NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As Wilmington runs out of developable space, many eyes are turning to the northern part of New Hanover County, which is relatively open and undeveloped. For county officials, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity — and that starts with laying the groundwork: roads.
Wilmington has less than 3,000 acres of vacant developable land left, and the majority of that is small, disconnected parcels that won’t sustain mixed-use or master-planned development. New Hanover County, on the other hand, has at least that much land, much of it on large, contiguous parcels – including nearly 2,000 acres in the northeastern corner of the county, owned by the Cameron family.
On thing the northern part of the county doesn’t have is a road network. A few roads, including Holly Shelter, Sidbury, and Gordon roads travel east-west, and North College and Castle Hayne travel north-south. (Market Street, already taxed by heavy traffic through the Ogden and Porter’s Neck area, likely can’t handle too much more.) Starting in 2017, the county started studying potential options for street design in the northeast area of the county.
For the county it’s an opportunity to learn from Wilmington’s intractable road congestion — especially for Planning and Land Use Director Wayne Clark, who directed the city’s development services for nearly a decade.
“If you could do it right, from scratch, you’d have the ability to put in signals and disperse the traffic based on where you’re going — the challenge in North Carolina is that we don’t build roads,” Clark said.
Clark is currently overseeing the creation of a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) for the county. It’s a complicated plan, with a lot of facets, but one goal of the new UDO is to promote “more efficient” development — denser residential areas, along with mixed-use projects.
Higher density means more traffic, and the current roads won’t be enough to handle that. So what can the county do?
Learning from Wilmington
Until recently, cities like Wilmington could easily annex areas and then build out streets. However, they were often “playing catch-up” with county development, forced both to pay for new roads and try to work around existing development.
Clark uses the example of Greenville Loop, which was annexed shortly after he joined the city’s planning department in 1999. As Clark demonstrated on a map, generated for a 2006 presentation to the city, with the exception of one side street, there’s no other way on or off of the road, and individual subdivisions can’t connect — this forces much more traffic onto Greenville Loop.
“There’s no other way out. All the little red dots represent cul-de-sacs, there’s six or seven places where they’re right next to each other but they don’t connect,” Clark said.
When the Mayfaire development was proposed, Clark was eager to avoid this scenario.
Military Cutoff Road may not seem like the ideal standard-bearer for traffic management, but Clark’s point is that traffic could have been far worse if it had built out as a series of unconnected commercial lots, instead of one cohesive development.
Fifteen years before the recent explosion of mixed-use projects along the corridor, there was already concern – among residents and city officials alike – over the density of development at Mayfaire. To help put things in perspective, Clark transposed a map of Mayfaire onto College Road to compare the two.
“There are fifty-two driveways [on College Road] and Mayfaire had six, three signals and three ‘right-in, right out’ entrances,” Clark said. “So there’s a lot of stuff in Mayfaire, but there’s no more than there is along College — but the point is once you’re in Mayfaire, you’re in, you don’t have to go in and out on the main road. You can access it from the back, there’s traffic calming, it’s thought out.”
Stuck in the middle
Clark hopes to use the lessons of Wilmington road design, good and bad, when it comes to the northern part of the county. The problem is, the county can help plan roads, but it can’t build them.
Under current North Carolina statute, cities and towns can build and maintain roads, as can the state’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Counties “can’t get in the game,” as Clark put it, a policy that dates back to Great Depression; in the 1930s, counties already financially taxed by providing social services couldn’t afford to take on road infrastructure as well.
“At some point in the future it’s gonna have to change, but there’s going to have to be a cultural shift — we’ve got a hundred years of history, and the question is, ok, how do we undo it,” Clark said.
It’s also no longer an option to have Wilmington annex in property, which leaves NCDOT, which will take over private roads and maintain them, but only if they’re built to the state’s standards. NCDOT requirements are designed to ensure roads last decades, and to stand up to higher levels of traffic, but that’s a cost some developers don’t want to spend.
“I get it, from a developer’s point of view, state requirements for paving, for draining, all that makes a street more expensive, and I can see why a developer would just say, ‘no thanks, I’ll just make it private,’ and then put up a gate to keep people out to keep the roads from getting worn down — you can see how that could snowball,” Clark said.
When it comes to the northern part of the county, that means Clark and the planning team are stuck between the NCDOT’s standards and developer’s bottom lines. But Clark remains optimistic.
Finding a way
Encouraging multiple developers to coordinate – and cooperate – on building roads, especially ones that meet NCDOT standards, is difficult.
“You can’t really build it in pieces, you can’t design a collector road and hope that when you get to a certain point a developer won’t cut you off,” Clark said. “There’s a lot that goes into building roads that benefit more than one project — and that’s what happened on Gordon Road.”
Along Gordon road, numerous subdivisions are all tucked away on private roads, some interconnected, some not. Without a master plan the network of streets between Murrayville and Gordon roads is haphazard and, for many residents, frustrating. Clark hopes that, with fewer landowners in the north, this problem will be easier to address.
“One of the things we do have going for us out here are that there are a couple of major landowners. It is definitely easier to work with one person who has two square miles of land than with fifty people who have a bunch of little pieces,” Clark said.
That’s especially true of the northeastern section of the county, where the Cameron family owns nearly 2,000 acres of residential-zoned land in the northeast of the county through the Sidbury Land & Timber LLC company. In fact, the Camerons might have already developed, or sold to developers, were it not for a NCDOT corridor study for Hampstead bypass.
According to a lawsuit filed in New Hanover County Superior Court by the Cameron family against the NCDOT in July of 2018, the state’s mapping process for the planned Hampstead Bypass effectively “froze” development from 2011 to 2016. Essentially, the Camerons are suing for lost time — if nothing else, showing the landowners are intent on developing the region.
Clark hopes that, across the northern county, developers will be encouraged to work together by market forces, if not civic goodwill.
“They’ve got the market sense to know that what happens on one property affects the value of their property,” Clark said.
So, while one day the state may change its regulations and allow counties to get into the road-building business, for now Clark is doing it the old fashioned way, going door to door.
“I’ve been out to talk to the landowners and they all understand,” Clark said. “Nobody has said, ‘no, I want to do this.’ They’ve all said, ‘this is definitely better if we can find some way to make it all work.’ So now we just need to find that way.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.