WILMINGTON — The increasing desire to live in and around the Wilmington area has led to numerous new developments, but understanding how and where these new developments get approved can be complicated.
New Hanover County, along with all of the municipalities within it, all have zoning ordinances that guide development. When a developer purchases land, they often want to change what kind of construction is allowed — that means changing the zoning, and thus “rezoning” requests, which are heard first by a planning board or commission, and then by a municipal council or the county’s board of commissioners.
In New Hanover County there are several main zoning districts: residential, commercial, industrial, mixed-use, and overlay. These districts are then further broken down in the county’s zoning ordinance.
What seems fairly straightforward, a residential area, is actually one of the more regulated zoning districts. Within the broad category of residential there are multiple sub-categories further spelling out what types of homes can be placed in these districts, density requirements, and other nuances.
Residential districts include conventional residential, performance residential, airport residential, rural agriculture district, R-20S, R-20, R-15, R-10, and R-7. For the most part, these zoning districts are similar in nature but have different requirements for setbacks and density.
The county has seven residential districts. Very limited non-residential uses are permitted in some of these districts, including places of worship and schools. The residential districts range from R-20 to R-7; generally, the smaller the number, the higher the allowable density of dwelling units per acre. There’s also a residential district specific to areas around the airport, and another specific to more rural areas in Castle Hayne,” Current Planning and Zoning Supervisor for New Hanover County Ben Andrea said.
However, there are unique rules for some of the districts. For example, in the airport residential district floodlights are not permitted to cast an illumination upwards or have any pulsating lights due to proximity to the airport.
Another unique rule is for performance residential zoning. The category allows developers to meet a required average density by creating open spaces – often wetlands or greenspace – and denser pockets of housing. Essentially, performance zoning allows very dense development that would otherwise be rejected to move forward, provided housing is balanced with open space.
The county differentiates commercial districts with intended uses and size requirements. These districts include: B-1 business district, B-2 highway business district, O&I office and institutional district, and SC shopping center district.
“The county’s two business districts are B-1 and B-2. B-1 allows for neighborhood-type commercial uses such as drug stores, restaurants, barber shops and salons, and similar typically smaller and less intensive commercial uses. B-2 allows for those uses but also more intensive uses, such as large shopping centers or big box stores,” Andrea said.
Although all of the districts are zoned commercial, businesses still have to be the right kind of business to ensure cohesion among the district. For example, putting an office building in the middle of a shopping center would probably not happen in the O&I district.
Part of the logic is to make sure areas attract the right kind of businesses. According to the county’s zoning ordinance:
“The purpose of the Office and Institutional District shall be to provide areas where institutional uses, professional office uses and other uses compatible to uses of an office or institutional nature shall be encouraged to locate and to provide protection for this type (of) land use from encroachment by other less desirable uses.”
“Similarly, (to business districts) the county has two industrial districts: I-1 and I-2. Uses allowed in I-1 are light industrial uses including industrial flex space, contractor offices, and manufacturing uses that are typically smaller scale. I-2 allows for both light industrial uses along with more intensive industrial and manufacturing uses that are typically larger scale,” Andrea said.
The mixed-use district allows for retail, office, and residential all in one area; this has become an increasingly popular choice for developers in Wilmington, and several major mixed-use developments have been approved by City Council this year.
“The Exceptional Design Zoning District (EDZD) provides opportunities for mixed-use and high-density residential projects within the unincorporated areas of the County where appropriate urban features are in place to support such projects without the negative impacts of urban sprawl … In addition, the district is intended to provide design flexibility to achieve public and private spaces that advance a sense of community in a well-integrated service area that diminishes the need for vehicular traffic and encourages bicycle and pedestrian movements,” according to the zoning ordinance.
One of the underlying principles of the mixed-use zoning is “internal capture,” which is – in essence – the idea that residents living in the residential portion of a mixed-use development will also shop at the commercial units of the same development, and even theoretically work there as well.
While this theory doesn’t always pan out in practice, it is still incorporated into traffic impact analyses, accounting for up to a 15% decrease in traffic generation (see page 35 of this study from the Texas Transportation Institute); developers like the Carroll Companies and Swain & Associates are therefore able to argue that, because residents live where the can also — in theory — work and shop, a significant portion of the traffic never leaves the development.
Residents who are interested in checking the zoning of their own property, or any other property in the county can do so online.
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