Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Wilmington Planning Commission overlooks traffic concerns, approves The Avenue in split decision

After almost a year of plan changes and debate, the mixed use development The Avenue has been approved to replace a Military Cutoff Road trailer park

The Wilmington Planning Commission considered the rezoning and Special Use Permit of the Carroll Companies' The Avenue project. (Port City Daily photo | The Carroll Companies)
The Wilmington Planning Commission considered the rezoning and Special Use Permit of the Carroll Companies’ The Avenue project. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy The Carroll Companies)

WILMINGTON—Wednesday, the Wilmington Planning Commission heard a proposed rezoning and special use permit for The Carroll Companies’ development, The Avenue, planned for Military Cutoff Road. Despite public outcry and negative reviews by planning department staff on the issue of traffic, the Planning Commission approved the project in a split decision.

Planning Department staff recently gave The Avenue negative marks for its potential effect on traffic. According to the staff report, The Avenue will push traffic on Military Cutoff Road to twice its capacity; the road is already overtaxed and given a grade of “F” at major intersections, the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s lowest level of service.

Read more: Staff report: The Avenue will push Military Cutoff traffic to nearly double capacity, despite improvements

The Planning Commission dealt with the proposal in two sections: a legislative hearing – including a presentation by the developer–on the rezoning request, followed by a quasi-judicial special use permit hearing–including public comment.

Staff report

Senior Planner Brian Chambers reiterated the points of the staff report, including that The Avenue proposal fails to mitigate vehicle traffic and does not integrate well with the neighboring properties.

Staff did give positive marks for The Avenue’s layout and connectivity with public transit, and pedestrian and bicycle access, as well as potential to promote tourism.

Chambers also noted that, while developer Roy Caroll has argued that future road improvements–including the Military Cutoff Road Extension–will mitigate traffic, city staff consider the impact of those extensions an “unknown.”

Chambers concluded by stating that staff’s primary concern was the number of cars on the road.

It is important to note that planning staff files a report, but does not make an official recommendation when a developer requests a special use permit.

The developer

Attorney Michael Lee represented The Avenue developer The Carroll Companies before the Wilmington Planning Commission. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Wilmington Planning Commission)
Attorney Michael Lee represented The Avenue developer The Carroll Companies before the Wilmington Planning Commission. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Wilmington Planning Commission)

Michael Lee presented on behalf of The Carroll Companies, joined by consultant Livian Jones, traffic engineer Michael Davenport–who’s company performed the traffic analysis for The Avenue–and others.

Lee described the timeline of the project, emphasizing several times that the road improvements would be completed “before the first certificate of occupancy is issued,” and that the development would be constructed over a seven to 10-year timeframe.

Lee spoke at length about the “significant buffering” of the project from neighboring properties and The Carroll Companies efforts to connect to those properties, including a gated private access point for the 2,000 residents of Landfall.

Lee also pointed to what he described as The Avenue’s environmentally-friendly, pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically pleasing design.

Lee said that The Avenue’s resubmitted plans had reduced density significantly and that the new proposal would “actually improve how the (Military Cutoff) corridor operates.”

Traffic Engineer Michael Davenport argued that service would be better on Military Cutoff Road after the road improvements proposed by The Carroll Companies for The Avenue. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)
Traffic Engineer Michael Davenport argued that service would be better on Military Cutoff Road after the road improvements proposed by The Carroll Companies for The Avenue. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)

Davenport spoke to contest staff’s assertion that future NCDOT improvements would not mitigate traffic from The Avenue. Davenport said those improvements would alleviate poor conditions at Military Cutoff Road and both Eastwood Road and Market Street; he cited a $200 million investment for improving the corridor that would combine proposed NCDOT alterations with The Carrol Companies’ approximately $3—5 million in proposed road improvements.

Related story: What goes into understanding traffic in Wilmington?

He also argued that the traffic intersections directly in front of The Avenue would improve, bringing most intersections to level B or A service.

Public Hearing

Deb Hays asked if anyone in the assembled crowd wanted to speak in favor of The Avenue. After a peal of laughter, one person spoke in favor of the project. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy City of Wilmington)
Deb Hays asked if anyone in the assembled crowd wanted to speak in favor of The Avenue. After a peal of laughter, one person spoke in favor of the project. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy City of Wilmington)

At the beginning of the public hearing, Planning Commission Chairwoman Deb Hays asked if anyone in the packed house wanted to speak in favor of the development, eliciting a round of laughter. Natalie English, president of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, was the only speaker in favor of the project.

Public comments in opposition to the project focused mainly on traffic and the lack of inter-connectivity of The Avenue and the fact that all traffic coming in and out of the development would travel on Military Cutoff Road, leading directly to two of the region’s most congested intersections.

Several speakers also refuted claims made by Lee that nearby neighbors in the Seaspray Landing and Landfall developments viewed The Avenue favorably.

Planning Commission decision

Planning Commission members questioned Lee and Davenport, as well as Wilmington Traffic Engineer Don Bennett, about specifics, including how the traffic impact of The Avenue was gauged, and to what extent it took into account other developments; apparently the nearby Arboretum developments were considered, but the proposed CenterPoint development at Eastwood and Military Cutoff roads was not.

Planning staff voiced a final request that the development not shift the allocation of use between retail, office, and residential more than 10 percent.

After two hours of questions, the Planning Commission prepared to vote.

Commission Member Bruce Bowman expressed concern over traffic inside the development, because it essentially dead-ends at the rear, eastern end of the development. Commission Member Bruce McGuire said he felt that, when the project was completed, residents would be happy with it. Vice Chairman Richard Collier said he felt the project still needed additional connectivity, but was overall satisfied with the project.

After making some minor changes to the conditions of the request, the Planning Commission voted 6 to 1 in favor of approving The Avenue’s rezoning, with Commission Member Jeannie Lyle the sole dissenting vote.

After a further a further hour of sworn testimony during the special use permit hearing, the Planning Commission added one further condition to the staff report; the amendment would require The Avenue developer not to construct any lighted signage over 55 feet

Collier made a motion to approve the special use permit and Bowman seconded it.

The Commission approved the special use permit in a split vote. Commission members Jeffrey HovisJeannie Lyle and Kemp Roberts opposed the vote; commission members Bruce McGuire, Richard CollierBruce Bowman and Chairwoman Deb Hays voted in favor of The Avenue. (You can click on the commission member’s name for his or her email address).

Final approval of the Special Use Permit and rezoning will likely be heard at City Council at its June 5 meeting.

 


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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