Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Residential use removed from western bank amendment, commissioner asks to postpone vote

A public hearing will be held regarding the western bank amendment at this week’s planning board meeting. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A month and more than 2,000 community comments later, New Hanover County planning staff are no longer recommending residential and mixed uses be permitted along the western banks of the Cape Fear River.

READ MORE: Western banks: ‘Downtown riverfront’ plan amendment to allow 5-story structures, public input welcome

County staff recently released an updated draft version of an amendment outlining a new place type, downtown riverfront, and land uses allowed within it. The amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan, over a year in the making, would guide development between Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and Isabel Stellings Holmes Bridge, including Eagles Island — one-half wetlands located within a FEMA floodplain.

Per the new recommendation, staff are now suggesting the place type be called “low-density riverfront” instead of downtown riverfront.

Also according to the amendment, this use would apply to only private property — around seven entities have land on the island. Public lands would go under the conservation district. 

In the updated language, staff stated “references to residential and mixed uses have been removed as they are no longer part of staff ‘s recommendation”; the plan also removed office/institutional as a use. Guidelines still cover recreational, civic/institutional and commercial use. 

The removal harkens back to staff’s original vision for the land, which did not include residential use. The planning board requested residential use be added back to the amendment in March

This Thursday two of the planning board members will not be taking a vote on the updated amendment, according to Commissioner Rob Zapple. On July 2, the commissioner sent an email to county Chair Bill Rivenbark requesting commissioners direct staff to recommend the planning board table Thursday’s action on the western bank amendment. 

Zapple told PCD on Monday the nonparticipants are Hansen Matthews and chair Jeffrey Petroff. The commissioner cited last week’s decision by the New Hanover County school board to fire its superintendent — with two board members absent — as a warning against making large decisions without full member input.  

Matthews told PCD he would be out of town Thursday, while Petroff did not comment by press. Zapple told PCD the chair would need to recuse himself from the vote because his engineering firm, CLD Engineering, is involved in the Wilmington Hotel and Spa project, directly affected by the outcome of the amendment.

In March, Petroff was one of a few planning board members advocating for developers to be allowed to build residences if they were willing to burden the costs to rectify elevated roadways, build bridges, or install water and sewer needs to prevent flooding issues and relieve the public from its cost.

This is one of Commissioner Rob Zapple’s main concerns with the western bank amendment.

“Typically what happens is that the developer pays for the installation and then turns it over to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in this case and it’s up to them to maintain it,” he said. “Which means, if it doesn’t work, we get flooding and there’s damage to that.”

County staff address this in the updated amendment. The draft stipulates the extension of CFPUA water and sewer utilities to western bank properties “would need to be carefully considered and may require additional review and maintenance agreements, and extensions to jurisdictions outside of New Hanover County are discouraged.” 

Still, Zapple is advocating the planning board take more time reviewing the utility concern, among others in the amendment. He also told PCD at the time he sent his email, both governing bodies had yet to receive an updated draft, making him weary of moving forward. 

“It seems a little bit of the cart before the horse,” Zapple said. 

After publication, county spokesperson Alex Riley told PCD the updated draft was posted on its website on Friday, July 5.

More time would also allow planning board members to fully review the 2,543 comments submitted on the amendment that led staff to make the update. PCD asked each planning board member if they had read all submissions; Matthews, along with Clark Hipp and Cameron Moore both said they were still reviewing the comments.  

“Since I will not be in town for the meeting, I have not read all the comments concerning the amendments,” Mathews said on Monday. “Planning Board members have not yet received the hard copy of the meeting package yet. I will review the entire board package after I receive the hard copy since there is always a chance that this or the other items will be continued to a later meeting.” 

Zapple claimed Monday that the majority of county commissioners were in favor of tabling the discussion, though declined to name who. Commissioner Jonathan Barfield told PCD he was supportive, though noted the request didn’t move forward (as confirmed by county staff), indicating the majority of commissioners were not in favor.

Commissioner Dane Scalise expressed his opposition to the hold-up in an email response to Zapple.

“I strongly oppose removing this matter from the normal course and the public square for further internal deliberations,” Scalise wrote. “We need to weigh in. Now.”

Scalise went on: “County staff has worked up a plan that the planning board should consider and vote on right away. After that, we should consider and vote on the same. We asked the public to weigh in on this issue and they have. We owe to our citizens an open evaluational of this plan and a public vote. Our transparency and accountability demands it.”

Commissioner LeAnn Pierce told PCD she wasn’t against tabling the discussion if there was a significant reason to, but was also fine with moving the process forward. It’s been more than two years since commissioners asked staff to begin researching land use effects and drafting an amendment for that swath of land.

“We can’t say out of one side of our mouth we want planning staff to get this done, and then on the other side, postpone it,” Pierce said. 

The western banks were once urban-mixed use and some are designated as brownfield. UMX is the most intense development type allowed in the county, a concern to residents who worried about flooding and environmental protection on the flood-prone land. 

It created more widespread concern when two large-scale projects, Battleship Point and Wilmington Hotel and Spa, were proposed in 2021. Though both have been paused since commissioners directed planning staff to develop recommendations on how the land should be used. 

Staff’s original draft amendment excluded residential uses on the west bank. 

“There were concerns that without a residential component that it would not be feasible to actually have a project in the area, which would mean that you would continue to see industrial brownfields,” New Hanover County planning director Rebekah Roth said at a June meeting. 

Cleaning up the western banks have also been a concern for area leaders.

Staff opened the draft up for public comments from June 7 through the 28. According to Roth, the majority received disapproved of developing the banks at all.

In an email to county commissioners and leadership on July 2, Roth said only a “handful” of responses were in support of the amendment as previously written, which included residential uses.

In a summary of the comments sent to county commissioners and leadership, Roth said the majority of emails were sent via an Action Alert portal used by a number of local organizations and advocacy groups. One of which was Cape Fear River Watch, according to another internal email obtained by Port City Daily. ​​

“They were requesting that all the land on the Western Bank be conserved based on both a desire for greenspace in this area as well as concerns related to ongoing flooding, potential public costs, and the environmental impact, especially on Eagles Island and Point Peter,” Roth wrote in the email. 

“It is a swamp, and should be allowed to stay that way,” resident Susan Melton said. “There is no way it can be developed without major flooding problems which would need massive public funds.”

Another comment from resident Darwin Brandis states preservation of the western bank will prevent the land from falling “into the hands of out-of-town developers who will destroy it with more soulless, monolithic buildings, before fleeing with their bounties.”

As for a summary of the supportive comments, Roth said they stated the amendment’s recommendations regarding uses and building height would limit stated environmental concerns. 

“It seems to me that you and your team carefully considered the rights of property owners, while at the same time protecting the fragile environment of the shoreline,” resident Larry Sackett said. 

Not only did Roth contextualize the comments to commissioners, planning staff also provided responses to the broad questions posed by the public.

To the overwhelming requests the land be placed under conservation, staff wrote the county cannot prevent “reasonable use” by private property owners, which a conservation zoning would not permit.

In addressing the concerns over the ecological preservation of the western bank, staff wrote the following: 

“It is important to note that some of the private properties in the Western Bank area impacted by  this  amendment  are  currently  used  for  industrial  or  commercial  purposes,  and  other  privately-owned parcels were previously used for intensive uses.  What people see on these properties is not pristine environment — it is the result of properties becoming overgrown by vegetation,  which is covering likely brownfields.”

The full version of the update amendment, which the public can comment on at Thursday’s meeting, along with staff responses and more information on the amendment can be found here.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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