Friday, January 21, 2022

Future of New Hanover Development: Flooding and industrial zoning concerns, questions, and public input

New Hanover County is creating a new Unified Development Ordinance that will change how industrial, commercial, and residential growth happens. But how will the process of drafting a new UDO handle concerns of industrial projects, flooding and stormwater, and public involvement?

New Hanover County is overhauling how it deals with planning, zoning, and development. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County)
New Hanover County is overhauling how it deals with planning, zoning, and development. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The county continues its work on a unified development ordinance (UDO), an attempt to simplify and improve how development is planned as well as a way to encourage particular types of growth.

The process is also a chance for concerned residents and groups to have some input on what new development looks like, where it will go, and how it will be regulated.

The UDO will create new zoning districts – similar to some that have already been introduced in Wilmington – which, the county hopes, will give landowners more creative options for development.

Port City Daily met with New Hanover County Planning and Land Use Director Wayne Clark to discuss some reader concerns. These including the county’s approach to flooding, industrial development, and public involvement, as well as how the UDO itself is progressing.

Flooding concerns

Sunny day flooding on Eagle Island in October of 2018. The area floods in excess of 70 times annually, but is still zoned for development. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Robert Parr)
Sunny day flooding on Eagle Island in October of 2018. The area floods in excess of 70 times annually, but is still zoned for development. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Robert Parr)

Flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence was only the latest reminder of the region’s vulnerability to floodplain damage. Over the summer, before the storm struck, new FEMA maps added an additional 500 properties in Wilmington and over 700 structures in unincorporated New Hanover County to the 100-year event area.

Those maps are conservative estimates and, under federal regulation, aren’t allowed to take into account predictive models that account for future climate change — they are drawn “looking backward,” as an official with the state’s floodplain management service described it, based on data from 2014.

At the state level, predictive modeling for sea-level change was prohibited by a 2012 law; however, the law does not restrict county or municipal government from addressing the issue.

New Hanover County has two ordinances helping to address the flooding issue, Clark said. The flood damage prevention ordinance, approved over the summer, helps regulate development and construction in the low-lying and other flood-prone areas of the county. The ordinance does rely on FEMA maps and other federal guidelines. The county is also completing an update of its stormwater ordinance, which – as Clark put it – is more of an engineering guideline, dealing with how stormwater is handled rather than guiding types of development.

For those who are concerned that developers could seek exemptions to these regulations — as the City of Wilmington did for its own public-private project, River Place – Clark said only that he would “make sure all development abides by county regulations.”

Another concern involves “sunny day” flooding, caused not by storms but by rising sea and river levels. There are several areas where sunny-day flooding is becoming increasingly frequent, most notably near the U.S.S. North Carolina on Eagle Island, where development is still allowed under the current federal regulations and county zoning. Clark said there were no plans or proposals to rezone such areas.

Industrial concerns

In 2017, New Hanover County reclassified 11 heavy industrial uses as light industry, placing them in a zoning district with looser regulations. Those industries included cement plants, like that now-abandoned Titan plant. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
In 2017, New Hanover County reclassified 11 heavy industrial uses as light industry, placing them in a zoning district with looser regulations. Those industries included cement plants, like that now-abandoned Roanoke Cement plant owned by Titan America. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Historically, much of the county’s heavy industry has been zoned into the very northern part of the county and, more recently, infrastructure upgrades by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority have created an industrial corridor around Highway 421. As development fills in the northern part of the county, however, residential areas will inevitably come closer to industrial areas.

That’s a particular concern for some, due to a recent change in how the county categorizes industrial development.

In March of 2017, the Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to update the Table of Permitted Uses (TOPU), which regulates the type of development allowed in a specific zoning district.

The change recategorized 11 land uses from heavy to light industry, a zoning district which has less stringent regulations. These uses included basic chemical manufacturing of resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers, glass and glass product manufacturing, cement and concrete product manufacturing, and plastics product manufacturing.

At both the Planning Board and Board of Commissioners meetings leading up to this decision, residents and local groups – including the Cape Fear River Watch, League of Women Voters, and the Porters Neck Home Owners Association voiced objections to the reclassification.

