WILMINGTON — A strange turn for the saga of the Riverwalk bathrooms: a downtown developer says the city looked the other way on city and federal code violations — at least, they did before a series of complaints got the county and state’s attention.
At issue is the two portable bathroom and shower units, as well as the shipping-container office for Port City Marina, located on the private section of the Riverwalk behind Marina Grill.
According to emails from the North Carolina Department of Insurance (NCDOI, the agency that handles building codes), New Hanover County Building Safety Department, and Wilmington’s Planning Department, the structures violate state building codes, including Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, as well as federal flood zone requirements.
According to NCDOI Chief Accessibility Code Consultant Laurel Wright, the state is now investigating building code violations; New Hanover County Building Safety Director Nicholas Gadzekpo told Port City Daily on Tuesday that he would be meeting with his staff to “review all the details of permits and inspections and use the provisions in the code to cite the violations now present on the property.”
Ordinarily, New Hanover County does not engage with code issues in Wilmington. However, in this case, the issue appears to be longstanding, dating back to at least 2016 — serious enough to warrant intervention.
‘Work its way through the bureaucracy’
The violations, which date back years, were brought to the attention of the county and NCDOI by Wilmington resident Mark Lissy in late December of 2018. But Lissy had already filed several complaints, dating back to 2017, with state agencies, some of which were also addressed by the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even earlier than that, Lissy sent an email to Wilmington City Council, back on Dec. 12, 2016.
Part of the problem was finding the agency with the right jurisdiction — that agency was NCDOI. In late December, Lissy contacted Wright, who said that New Hanover County was aware of the issue, but not the extent of the violations.
In a Dec. 20 email, Wright wrote, “So, thank you for the complaint! I sincerely apologize that it has taken so long to work its way through the bureaucracy to get to where something could be accomplished. Even so, this is where it slows down. It will take New Hanover County (NHC) a little time to get together to (1) stop the situation and (2) get it corrected.”
Wright contacted New Hanover County, where Gadzekpo appears to have moved fairly quickly on the issue.
The modular office and one of the bathroom/shower units have been on site since before the Riverwalk was completed (they appear in aerial photos used in city presentations dating back to 2016). Another bathroom was added later.
All three violate flood regulations and handicap accessibility codes.
Developer Charles Schoninger also has a third, much larger, modular bathroom unit on site.
In August of 2017, Wilmington Planning Commission member Kemp Roberts, who was then working for Schoninger, helped file a zoning application for this larger bathroom unit — which is ADA compliant — but it was never installed. Roberts said his consulting work for Schoninger stopped shortly afterward.
In an internal email sent Jan. 8, Kathryn Thurston, Wilmington’s zoning administrator and floodplain manager, wrote about both all three bathrooms and the office.
“We have an active violation for Port City Marina for installing a bathroom and an office in the floodplain without permits. They obtained zoning approval of the permit application in August 2017; however, their plans did not comply with building code and New Hanover County never issued a permit for the work,” Thurston wrote. “Additionally, this project is in the special flood hazard area and is in violation of federal and city requirements for flood-proofing or elevating to the regulatory flood level.”
Thurston stated she had “not heard anything from the developer or owner since they obtained zoning approval,” in 2017.
The developer, Schoninger, tells a different story.
‘Looked the other way’
According to Schoninger, city staff approached him last year saying there had been a complaint about the bathrooms and office.
“[City of Wilmington] hit us up last year and told us, ‘hey, you need to raise your building, you’re not in compliance,’ and we told them, ‘look, we’re a private marina, not a public building.”
Schoninger said he asked the city to overlook issues with the private bathrooms because restroom facilities for the pier, along with its office, will be moved into the Pier 33 development, which is set to break ground early next week. Schoninger said he plans to complete the move within 12 months.
“I don’t want to have to spend $250,000 to build bathrooms that I tear down the day we move into Pier 33,” Schoninger said.
Schoninger said he offered to take the bathrooms down completely, but the city did not take him up on it.
“That was our last year’s conversation, the city kind of looked the other way and let the smoke die down, and then we were never contacted again,” Schoninger said, adding he had not heard from the city about the most recent complaint.
Schoninger said if the city wants him to install an ADA bathroom on the Marina site, he can relocate the ADA bathroom, but added the city has not yet contacted him.
Schoninger also said, as he first stated in July, that he and another developer paid $250,000 to void the requirement to build public bathrooms, making this a private business issue. According to Wilmington, the issue is still being negotiated.
No answers from Wilmington
It remains unclear why Wilmington did not enforce the code violations, or why – if Schoninger’s version of the story is accurate – city staff agreed to look the other way.
Thurston did not respond to phone calls and emails sent asking if Schoninger’s description of events was accurate.
Wilmington spokesperson Malissa Talbert said she didn’t know if city staff had contacted Schoninger or not, and said she couldn’t answer questions about why the city might have waited until NCDOI and New Hanover County got involved to take action.