Thursday, March 30, 2023

Size restrictions remain in Wilmington’s historic districts – for now

Historic homes on 4th St in downtown Wilmington. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Historic homes on 4th Street in downtown Wilmington. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

WILMINGTON – Zoning laws in the City of Wilmington’s historic districts remain unchanged after the City Council asked for more time to study the issue and get input from preservationists and the public.

Tuesday, the city’s Zoning Administrator Kathryn Thurston presented proposed changes, which include eliminating the required minimum lot size of 3,004 square feet per dwelling (a density of 14.9 units per acre).  Instead, the proposal calls for establishing a minimum lot width of 33 feet.

The city has three areas labeled as historic zones downtown: The Historic District, the Historic District – Mixed Use and the Historic District – Residential.

According to Thurston, current code allows homes to be built on lots in those areas that technically meet square footage requirements, but are deep in the middle of blocks with only narrow driveways or alleys as access. That makes it difficult or outright impossible for emergency vehicles to reach them.

Thurston and the planning staff believe the changes would solve that problem as well as make the look of homes on blocks more even. Thurston said it would result in “complete frontage without gaps.”

Councilman Kevin O’Grady, however, disagreed.

“We don’t have to rezone three historic districts to fix that problem,” O’Grady said, referring to the building of homes that are inaccessible to the fire department. “You’re trying to solve a problem with the wrong remedy.”

O’Grady also took issue with proposing evenly formed lots in the historic districts, arguing that the mix of lot sizes and the houses on them are what make the character and culture of the zones unique. He voiced concerns of developers building on them like they would in a normal subdivision.

“The problem I have is when developers start seeing value in taking down our historic houses that are smaller cottage houses and combining those lots and creating identical 33-foot lots with duplexes or triplexes and putting a look to them like they’re historic,” O’Grady said. “But they’re really creating Disneyland. They’re creating a false ‘historic’ downtown.”

What bothered O’Grady most, however, was the lack of time and notification the council was given to study the information. According to O’Grady, councilors were given the documents on the proposed amendment Friday, heard a preliminary presentation on Monday and were expected to vote on Tuesday.

O’Grady said that was not enough time to properly vet changes that would affect up to 1,100 lots in the three districts, and also questioned why staff did not consult the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Historic Wilmington Foundation for advice. He also said public input should be sought on the issue as it normally is on policy changes that affect the historic districts.

O’Grady called for another public hearing be set for Oct. 6; that is the minimum amount of time Thurston said she and her staff need to meet with all the parties suggested.

That timeline also gives the Planning Department time to present the idea once again to the city’s Planning Commission, if necessary. Though the commission passed the amendment in July, any major changes would require new approval.

The motion made by O’Grady passed by a 6 – 1 vote. Councilman Charlie Rivenbark, who wanted to pass the amendment as written, dissented.

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