NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The county is currently creating a Unified Development Ordinance. You’d be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a rather dry, bureaucratic project, but it will have a major impact on what the future of the county looks, impacting not just thousands of current residents but shaping how tens of thousands of new residents will live, work, and shop.
One of the goals of the new UDO is to make it easier for developers to plan denser residential and mixed-use projects in northern New Hanover County; the current ordinances encourage a kind of default land use, meaning rural or semi-rural residential lots without business centers.
According to Planning and Land Use Director Wayne Clark, these ordinances often lead developers along the path of least resistance.
“One of the things [County Manager] Chris Coudriet and I have discussed is, we look at the downtown Wilmington, and we say, ‘where is our convention center? Where’s our PPD? Why do we have all these self-storage facilities and gas stations,” Clark said.
(Note: For clarity, Clark didn’t mean the county is looking for a conventional center or a research company like PPD, specifically, only that the county wanted more forward-thinking development.)
Part of the issue is “by-right development,” meaning what landowners can build without additional permission from the county. New buildings have to meet certain code requirements, but they don’t involve the processes of special use permits or conditional rezonings – which require public hearings, and approval by both the county planning board and county commissioners.
Clark said one of the goals of the UDO, which includes a “table of permitted uses,” is to make it easier for developers to explore more adventurous options.
“There’s a lot of follow the leader,” Clark said. “It’s an industry with a lot of risk, you have banks involved, there are a lot of parties, and so businesses are going to look to what’s successful. If we make it easier to take a risk on a bigger project, like a mixed-use development, there’s more chance we’ll see something besides what we have now.”
The county can’t dictate what gets built — “if they want to build a self-storage, and they don’t need a permit, then they’re gonna do it,” Clark said – but it hopes to be able to help direct it.
So, what does the county want to see? Clark said he pictured “mini-downtowns,” walkable, clusters of restaurants and other retail neighboring denser residential development.
Take for example the possibility of a “downtown Wrightsboro,” located at the intersection of North Kerr Avenue and Castle Hayne Road.
The idea first came up in the late 1990s when Clark had first joined the City of Wilmington’s planning department. The intersection of Kerr Avenue and Castle Hayne Road was part of a joint vision study project; Wilmington and New Hanover County looked at four at 4 representative sites in the area.
At the time, annexation was a simpler process, and the city had considered annexing the area to facilitate planning a small urban node there. The plan never came to fruition, and recent changes to annexation laws essentially put the area out of Wilmington’s reach, but Clark still thinks the area has potential.
The intersection is home to several restaurants and in the last year more have opened – including Nigori, the first sushi restaurant north of Wilmington. Nearby, hundreds of apartment units are planned.
“You’ve got the elements, you’ve got a sushi restaurant, which is always a sign of growth, and considerable residential development,” Clark said. “So we ask, what if you had more restaurant options clustered in the area, you be able to walk around in the area. You’d essentially have a little downtown.”
There are some limitations, including setback requirements for Castle Hayne Road (which is a state highway, NC133), but flexibility along North Kerr Avenue would make it possible, Clark said. Creating commercial or mixed-use zoning around that area could make it happen.
Other possible location would likely require increased capacity from CFPUA, as many residents in the northern part of the county are currently on well and/or septic systems. It would also require improved road infrastructure (a whole issue unto itself, which you can read more about here).
An early map of future development
One “silver lining” of Hurricane Florence, as Clark put it, was that during late-night shifts at the county’s emergency operations center he had the chance to work out some of those issues.
Clark said he pulled out a map of the county and started sketching out potential areas that could support mixed-use clusters of development. It’s far from a binding document, Clark said; it’s more of a first step. But it is part of the county’s process in determining where infrastructure will need to go.
“It was one good thing that came from the storm, I think, was that I found myself sitting there between an NCDOT guy and a CFPUA guy, and – as the emergency wound down – we had the change to talk about these things,” Clark said.
Of course, as with any development, not everyone will be excited, Clark acknowledged. While some residents will be happy not to have to travel into Wilmington or onto the crowded Market Street corridor to dine or shop, others won’t want to see the rural character of the northern part of the county change.
“I get that, someone people have lived there for generations and like the way it is — and some people move there for the space,” Clark said. “But I do think the development is coming. In some cases, it’s undeveloped land that’s going to be more valuable, in other cases you have land that’s left to children and the kids don’t want it. So, development is coming, but we hope we can help steer it in a smart direction.”
(Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify Wayne Clark’s involvement in the Wrightsboro ‘downtown’ project. The original version suggested the area was considered for annexation by Wilmington, as opposed to a joint project with the county.)
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.