would create better consistency in the land code without negative environmental consequences. It would apply to all properties zoned in legacy districts, rather than just Autumn Hall, and keep impervious surface coverage limits for developments in conservation areas, which staff argues is the driving factor on water quality rather than density.

Autumn Hall development manager Mike Brown — senior vice president at Cape Fear Commercial and partner at its affiliate firm Cape Fear Development — was also present to answer residents’ questions. Cape Fear Development submitted to the city a variance request on April 3 to update districts and place multi-family dwelling units in an undeveloped 29-acre section of the 236 acre property. It similarly would have allowed higher density development for legacy districts in Autumn Hall. 

“The subject property represents a portion of the undeveloped acreage remaining in the Autumn Hall development and due to its location in the southern portion of the project and separation from Eastwood Road, this area is best suited for residential development. The applicant seeks to place multi family dwelling units within this portion of the Autumn Hall project, a use which is encouraged by the MX code.” (Courtesy City of Wilmington)

The variance reads:

“The subject property is located within the MX (mixed-use) district. It’s crucial to note that the MX district falls under legacy regulations, governed by the outdated Land Development Code superseded by a newer version adopted in August 2021.”

Simultaneously staff was working on the legacy district amendments which reads: 

“The proposed amendment would remove these density limits from the legacy zoning districts to be consistent with the standards of the current LDC.”

Brown told Port City Daily Wednesday he was not aware of the city’s amendment until after it had been approved by the planning commission on April 3.

“We didn’t participate in drafting, we didn’t provide input, nor were we the applicant on the text amendment,” he said. “It was proposed by staff on their own without our involvement.”

City staff has maintained the amendment originated internally rather than by request from an outside party, as some residents in Autumn Hall have surmised.

At the community meeting, Brown emphasized his commitment to ensuring the environmental preservation of the area, noting his family has lived near Bradley Creek for generations.

“I swam in that creek, I boated in that creek — I’m passionate about Bradley Creek,” he said. “And one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed working at Autumn Hall is we don’t cut corners over there.”

One resident questioned Brown about future plans and the significance of the withdrawn variance.

“I think that might have created a little more confusion,” Brown responded. 

The developer said the primary focus of the withdrawn request was to clarify designated conservation areas in the property.

“I learned later that staff was creating a text amendment to the same area of the code, so we actually postponed the board of adjustment clarification to figure out what they were working on,” he said at the meeting.

Attorney Sam Franck of Ward and Smith — who has represented Brown and Cape Fear Development in the past — previously spoke about the connection between Autumn Hall and the amendment at the May city council meeting.

“I’m a citizen of the city and interested in this,” Franck said. “This is really unusual, but I’m actually here to tell you what this is not about.” 

The attorney said he’d reviewed public comments alleging a connection between the proposed amendment and a pending Autumn Hall development proposal, which “baffled” him. He added there were no proposals for further Autumn Hall development currently pending.

The city isn’t currently considering any Autumn Hall expansions or rezonings, spokesperson Jerod Patterson told PCD, although it does have an approved master plan for future phases of development within current zoning boundaries.

The withdrawn variance request for the Autumn Hall development notes D. Webster Trask Revocable Trust, the property owner, authorized Franck and Brown to serve as its representatives. 

Franck did not mention his affiliation with the developer or property owner at the May city council meeting, when he spoke in favor of the amendment during public comment. He noted it would make the city’s watershed management ordinance for legacy districts consistent with the city’s most recent land use plan. 

In the April variance request, Brown and Franck raised a similar argument for greater consistency:

“This disparity between the old and new regulatory frameworks underscores the impracticality and unfairness of applying old standards to the current project,” they stated.

They stated the city’s current land use code fails to include guidelines for determining density in legacy districts. They also noted the city ordinance did not have a clear system to incorporate density bonuses for areas subject to the outdated land code.

The withdrawn request contends the variance was essential because sections of the property are subject to out-of-date 2006 CAMA land classifications, which would prevent development in large portions of the area. They requested to update the property’s conservation delineations with new determinations by surveyors and wetland professionals. 

The request cited an email from civil engineer Brian Ensign of TC2 Engineering to Board of Adjustment Chair Jeff Hovis. Ensign said he’d completed a review, finding significant portions of the subject property were inaccurately designated to be within the 100-year flood zone.

Resident Kim Beller told Port City Daily a staff member advised her the developer would not need the variance if the city passed the amendment. 

Beller first became aware of the issue due to a letter she received about the withdrawn variance request. She and other residents who have voiced opposition to the amendment, such as Megan Dittman, are cited in the request as property owners within 300 feet of the subject parcel.

In a May 21 email to council, Dittman requested councilmember Charlie Rivenbark recuse himself from the vote due to his position as a senior vice president at Cape Fear Commercial, the affiliate of Autumn Hall developer Cape Fear Development. The firms share an address at 102 Autumn Hall Drive.

“I don’t have anything to do with development or anything that Cape Fear Development does, and I’m not going to recuse myself because this is citywide, it was not brought up by Cape Fear Development, it was staff-generated,” Rivenbark said at the May council meeting in response to residents’ concerns regarding the potential conflict of interest.

Dittman countered that his leadership position at an affiliate firm of Cape Fear Development would obligate him to make decisions in the best interests of the company.

“I spent 20 years in Corporate America before starting my own business, over half of my career with GE,” Dittman wrote. “No one gains the title of SVP without having significant decision-making abilities.”

Last month, PCD obtained emails of Rivenbark forwarding — and in some case mocking — residents’ Autumn Hall-related concerns to Brown. 

Brown told PCD Wednesday he believed it is important for council members to reach out to business owners about resident concerns. He said it helped him clear up rumors and confirm CFD was not planning to extend a road to Teal Street or requesting to clear cut or fill wetlands in the area.

“That’s the only way to get the concern addressed or get needed clarification in response to the concern,” he said. “I don’t think this is an uncommon practice, but it is rare that I ever get a request from Charlie. In this case, he had been sent emails about Autumn Hall.  He’s not involved in Autumn Hall whatsoever, nor is he involved with Cape Fear Development.  So he reached out to better understand what was going on.”

Brown said he viewed the community meeting as productive. Several residents thanked him for paying attention to their concerns and being forthcoming with answers. 

The amendment is slated to be considered again at council’s July 16 meeting but may be delayed further.


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

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