WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Residents and town officials have reached an apparent fork in the road over the direction of development: commercial or residential?
The Board of Alderman discussed several items during its most recent meeting, including a debate over whether the town is business-friendly.
Concerns were raised during conversations about increasing parking for Poe’s Tavern and about a developer seeking the right to build so-called group housing on the lot adjacent to Johnnie Mercer’s Fishing Pier.
When discussing whether to allow Poe’s Tavern to purchase and demolish an adjacent lot to expand its parking, Alderman Lisa Weeks said the board had not been “amenable” to businesses.
The board did not reach a unanimous opinion on the proposed conditional use permit for Poe’s Tavern. It approved a continuance of the proposal to be addressed at its next meeting in December.
Alderman board member Hank Miller III spoke in favor of the proposal.
“We do have somewhat of a reputation as not being business-friendly,” he said.
Resident Pat Bradford, who had run for the board in this year’s election, raised several concerns, including Miller’s involvement with the company Cape Fear Commercial, which has signage on the vacant building.
The building was previously occupied by Middle of the Island (MOI) but has been vacant for nearly a decade.
Miller denied any personal incentive or knowledge of a potential sale of the property to Poe’s Tavern’s current owners, saying he was an independent contractor with the Cape Fear Commercial, not the vice president, as Bradford had stated.
If there’s a perceived issue, Miller said he always consults with the town attorney and has done so on three occasions.
“You can’t just recuse yourself because you want to, you have to have a reason to do it,” he said.
East Salisbury Lane
Last week, the Planning Board approved “Atlantic View,” a group housing project in Wrightsville Beach’s C-2 commercial district, on the condition that it would include 10 percent commercial use.
19 East Salisbury Lane is a little over an acre of land, adjacent to Johnnie Mercer’s Fishing Pier.
The developer of the property, D. Logan, proposed his amended project with 23 residential units at 36,606 square feet and 6,690 square feet reserved for commercial use.
Logan sought both a zoning text amendment to permit group housing in the C-2 commercial district and a conditional use permit to be approved by the board.
The development fits within the town’s 40-foot height limit.
Currently barren, board member Elizabeth King said it had been difficult to get an owner to operate a commercial business out of 19 East Salisbury St. and that the residents on Seagull Lane deserved something to be done to the land.
Several residents raised their disagreement with the proposal to the board, with common concern including limiting the future commercial use of the property and setting a precedent that Wrightsville Beach is a residential-heavy town.
“We are well on our way to becoming a residential beach and not a town,” Bradford said. “These text amendments have consequences. You haven’t looked at the corners of them and I think you should.”
Bradford said she sees the proposal as a “thinly veiled attempt” to change commercial property into residential.
Several citizens spoke against the proposed use, with similar concerns of too little room for commercial use.
“The whole process of looking at this and not calling it what it is is sort of a charade,” said Sue Bulluck, speaking on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce.
Bulluck said she believes the approval of the proposal on East Salisbury Street for a group housing project is representative of a larger issue Wrightsville Beach is facing.
“If we don’t do something you and we are doomed to a residential beach,” Bulluck said.
Laura Tiblier, owner of Ceviche’s and a resident of Wrightsville Beach, said she was concerned over issues of concentration, sewage, and who would occupy the proposed group housing units.
“It’s concerning that the commercial will never come back. We don’t want to live on a beach without commercial property,” Tiblier said.
“We just sat through an hour and a half talking about parking spots,” she continued. “That is not pro-business.”
Jeff Keeter, an attorney representing the project, called the vacant property on East Salisbury “a blight to this community.” Keeter added that “no commercial endeavor would be successful there because of the infrastructure cost.”
“It’s been sitting there vacant for 10 years,” Logan said. “I don’t know a nicer way to say it. Everyone has these grandiose ideas of mixed use. It’s my money, my project, my butt is on the line.”
“We think it’s a great project and will increase property values in the area,” said Max Smith, a broker with Intracoastal Realty and a resident of the town.
“If we don’t proactively do something there, it could sit there another 20 years.” — Mayor Bill Blair
Mayor Bill Blair spoke in favor of the project.
“We’re 99 percent built out,” he said. “People still hold onto the notion that height is a bad thing. If we don’t proactively do something there, it could sit there another 20 years.”
Acknowledging concerns over limiting commercial land use on the beach and addressing the difficulty of a project to fit within the height limit, the mayor said no project would be perfect.
“I think we all want the same thing,” he said.
Darryl Mills, mayor pro tem, was also in favor of the project. Mills said the only thing that could feasibly work as commercial land use, in consideration of the standing height limit, would be a bar.
“I’m not in favor of another bar in Wrightsville Beach,” Mills said.
To address comments raised that Wrightsville Beach is becoming a “bedroom community,” Mills believes the businesses the beach hosts are there to stay “if the beach supports it, if the market supports it.”
The board voted 4-1 to approve the text amendment that would permit the group housing development in landed zoned C-2. The board also voted 4-1 to approve the conditional use permit, including conditions town staff recommended. Weeks did not vote in favor of either proposal.
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at email@example.com or @j__ferebee on Twitter