Chris O’Keefe, who was the county’s planning director at the time, noted that the 11 reclassified uses would require a Special Use Permit; the SUP process, O’Keefe said, would give the planning board and commissioners the ability to “account for the scale” of any proposed operation.

The SUP process, it should be noted, can be very difficult for residents to navigate. SUP hearings are quasi-juridical; much like a courtroom, they require sworn testimony, which must be fact-based. Residents must show they will be personally impacted by a development (e.g. by presenting evidence from an appraiser). In other words, residents cannot simply say they do not like a project, or even point out factual concerns if those issues don’t demonstrably impact them directly.

According to Clark, the county expects the TOPU to be updated, “however, no changes are proposed for the Industrial Uses permissions due to completion of that section’s update in 2017.”

Clark also said that industrial use is subject to tighter regulations when, as in the Porters Neck example, it neighbors residential use.

“Existing land zoned for industrial uses is generally subject to setback and buffering requirements in the Code. These requirements are more stringent when industrial uses are adjacent to residential uses. If a landowner requests to rezone their land to industrial, the Comprehensive Plan provides primary guidance on whether the location is appropriate,” Clark said.

Clark also said he understood the concerns of residents living near the light industrial zones and hoping to convince property owners to re-zone, using the new options provided in the UDO.

“The approach I’m taking is, knowing where they are, I’ve started trying to find either the landowners themselves or their representatives, and seeing if they’d be interested in rezoning — because, from the market standpoint, there may be value to changing for them,” Clark said.

Timeline

The UDO process has faced several delays, including – understandably – Hurricane Florence. Prior to that, the county’s UDO consulting firm, SAFEbuilt/LSL Planning, dropped out of the project in July citing a change in business direction. The county put out a request for bids for a new consulting contract and in March will begin working with Clarion, a Chapel Hill-based firm.

According to New Hanover County spokesperson Jessica Loeper, the UDO is no set to be completed in three phases, wrapping up in 2020.

Summer 2019 –– “Planning staff will bring forward code amendments to add eight new zoning districts that are already successfully used in the City of Wilmington. These districts will provide the building blocks we need so that the development patterns envisioned for the unincorporated county, especially the properties next-door to those in the city, can be achieved,” according to Loeper.

Fall 2019 — “We will also be working with Clarion to combine the county’s seven current development code documents into one Unified Development Ordinance by the Fall of 2019. This document will be easier to use and understand and will allow for greater efficiency through the development process. These updates will complete the core UDO project and will result in a document that integrates all of the county’s development codes, including those eight new zoning districts mentioned above, and provides new tools to allow for the types of development envisioned for the county’s future in the Comprehensive Plan,” Loeper said.

2020 — “Through our meetings and conversations since the beginning of the project, we have come to understand that different stakeholders have different expectations for the ultimate outcome of updates to the county’s development code. As a result, after the completion of the core UDO project, we will continue to strategically update targeted sections of the development code,” Loeper said.

Those updates, according to Loeper, would include:

  • Creating New Hanover County-specific mixed-use districts
  • Incorporating recent federal and state legal changes
  • Providing more clarity and options for subdivision design
  • Additional consistency with City of Wilmington code terms
  • Streamlining overlay district regulations
  • Developing meaningful incentives to encourage greater housing-type diversity, more effective transportation and other infrastructure networks, protection of natural resources, and support of public services

Public input

According to Loeper, opportunities for public involvement with the UDO process are ongoing, with opportunities including “staff update meetings and presentations upon request to groups, website input, Planning Board workshops, and public hearings at Planning Board and County Commissioner meetings.”

Public input to date has focused largely on what, exactly, will change under the UDO, as well as how the new ordinance will be organized. Loeper noted that several groups have been consistently engaged, leading to routine conversations with and updates from the county; these groups included the North Carolina Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the North Carolina Homebuilders Association, realtors associations, and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

To schedule a meeting or a presentation on the UDO with New Hanover County, contact Senior Pallner Rebekah Roth at the Planning and Land Use Department. The main number phone number is 910-798-7165 and Roth’s email is rroth@nhcgov.com.

You can also submit comments online here.


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

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