After a lengthy public hearing and discussion, Wilmington City Council members decided to continue a controversial rezoning request along Airlie Road until their first meeting in September, asking the developers and the community to work more closely together to find a compromise. The request was previously continued from council’s March 1 meeting.
Owners of properties at 1303 and 1308 Airlie Road are asking for a change from R-15 Residential to CB (CD) Community Business (Conditional District) to allow for the expansion of and improvements to the existing parking lot as well as the construction of three new single-family homes and a garage apartment.
Jennifer Leech, who owns the properties as well as Dockside Marina and Restaurant, which lies across Airlie Road along the water, put in the request to help improve her business. The parking lot is set aside for customers but is in disrepair, with potholes, no proper stormwater drainage and poor lighting. Dust from the deteriorating lot is also a problem when the winds are high or the lot is full of vehicles, as it often is.
Several people spoke on both sides of the issue, with most of those in favor of the rezoning stating their support for Dockside as well as to beautify the parking lot. Those against it said they were not necessarily against the plans, but against the rezoning of a residential area into commercial.
“We’re not opposed to what the developers and property owners are trying to accomplish, we’re opposed to the way they’re trying to accomplish it,” said Brady Semmel, who spoke on behalf of a group of residents who formed a group called “Save Airlie Road” and came to the meeting dressed in red. “We are in favor of the overall concept … What we’re here against is the commercial rezoning, and this [the plans] can be accomplished without that.”
Since the first continuance was granted in March, two more meetings were held between the developers and the community with city planning staff present to tweak the plans. Slight changes were made between the plans readied for the March meeting and those presented Tuesday, including the removal of one residential building and two parking spaces.
Still, residents said their suggestions for working toward a solution without the rezoning were not being taken seriously by the property owners and developers. Several city council members questioned attorney Matt Nichols, who represents the owners, about the lack of compromise between the two groups.
“I know on every good deal, there’s a little heartburn on each side of the equation,” Councilman Charlie Rivenbark said. “I know that’s going to be true here.”
“We have looked at this in many, many ways,” said Nichols, saying the conditional district rezoning would be the easiest way to change just that area without allowing other commercial uses on the west side of Airlie. “We think this is the best plan … What we’re proposing is the most finite way to improve this property that’s not going to open the floodgates.”
While Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes said she, along with her fellow officials, was for the improvement of the parking area, she also noted that a commitment was made decades ago to area residents to protect that portion of Airlie Road as a commercial-free zone.
“I do believe that a promise was made, a commitment to keep Airlie Road residential,” Haynes said. “I do think that when government makes a promise and commitment, government should keep that promise when possible.”
Councilman Kevin O’Grady noted a similar request with similar plans was denied last year by council and said he was “disappointed” the developers and owners had come back a year later with the same request and no major changes to the proposal.
City planner Jeff Walton, who presented the item to the council, noted that staff recommended denial of the request based on the fact that it was not in compliance with the city’s Future Land Use Plan, which proposes no land use changes in the area, or the Wrightsville Sound Small Area Plan, which proposes that the R-15 Residential zone be retained there. However, Nichols argued that the city’s planning board, which heard the request before city council, voted 6 to 1 in favor of the rezoning.
Sensing an unfavorable vote was forthcoming from city council, Mayor Bill Saffo asked Nichols if he wanted to continue with the vote or hold off and work on the plans further with the residents. A denial would mean they could not make any more rezoning requests on the property for a whole year.
“It seems like everybody’s in the same church but in different pews,” Saffo said. “The community’s willing to compromise and make the fix.”
After a recess to give Nichols and his clients some time to discuss their options among themselves and with the city attorney, the meeting was resumed and Saffo announced the motion to continue until September. It passed unanimously 7 to 0.